Coming into the 2011 season, almost everyone knew that the Calgary Roughnecks were going to be a top-tier team. But who knew that they would be the best club in the National Lacrosse League as the regular season winds down?
In a season in which the Washington Stealth were the favorite to repeat as champions, it is the Roughnecks that may just win their second Champions Cup in three seasons and third overall.
It only took one week for the Roughnecks to turn some heads in the NLL as they defeated the Buffalo Bandits (currently the top team in the East) 10-9 on opening night. They then won 13-11 against the Stealth the very next evening to start the year 2-0.
The following two weeks weren’t as kind for Calgary as they lost games to Colorado and Washington, but then went on a roll. The Roughnecks are 9-3 since Week 4 and have yet to relinquish their title as the best team in the West.
“We’ve had some ups and downs and I think every team in the league has, but it is about taking those downs and turning them into positives somehow,” said Roughnecks veteran forward Scott Ranger. “I think we are a good squad for doing that. When something goes wrong, the motto is, ‘What is next? What do we have to do next?’ and that goes a long way in getting out of holes.”
While the league pundits—myself included—thought that the Stealth were going to run away with their second straight championship, the Roughnecks knew that they had a foundation and could make a run for the title while also surprising some people along the way.
“We’ve got tremendous leaders in this organization and in the locker room,” said Calgary head coach Dave Pym. “It doesn’t matter who the guys are in that room, they believe in each other and we encourage it. We give them every opportunity to flourish, and then we hold them accountable to certain systems and rules and philosophies that we have. To a tee and to a man, I would take this group over any group any day of the week.”
One reason why Calgary might have surprised some people early on was that they lost two of their star players in the offseason. Tracey Kelusky went to Buffalo and Josh Sanderson to the Boston Blazers.
Sanderson led the Roughnecks last season with 104 points, 34 of which came from goals, while Kelusky had his second straight season in which he found the back of the cage at least 30 times.
Calgary didn’t have to look far in replacing the offensive production lost as Jeff Shattler and the other Roughnecks forwards have filled the hole left by Sanderson and Kelusky.
Shattler especially has stepped up his game as he has scored 13 more goals (29) and 24 more points (75) then he had last season, he and has set personal career highs in goals, assists and points.
“MVP of the league, bar none,” Pym said of Shattler.
“He’s been a leader, he’s been a producer, he has done everything that we’ve asked of him. He’s played every position on the floor except for goalie and he’s done it exceptionally well and he’s done it better than anybody in this league.”
Shattler’s play isn’t the only reason why the Riggers have done well. The team has been playing consistent lacrosse since training camp and has great chemistry in their dressing room.
“We are a tight family,” Ranger said. “I just had a baby myself and guys were phoning me every five seconds when I missed two games [earlier in the season]. That just shows how tight we are and I think that is going to go a long way in the playoffs.”
That chemistry—and maybe also unselfishness—is also seen on the floor as Calgary is currently first in the league in goals (198) and has seven players who are in double figures in red lighters this season.
The Riggers' attack has caught the eyes of many people in the league, and Colorado Mammoth head coach Bob Hamley said that the biggest difference he’s seen in Calgary since his team beat them in week two, is that their offense has gotten even better.
“Their offense is really good,” Hamley said. “They move the ball real well and they put pressure on you every time you get it.
“They’re coaching staff has done a great job. They’ve made a young hungry team play real well—credit to them. They deserve first place, they’ve been the best team in the West so far.”
Calgary currently holds the best record in the NLL at 11-5 and would have home-floor advantage throughout the postseason (including the championship game) if the season ended today.
But even though the Rigger are the top team, that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are the favorite to win it all. The Stealth and Mammoth are starting to heat up in the West and the Buffalo Bandits and the Toronto Rock both have 10 wins this season out in the East.
The Roughnecks seem as if they don’t mind not being the favorite, and will settle for surprising more people instead.
“We don’t mind being the team that wasn’t supposed to win,” Ranger said. “We’ll take that in our back pocket and use that as motivation.”