“And it’s a fair wind blowing warm out of the south over my shoulder. Guess I’ll set a course and go.”
It was a surreal moment late Saturday night as the Bandits’ luxury liner bus negotiated a straight stretch of the New York Thruway, heading west to Buffalo and Canada following the 16-10 win in Albany.
While rolling over the smooth pavement at a comfortable speed, the inside of the cabin was lit softly with a blue tint, creating a warm aura.
Comfortably seated in row three, I was encapsulated with a heavy-duty hoodie that shielded me from the occasional rouge of cool air.
While eligible for conversation with coaches, trainers, and staff, I was content absorbing flashes of video of NLL late games watched on iPad and laptops in the seats ahead of me.
As the miles accumulated and the fever of video subsided, the front of the bus fell prey to occasional slumber, which included a bobbing head or two by me.
Now, with the pitch of deeper darkness amongst the front rows, there was a constant tenor of conversation spiked with a cadence of laughter by the players in the back of the monstrous road vessel.
Nothing over the top or wild in vocal fashion, just a calm, collaborative talk amongst each other. Layered in non-competing decibels was a very cool set list of music, equalized perfectly with bass and treble.
Of protocol and trust, I never tell what’s heard in confines like this when traveling with the team. It’s a privilege bestowed upon me, which I will always honor.
But I will share two words with you that summarize our trip back last Saturday night:
It was just such a calm scene to hear the guys gathered and enjoying their moments, sharing laughs and thoughts without debate. There is no rah-rah or rants, just a relaxed vibe setting buffered with great music.
During the four-and-a-half-hour ride for me (others had six to eight before reaching their domicile), I thought about the Bandit’s regular season, just completed.
Matching the 14-4 record from last season and home-field advantage throughout, this team is far better poised to be successful in the upcoming rounds.
With humility and confidence, they have managed to compete without players in the lineup due to injuries and face the adversity of coming from behind 11 times this year – and win.
They are not the highest-scoring team this year, nor the lowest goals-against. However, they are far better suited at facing any opponent in the postseason because of how they performed as a unit this year.
“It says a lot about our team that we have the ability to come back and win, which is obviously very important when you are trying to win a championship,” said Bandits head coach John Tavares.
“It shows our team character. We’ve had a lot of injuries to overcome, and I think we’ve done a good job.”
Room with a view
Even the man with the best view of the team in front of him, Matt Vinc, concurs.
“We can win in a variety of different ways, including coming back from being down. It shows you what kind of group we have in our locker room,” said Vinc, who finished the regular season campaign with the second-best save percentage, .800.
“I like the group. The Character, especially. We haven’t had too many opportunities to have our full lineup. It’s always a huge boost when you get Chase, Chris, Josh, and Tehoka back in the lineup; it gives us different looks.
“It’s going to be huge for us down the stretch. It’s hard to double-team Dhane and Josh when you have that much talent up front.”
All of the records and achievements during the regular season are now pillars of the past but support the strength of this group, which gained more confidence closing out the season on a three-game winning streak and 8-2 in their last 10 games.
“We believe in each other and [we are] not going to quit. I think that is the bottom line, we are a pretty resilient group, and I like the way we’ve been able to push back late in games and never quit.”
And now come the 2023 National Lacrosse League Playoffs.
One game, one step
Of course, I’m on complete tenterhooks about the quarterfinals, a single elimination game, Saturday night at 7 p.m. inside KeyBank Center against Rochester.
Their 10-8 record is deceiving. Finishing 4-6 in their last 10 games, including a loss to Philadelphia last Saturday, can be taken with a grain of salt.
The Knighthawks have five players who can score from any point on the floor, including the talented Connor Fields, who finished with 52 goals, 112 points, and 142 loose balls!
Holden Cattoni follows with 40+44=84, Ryan Smith with 33+42=75, Thomas Hoggarth with 30+24=54, and Curtis Knight with 15+42-57.
Defensively, a solid group consisting of Matt Gilray, 26 caused turnovers and four game-winning goals; Ryland Rees, 26 caused turnovers, Mitch Ogilvie, 21 caused turnovers and 13 soakers, Paul Dawson, Brad Gillies; and Dan Coates.
And then there is goaltender Ryan Hartley, 10-7, and a .780 save percentage, who is solid – and fun to watch.
“We have a very strong league with a lot of parity. Rochester is a very, very good team. I’m taking it one game at a time. All the focus is on Rochester,” said Tavares.
Here are a few worthy relooks from Saturday’s 16-10 win over the FireWolves.
Most noble and notable was Devlin Shanahan’s penalty shot save late in the fourth quarter when the Bandits drew a bench minor. Shanahan relieved Vinc of his 40-save night and played the remaining eight minutes making 10 saves.
This was Shanahan’s second penalty shot stop in his two games this year. A fine job overall and worthy of the team’s heavyweight belt after the game.
Always a plus when the penalty-killing unit can score a shortie. Nick Weiss shows why he’s one of the best, netting his sixth goal of the season.
Too, the Bandits transition worked well Saturday night. Still, when you get a lacrosse ‘pick six,’ you must share Adam Bomberry’s first goal as a Bandit, capping off a sixth-goal run in the game.
“I’m Looking forward to Saturday. It’s about confidence at the right time,” said Vinc.
Banditland in Albany
What a wonderful sight to see such a large contingent of Bandits fans making the trip to Albany. Many of them came to the team’s hotel and lined up across from each other, making a long line to wish the players well as they boarded the bus to the game.
Too, they let the FireWolves fans know they were there in the arena with constant chants and cheers.
Banditland is truly the best.
Saturday’s quarterfinal playoff game will be available on ESPN+, TSN+, and ESPNU. The broadcast time will be 7 p.m.
Radio and online coverage will be on WGR Sports Radio 550 and Audacy.com, with the Bandits pregame show starting at 6:30 pm. Steve Bermel, covering for Randy Mearns, joins me in the booth, while Dave Buchanan will be on the wireless, roaming all levels and the field.
We will talk with Knighthawks coach Mike Hasen and Matt Gilray. From the Bandits, GM and defensive coordinator Steve Dietrich will update us. Team captain Steve Priolo will join us as well.