LIVE STREAM: Watch Saturday's preseason game in Rochester at 7 p.m. CT via The Lacrosse Network on Swarm Vision or youtube.com/tln
Across the NLL, the opening week of training camp is often a time for players to get acclimated to each other. It provides an opportunity for coaches to get a gauge on what talent they have and new players to get a feel for what life in the NLL is all about.
However, the Swarm opted not to waste any time getting their feet wet opening up their 2014 season in Oakville, Ontario this past weekend, rather choosing to jump in head first, completing the most competitive and intense opening weekend in recent memory.
From the start there was a different feel to the initial three days of practices and meetings taking place at the Toronto Rock Athletic Centre than there was in years past, a lot of which had to do with the size of the Swarm’s roster entering camp. Only 26 players suited up for Minnesota this season, a stark difference from the typical 30-40 players that typically are invited to the first round of camp.
When asked about the smaller roster size, coach Sullivan spoke of his confidence with his returning players and the talent the organization has been able to acquire through the draft, which has included eight first-round selections in the last two years.
“We only had a few open opportunities within our roster and we feel that we filled most of those gaps with the draft,” Sullivan said. “We didn’t need to bring 30 to 40 guys to camp to find the best players.”
Aside from greatly reducing the number of cuts Sullivan and his staff needed to make to weed the roster to its final size of 24, the reduced camp had the added effect of accelerating the speed and intensity of practice, as players realized that there are only a handful of spots within the 20-man game roster up-for-grabs.
“The first weekend is often a little more laid back, but this was the fastest training camp I have ever been a part of,” said 2013 NLL Transition Player of the Year Jordan MacIntosh. “It was a lot tougher, a lot more running and a lot more reps, but we were able to start bonding together much earlier in the process, which is good going into opening night.”
MacIntosh and Sullivan alike both emphasized the importance of this bonding process and the strengthening of the team dynamic early on, especially with such a large group of rookies coming into camp, all with the expectation of making big impact on the Swarm.
“It took a bit of an adjustment but once we figured it out I think we fit right in,” rookie defender Jason Noble (second overall pick) said of his fellow rookie contingent. “We are pushing the older guys to get better and they are teaching us the right way to do things around here.”
Few players made as bright of a first impression as Noble, as the Cornell graduate wowed coaches and players alike both with his poise on the floor and his athleticism. Noble was able to contain (and at times dominate) All-Pro forward Callum Crawford in a series of one-on-one battles, and turned in an eye-opening 4.43 40-yard dash time during physical testing, topping a speedy roster with a handful of 4.5 times.
The next challenge for the Swarm and their crop of young talent looms with the start of exhibition play, which will kick off this Friday as the team reconvenes in Oakville for the second weekend of camp. Minnesota will face-off against former West Division foe the Colorado Mammoth and then make the trip to Rochester to take on the reigning NLL champion Knighthawks on Saturday.
While the primary focus for Sullivan is the continued development and diagnosis of his team and where they stand, he is not overlooking the Swarm’s opportunity to prove themselves against a couple of contenders.
“We wanted to put ourselves in a position to measure up against two of the best teams in the league,” Sullivan explained. “These two games will give us an early indication on what we need to do to get better.”
MacIntosh stressed how valuable these games will be for Minnesota’s younger players to get a taste of what the NLL is like, especially on Saturday as they head into Blue Cross Arena to take on Rochester; where they open the season on Dec. 28, taking on a team that ended their season last year. “It’s going to be good for [the rookies] to experience a big crowd, screaming fans and a hostile environment while playing a fantastic team. It’s a great way to prepare us for the season.”
While the official start to the season is still weeks away, the consensus among Swarm players and coaches is that when they take the field again this weekend and open up their exhibition schedule, their mindset and intensity will not in any way resemble the preseason. Instead, according to MacIntosh, the road to a title is already well underway. “Just because it’s labeled an exhibition game doesn’t mean we are taking it that way. We are a team on a mission and every game is going to be as intense as the Champion’s Cup.”
Saturday’s exhibition game against the Knighthawks will be streamed live on YouTube via The Lacrosse Network at 7 p.m. CT on Swarm Vision and youtube.com/tln
Friday's scrimmage against the Colorado Mammoth is also open to the public at the Toronto Rock Athletic Centre. Faceoff is set for 7 p.m. ET.