At the start of the 2010 season, no one questioned the amount of talent on the Washington Stealth roster. With names like Lewis Ratcliff, Jeff Zywicki, Rhys Duch, Luke Wiles and Cam Sedgwick (and that’s just on offense), the National Lacrosse League experts never doubted the individual skills of those players.
The question became, “how well will the Stealth’s superstars play together.” Well, with an 11-5 regular season record, the top overall seed in the playoffs and a date with the Edmonton Rush in the West Division Finals this weekend, that question has been answered. And if you ask the players in the Stealth locker room for a reason why the team has developed such great team chemistry, the majority will point to Head Coach Chris Hall.
“Chris Hall is definitely a players coach,” says Stealth Captain Jason Bloom, who has played for four different coaches in his four NLL seasons. “You always know where you stand with him. He’s a tremendous leader. The way this team has come together is a testament to the respect he commands in the locker room.”
With a resume like Hall’s, it’s no surprise he garners that respect from his players. Hall is in his eighth season as a head coach in the National Lacrosse League. He began his career as the head coach of the expansion Calgary Roughnecks in 2002. He was not part of the expansion draft process, taking over the team just before the start of the season. That team struggled in its first NLL season, going 4-12 and missing out on the playoffs. The inaugural season in Calgary is the only losing record of Hall’s career however, and he went on to win the 2004 NLL title just three years into the Roughnecks’ existence.
Stealth forward Lewis Ratcliff spent his first six seasons in the NLL under Hall’s tutelage in Calgary. Ratcliff has seen some subtle changes in Hall’s coaching style over the years, but continues to sing the praises of the Stealth head coach.
“He’s a little more mellow now,” says Ratcliff. “He still gets after us, but this (the 2010 Stealth) is a team he can really coach. He knows he’s got the players and he puts us in the best position to win. In my opinion, he’s the best coach in the league.”
Hall took over the reigns of the Stealth midway through the 2009 season after the team got off to a 3-7 start. He led the team to a 4-2 finish in the last six regular season games, clinching the three-seed in the West. They advanced to the West Division Finals, where they lost to the eventual champion Calgary Roughnecks.
In his first full season as Stealth head coach, the team’s 11 wins marks a career-high for Hall, who currently sits in fourth place on the NLL’s all-time regular season coaching wins list with 61 victories. Despite his track record, Hall has yet to earn NLL Coach of the Year honors. Many within the Stealth organization believe he’s earned it in 2010.
“Chris (Hall) is a winner,” says Stealth General Manager Doug Locker. “One of the many remarkable things about him is his ability to challenge every player on the team to play at a higher level while being a mentor both on and off the floor.”
The 11-5 record is also a best for the Stealth franchise, and a result few expected after a preseason trade sent one of the league’s all-time greats and a consummate leader, Colin Doyle, to Toronto. While a leader like Doyle can never be replaced on the floor, few can challenge the leadership of Hall, who this season turned a group of individual stars into a cohesive unit on the floor.
“When you have a bunch of players who are used to being ‘the guy’, it can be hard to keep everyone on the same page and keep everyone happy,” said Ratcliff, who in his nine NLL seasons has spent much of his career as “the guy”. “But the last two weeks are a perfect example of what coach Hall has done with this team. When we play together and spread the ball around, we are a difficult team to beat. He’s preached that to us all season.”
At the start of the season, the Stealth was projected to finish the regular season eighth in the NLL rankings. Now, the Stealth is just two wins away from winning the first Champion’s Cup in franchise history.
“Many say that a team is a reflection of their coach, and in this case I believe that’s a true statement,” added Locker. “The 2010 Stealth is not only very talented, but works hard on each and every shift. They are a true reflection of what Chris demands of them.”