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Defending the Turf

01/15/2009, 1:08am PST
By Neil Stevens
They are big and strong and they are some of the most valuable players in the National Lacrosse League. Yet, defensemen don’t get nearly the recognition they deserve. The shooters and the goaltenders get most of the glory after sweat-soaked pads are hung in dressing room stalls after the games. Score five goals and your name is in headlines. Stop five and not a word is written to laud the performance. That’s just the way it is. ``The guys who get the press are the guys who run the floor and score the goals,’’ says San Jose Stealth coach Jeff Dowling. ``We don’t give enough credit to the guys who are stay-at-home defenders.’’ When the best forwards on other teams dash onto the floor, Dowling makes sure he sends out Kyle Sorensen and Mike Grimes to pound them into the carpet. The 22-year-olds, who were teammates on Canadian-championship amateur teams just northeast of Toronto in Peterborough, are living in California during the NLL season and are fully committed to helping San Jose go all the way. Sorensen, a six-foot-two, 220-pound bundle of energy, is in his third NLL season, all with the Stealth. ``He’s one of our leaders,’’ says Dowling. ``It’s hard to believe he’s only 22. He’s already won a Minto Cup at the junior level and three Mann Cups at the senior level. He’s got a good base of understanding of the sport. He’s still learning, too. He’s aggressive and tough. We ask him to step up and cover the big-name players. We’re challenging him and he’s up for the challenge.’’ Grimes, a 6-3 and 210-pound force, broke in with Arizona. He played for the Edmonton Rush last winter, and he was acquired in the dispersal draft of Arizona players when that franchise opted not to field a team this season. ``He’s fitting in great,’’ Dowling says of Grimes. ``We were surprised when he was still available when our turn came up in the dispersal draft. He’s only 22. He’s got a Minto and two Mann Cups. He’s big, strong and fast. He’s a lefty and it’s always good to have another lefty on defense. He plays with an edge and works hard.’’ Curtis Hodgson, Travis Gillespie, Eric Martin and Mike Kirk are the other members of the Stealth’s defensive core. Hodgson is one of the team’s assistant captains. The 27-year-old native of Burnaby, British Columbia, is in his fifth NLL season and fifth with the Stealth. ``He’s got good speed and he’s a smart player,’’ says Dowling. ``We rely on Curtis to move the ball out of our own end. ``He’s been underrated.’’ From the first day of training camp, Hodgson generously helped out new players who were adapting to the indoor game from university field lacrosse. He’s still giving pointers. The six-foot-one, 195-pounder rocks opponents, and he’s the ultimate team guy. ``He’s a natural leader,’’ says Dowling. ``Playing defense in the NLL is an awesome challenge,’’ says Hodgson. ``Every game, you are playing against the best offensive players in the world and trying to limit their ability to score. Playing D requires that you work together as a group _ if you want to be successful. True, we don’t get the glory of an offensive player in terms of scoring but D-men take pride in shutting down players and getting big hits and plays. It is also a big deal if a D-guy scores a goal to help out the team. Playing D is not about getting glory, it is about doing the work required for the team to be successful. Everybody on the team respects that, and that is all the glory we need.’’ Hodgson, who is a teacher, commutes from Vancouver with Gillespie, goalie Matt Roik and forward Cam Sedgwick. ``It makes for an extra-busy life but I love it,’’ he says of his two-job routine. I get to do the two jobs that I consider to be passions in my life. Most of the time spent commuting I am catching up on my social studies marking or looking over game film or notes on the opposing teams.’’ Despite a slow start to their season, the Stealth plan on great things in the future. ``I am really excited about our prospects this year,’’ says Hodgson. ``We have the biggest and most athletic group of players I have ever seen in my time in San Jose. (GM) Johnny (Mouradian) and (assistant GM) Doug (Locker) have done a great job putting our team together. I am confident we will come together as a group and be successful on the floor.’’ Travis Gillespie returned to the NLL this season after a two-year absence. He previously played for the Calgary Roughnecks, when Dowling was coaching in the Alberta city. Gillespie, 29, also is a firefighter in Coquitlam, B.C. ``He’s a smart player,’’ says Dowling. ``He doesn’t have the speed the other guys have _ not that he’s slow _ but he’s one of our smartest players. He picks off passes. He’ll get beat the odd time 1-on-1 but he’s always anticipating the play and is one of the first guys to help out if one of the other guys needs help. He played for me in Calgary so I knew how good he was.’’ Gillespie’s perception of the role of a good NLL defenseman is clear: leave the ego at the dressing room door. ``If you don’t know your role, you won’t be in this league for more than a game or two,’’ he explains. ``You don’t play this game for glory or praise. You play to win. I know that if my role is to play defence for our team to win that is what I will do. When five of us go out the back door, we’re not thinking about how the offensive players will be getting their names in the paper. We’re thinking about shutting down the other team so we can win the game. ``Playing defense in this league is an absolute rush. Every time you step on the floor, you know that any mistake by any one player can lead to a goal in a matter of seconds. The offensive players in this league are all capable of scoring on every play. Even the offensive ball guys who set picks for the stars were all leading scorers in every league they played in. Things happen so fast out there that you have to be ready for anything. Just being big and strong is not good enough anymore.’’ Gillespie’s return to the NLL is predicated on a belief. ``I would not be playing again if I did not think we could win it all,’’ he says.’’ Eric Martin missed San Jose’s second game this year after being banged up throwing a hit at Calgary’s Kaleb Toth in the season opener. The injury ruled him out of only the one game. He’s as tough as nails. The six-foot-two, 220-pound defenseman is 27 and in his fifth NLL season, all with the Stealth. Martin, who is from Norfolk, Va., plays for the pro field lacrosse team in San Francisco during the summer so makes California his year-round home. ``Most people consider him to be the best U.S.-born defenseman in the league,’’ says Dowling. ``He’s a great 1-on-1 guy. He’s tenacious. He’s got good speed. We’re pretty happy with what he’s going to be able to do for us this season.’’ Mike Kirk is from Orangeville near Toronto and was a member last summer along with Stealth teammate Colin Doyle of the Mann Cup-champion Brampton Excelsiors. He’s 26, 6-2 and 220 pounds, and San Jose got him in a dispersal draft when Chicago pulled out just before the start of the NLL season. ``He’s good at boxing guys out and making sure there aren’t any rebound goals,’’ says Dowling. Put them all together and they are as solid a core group of defensemen as any team possesses in the NLL.

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