There is no need to remind Ryan Keith what the 2019 season has been all about for the Ladner Pioneers.
The West Coast Senior Lacrosse Association club dedicated the campaign to Thomas Haydon — a former player who lost his battle with pancreatic cancer last October at the age of 36. The Delta firefighter was not just a good teammate but a close friend to many and a fixture in the lacrosse community.
“I still get goose bumps every time I talk about him,” said Keith, the 28-year-old hometown standout.
The Pioneers proceeded to dominate the WCSLA — finishing with a 16-2-0 regular season record then sweeping playoff series against Victoria and Nanaimo.
Now they are off to their third straight President’s Cup national championships, starting Monday in Kahnawake, Quebec.
The eight-team tournament features a gruelling format with seven round-robin games in six days. The teams with the two best records will play Sept. 1 for the national title.
“There is not another tournament out there like it really,” Keith continued. “We’re going there with 25 guys and everybody has to be ready to go every night. If guys get hurt then it’s the next guy up.
“We have to get hot at the right time. Hopefully we have the right team this time. The chemistry is pretty good and we are buzzing out here right now (at practice). We will see.”
The Pioneers certainly left no stone unturned in their attempt to win a national title for Haydon and team founder Shirley Burr who passed away in 2018. Both are recognized with jersey crests.
The initial plan was to bolster their roster with some key WLA regulars. When that fell through, they turned east to land high-scoring Ontario natives Ryan Benesch, Zach Herreweyers and Luke Wiles.
Benesch has been a perennial top 10 scorer in the National Lacrosse League for the past decade.
Former Delta Junior “A” Islander standout and now Calgary resident Cody Hawkins was also signed. Goalies Dan Lewis and Erik Kratz were late additions from their WLA teams and three players have been added from the WCSLA — Victoria’s Jordan Cunningham and Ethan Garland, along with Langley’s Nate Henare.
It resulted in some very difficult final roster decisions, with even some key regular season contributors being left at home. However, the Pioneers will head east with their deepest line-up in franchise history.
“I feel good about this team. We are a far better team this year than we have ever been,” said head coach Ross Frehlick. “It’s definitely tough getting rid of guys and I know they hate me for it. But we learned last year we needed more scoring depth and goaltending. We have done that.
“Ryan isn’t the end all and be all for us but he is going to be best player in the tournament. There is no other player that had 100 points in the NLL last season and has been franchised.
“We have to go in with a confident attitude where teams are worrying about playing us.”
Captain and defender Danny McDermott likes his team’s chances. He will be attending his third nationals and is one of 10 returnees from a year ago.
“We’re just a better all-around team,” he said. “The defence is clicking really well and loading up the offence with those NLL guys helps amazingly up front. Having a tandem of two goalies in the back too. It’s night and day compared to last year.
“But we have to be on our toes and on the ball every single game, especially with no cross-over semi-final this year.”
The Pioneers last national title came in 2004 when Haydon happened to be a member of the team.
“We are doing it all for Thomas,” added Frehlick. “We’re bringing his jersey with us and we are going to compete the same way he would have.”
Pioneers Schedule (all times PDT)
Monday Aug. 26
2 p.m. Ladner vs Six Nations Rivermen
Tuesday, Aug. 27
8 a.m. Ladner vs. Akwaesasne Bucks
Wednesday Aug. 28
11 a.m. Ladner vs. Snake Island Muskies
Thursday, Aug. 29
8 a.m. Ladner vs. St. Albert Miners
5 p.m. Ladner vs. Capital Region Axemen
Friday, Aug. 30
2 p.m. Ladner vs. Kahnawake Mohawks
Saturday, Aug. 31
11 a.m. Ladner vs. Nova Scotia
Sunday, Sept. 1
Medal and placement games