‘AIN’T NOTHING TO IT”: THE BIG, BAD, BUFFALO BANDITS

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Two seasons in the Major Indoor Lacrosse League; two world champi- onships. Sometimes you hit the ground running. When from the moment you learn it, you’re the best. The competition is floored by an almost instinctive winning style that leaves opponents bewildered, coaches amazed and fans transfixed as media inscripts, “The kid’s a natural.”

Meet the Buffalo Bandits. “We’re really fortunate to have tremendous goal scorers,” says Bandits General Manager John Mouradian. “We look at people from winning backgrounds,” adds Bandits coach Les Bartley. “If you go with a winner, your percentage of winning goes up. “We have a lot of talent and good coaching, says MILL first-team All- Pro Jim Veltman. “The coaching comes into play with what you do with so much talent. It seems everybody has identifiable roles.” “We’ve got good leadership from the very top,” concurs goalie Ross Cowie. “And a nice mix of young and older talent.”

But after their inaugural three games in 1992, the Bandits were barely crawling, let alone running. An 0-3 start left them at the bottom of the league standings. Sensing his team was at a crossroads, Mouradian decided to make a coaching change. Bob McCready was out, and Bartley was brought in for the 1993 season. They haven’t lost a game since, heading into the 1993 season. “I think that was the key to our success, what our head coach has been able to do with our talent,’ says Mouradian. “Les is especially good at getting people in the right spot, at the right time. “

John Tavares scored an overtime game-winning goal in Philadelphia to give the Bandits an 11-10 heartstopping victory in the 1992 championship. Darris Kilgour scored a game-winning goal in Buffalo with 29.9 seconds remaining to lift the Bandits to a 13-12 win over Philadelphia in the 1993 championship.

Two titles in two years, a head coach who has never lost going into this season, along with an 18-game winning streak thrown in for good measure. These players just didn’t hit the ground running; they sprinted right to the top of the league. The talent is astounding. Tavares, a two-time championship game Most Valuable Player, led the league in scoring in 1993 with 35 goals and 23 assists. Derek Keenan, a two-time MILL second-team All-Pro selection, has scored 48 goals over the past two seasons while Jim Veltman has led the league two years in a row in assists per game. Bob Hamley was the MILL’s sixth-leading scorer last season. Kilgour possesses the hardest shot in the league, and standout goalie Cowie leads the defense.

“They play a very control-oriented offense,” says Philadelphia General Manager Mike French. “With the makeup of their team, it includes 10 of the best snipers or shooters that have ever played. Consequently, when they get an opportunity, Tavares, Veltman, Kilgour, Hamley, don’t miss. They are very proficient at making the best of their opportunities.

 

“They play a very control-oriented offense,” says Philadelphia General Manager Mike French. “With the makeup of their team, it includes 10 of the best snipers or shooters that have ever played. Consequently, when they get an opportunity, Tavares, Veltman, Kilgour, Hamley, don’t miss. They are very proficient at making the best of their opportunities.

The high-flying Bandits have led the MILL in scoring the past two sea- sons. But more importantly, they’ve shown the ability to overcome adver- sity, rescuing victory from the clutches of certain defeat. “When we’re down late in the game and I look down our bench, I expect us to come back,” says Veltman. “No one takes it upon themselves to bring us back. When you have a lot of guys who can score, that takes the pressure off one player to do that.” “The work ethic is there,” says Bart- ley, “This is a bunch of guys who have been champions throughout the years. We have so many guys on this team who know what it takes to win. When we get down a little, they find a way to kick into another mode.’ Flashback to the 1993 championship. Philadelphia’s Kevin Finneran had just put the Wings up 12-11 with only 1:58 left to play, much to the horror of the 16,325 stunned fans at the Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. Time to kick into another mode. After winning the ensuing faceoff, Kevin Alexander ties the game 33 seconds later with a “highlight film” goal on a behind-the-head shot. Fifty-four seconds later, Kilgour’s blast makes history. The talent of our team is just tremendous,” says Bartley. “People stay calm on our team in pressure situations. A lot of teams see that around the league.”

After winning two championships and 18 straight games, the Bandits know they’re a marked team from the moment they come gunslinging into town. “It’s sort of fun,” says Cowie, “You get your introduction and you hear all of the boos. We kind of chuckle and laugh about it. In New York, they introduce us and the crowd heckles us after each of our names. It’s going to be tougher to win this year. Everybody gets up to play us. The team that wins it is the marked team,” says French, whose own Philadelphia squad has won two titles. “They’re the team that has a winning streak going and everybody’s gunning for them. “

The Bandits management says that team and individual goal setting has been one of the keys to their overnight success. “We break it down, period by period, shift by shift,” says Bartley. “If you do the little things, you win. We set 10 performance goals before each game. This is a big, big part of our organization. The team comes up with goals, the things we have to do. At the end of the game, if we’ve outperformed the other team, we will be successful.” So far, so good. But as the season begins, inevitably the question arises: Can they do it again? ‘The toughest thing to do in sports is to repeat twice,” says Mouradian. “And the third time is tougher yet because you have to make changes.

We have the artillery to win again. I don’t think there is another team in the league that works as hard as us, that is as committed as us. “We expect to win, to repeat, but by no means do we expect to be handed a title,” says Cowie.

“Everyone’s going to make a run for our title,” says Veltman. “Everybody wants to be the first to say they stopped the winning streak.” No, it won’t be easy. But thanks to the talent on his squad, Bartley is confident the odds are in his favor. “Three-peat? Who knows,” says Bartley. “They say as you go on it gets tougher, but I believe we have a good organization. It’s by far the most talented group of individuals I’ve ever been associated with in the game of lacrosse. “

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