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Sports This Week: Rush coach ready for NLL return

New season set to start Friday, Rush play Saturday
McComb 72
Rush head coach Jeff McComb ready for many changes in line-ups to start new season.
SASKATOON - Lacrosse fans in Saskatchewan finally have reason to smile again. 

After some 22-months of inactivity -- on March 13, 2020, the National Lacrosse League indefinitely suspended its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and then on June 4, 2020, the league announced that the 2020 playoffs were cancelled due to the pandemic – the NLL is set to start a new season. 

That means the Saskatchewan Rush are currently preparing for their first game of the 2021-22 season, starting on the road in Halifax Dec. 4, then kicking off their home schedule Dec. 11, against defending NLL champion Calgary. 

“Obviously we’re fired up to get back at it,” said Rush head coach Jeff McComb in a recent interview. 

McComb said there might be at least a bit of a silver lining to the long lay-off, players having time to reflect of why they play the game. 

“We’re all re-energized,” he said, adding he thinks players have “remembered how much they love it, why they do it. 

“Sometimes you lose that when you’re in the middle of it.” 

For the Rush being in the middle of it has meant being a consistent powerhouse since before even arriving in Saskatoon in for the 2016 NLL season, which McComb said has meant a lot of high pressure games. 

The extended time off, while unfortunate, has allowed players to fully heal physical injuries and to clear their minds too. 

The layoff of course has meant a few wrinkles as the Rush ready for the season, starting with having two years of draft choices to look at, meaning more players in camp. 

“There was more teaching at camp,” said McComb, adding with draft choices and new veteran players such as Josh Currier and Matt Beers with the team for the first time “they had to learn our system.” 

Taking the approach of teaching was actually a good thing, said McComb, since it tended to reduce the hard physical approach practices can take, allowing players time to get back into full game shape after months off in some cases. 

Two draft choices not at camp were the Rush’s two first round selections at number six and seven overall from earlier this year; Jake Boudreau, a lefty transition, and Ryan Barnable, a left defenceman. 

Boudreau a Brampton, Ontario, native will return for a final season with Robert Morris University where he already earned a pair of conference Academic Honor Roll awards with the Colonials. 

Barnable is returning for a final season of NCAA action with the 2021 Div. III champion RIT Tigers. In 2019, Barnable earned Second Team All-American honors and was a First Team All-Liberty League selection. 

“Ecstatic with both picks,” said Rush general manager Derek Keenan in a team release following the draft. “Both players fit our D-transition mold and both fit our future plans as they are returning to finish their NCAA eligibility. Boudreau being there at number seven was a bit of a shocker. We were kind of background high-fiving off-camera. Barnable is a player I’ve watched since he was a young boy, so we’re very familiar with his tenacity and skill set.” 

Overall, McComb said fans shouldn’t expect a big change in the way the Rush play. 

“I don’t expect much difference in terms of philosophy or our system,” he said, adding the Rush will continue to focus on being “a defence first group.” 

The Rush coach said he feels the defensive unit is the kind capable of “getting in your face, pressuring you, to try and turn you over.” 

Of course there are some notable changes too. 

To begin, the Rush who lost Matt Hossack, was the first pick of Panther City Lacrosse in the NLL expansion draft for the first year club, is a great young defenseman for Panther City. Hossack played four years for Saskatchewan, scoring 12 goals and 26 assists, while picking up 216 loose balls and causing 50 turnovers.  

Next veteran goaltender Evan Kirk headed to Rochester. 

“From a fan perspective that will probably be the biggest change,” said McComb. 

Adam Shute is the heir apparent to the starting job. 

“When we knew Kirk wasn’t going to come back we had no qualms where we were going next. We think Adam (Shute) can do the job,” said McComb. 

Fan favourite Jeremy Thompson has also moved on joining Hossack and fellow Rush player Travis Cornwall on Panther Lacrosse. 

McComb said the popular Thompson will be missed by fans, adding “he did a lot of work in the community we were appreciative of.” 

But, decisions have to be made in terms of contracts and Thompson ultimate chose to take an “opportunity elsewhere,” said the Rush coach. 

With familiar faces moving on, come opportunities for new players. Veterans Beers over from Vancouver and Currier from Philadelphia are the most notable additions. 

Beers brings “a little bit of grit, a bit of meanness,” said McComb, while adding Currier has skills at forward that can generate offence from both outside and inside. 

“Both fit well with what we want to do,” he said. 

Some younger players have caught McComb’s eye too. 

Marshall Powless is a young player, the teams top draft pick in 2020, with offensive skills who will be looked at for some playing time, said the Rush coach. 

Connor McClelland who signed a two-year deal with the Rush earlier this year has looked good in camp. McClelland was the second of two first-round picks by the Rush in the last NLL Entry Draft, selected 12th overall out of Marquette University (NCAA) / Brampton (Ontario Jr. ‘A’). 

And Bobby Kidd, the team’s second round pick in 2020, also drew mention from McComb. 

Rush and NLL fans will have a new treat this season as well, as the NLL, along with TSN, have announced Game of the Week’ on the TSN broadcast schedule for the 2021-22 regular season, featuring games from the home arenas of every Canadian franchise. The 20-game regular season broadcast schedule begins with the relocated Albany Firewolves going to Hamilton to take on the Toronto Rock Saturday, Dec. 4. 

The Rush are scheduled to play in five of the televised games.