The Langley Thunder stumbled to an 0-2 start to their 2012 Western Lacrosse Association season.
That's surprising, considering the Thunder won the WLA playoff title in 2011, and hosted the Mann Cup national championship series which they lost in five games to the Brampton Excelsiors at the Langley Events Centre.
Their early struggles can even be slotted in the "shocking" category, especially when you look at some of the names on Langley's roster sheet.
To begin with, there's the 6'7" man mountain in goal, Brodie MacDonald, named the WLA's rookie of the year and a second team all-star last year.
Behind the bench stands the 2011 WLA coach of the year Rod Jensen.
Jensen has a loaded roster of runners to work with, including 2011 second team all-star defenders Rob Van Beek and John Lintz, rock solid Brett Mydske, and the high-scoring Alex Turner, just to name a few.
But three names spring out at you as you peruse through Langley's lineup:
Athan Iannucci, the 6'4" tower of power who led the Thunder in scoring in 2011 with 58 points in 18 games, his first year with the team, and carried the team to playoff success with 22 goals and 35 points in 10 post-season games. Iannucci has also been effective in the National Lacrosse League (NLL), notching 21 goals and 45 points for the Washington Stealth in 2012.
Lewis Ratcliff, a perennial league all-star who the Thunder acquired from the Nanaimo Timbermen in exchange for Langley's first and second round picks in the 2014 WLA draft.
Ratcliff scored a team-leading 36 goals for the Stealth this past season and has topped 30 goals in all but one (his rookie year) season of his pro career. He has won a pair of Mann Cup titles as a member of the Victoria Shamrocks, has led the league in scoring three times, and been named WLA MVP on three occasions.
In 2007, Iannucci (then with New Westminster) and Ratcliff (with Victoria) finished one-two in WLA regular season scoring with 95 and 93 points, respectively.
Rounding out the Thunder's triple crown is Garrett Billings, a Langley product who has starred at every level he's played in.
As a member of the Toronto Rock, the cerebral right-handed playmaker set the single season record in the NLL for most assists in one season (82) and was runner-up for league MVP this past season.
In 2010, his most recent season with the Thunder, Billings led the team in points with 63 in 13 games played.
The previous year, 2009, he topped Thunder point-getters with 77 in 15 games.
"You pair Garrett with Lewis [Ratcliff] and Athan [Iannucci] and we have a potentially devastating offensive lineup," Thunder governor Rob Buchan said.
Billings, who played summer lacrosse in Ontario in 2011 with the Six Nations Chiefs, said the decision to return to Langley was "really easy."
"I saw the moves that Rob Buchan was making to put this team together and it got harder to not be here each and every day, with each pick-up that he made," Billings said. "They made a great run last year, and Robbie's really taken some steps to put us where we need to be this year."
During the Thunder's first win of the season, a 14-10 goal-fest against Nanaimo May 30 at the LEC, Ratcliffe scored four straight goals and among Iannucci's three tallies was a stunning one-handed throw, made while he was flying in the air.
"The guy's a walking highlight package," Billings said, of Iannucci. "That one-handed goal was one of the coolest goals I've seen. It was pretty awesome."
Now, back to the slow start: "It's not ideal, but we don't want to have false confidence," Iannucci said. "You need to taste a bit of bitterness before you have success."
Van Beek compares the start to "a bear in hibernation, slowly getting out of its den, waiting to do its thing."
"It happened to us last year - we had a slow start and we ended up going to the western finals and going to the Mann Cup, so it doesn't always overly matter, but it's always good to get off to a good start," he said.
Van Beek said the sky's the limit this year, and another Mann Cup appearance is in his sights.
"We've got all the tools in place, we just have to make sure we use them right and everyone does their job and buys into the process, and we should be coming back east [for the Mann Cup] this September," he said.
Billings' No. 1 priority is simple: help the Thunder finish among the top four in the WLA at season's end and as a result, make another post-season appearance.
"That's all I care about," he said. "With Maple Ridge and Burnaby getting better this year, there's not guarantee. As long as we're in the playoffs, I'm happy."
Early in the season, defenders appear happy to be doling out abuse to Billings, the Thunder's unofficial offensive quarterback (he tallied two goals and seven assists against Nanaimo). He's okay with absorbing an extra cross-check, and the odd late hit, saying it comes with the territory.
"It's part of being an offensive guy," said Billings, who rarely flinches from the punishment he receives. "You have to take a bit of abuse to score goals. That's what makes lacrosse so fun. It toughens you up a little bit. Guys are wasting their energy trying to hack you up instead of defend you."
Opposing defenders can't just key on Billings, however.
They have Iannucci, and Ratcliff to deal with, and when the three are on the floor at the same time, they have the potential to give opposing goaltenders fits.
For his part, Ratcliff said he wasn't happy "with how things ended in Nanaimo."
"I wanted to be part of a good organization and I liked the things that are happening here," Ratcliffe added, after his five-point outing against Nanaimo, which also happened to be his first game in a Thunder uniform. "So far so good. The guys are great and are treating me well."
The athletic Ratcliff made four Mann Cup appearances in his first four years in the WLA, and hasn't had a sniff of the national championship since. He hopes to change that this season.
"It's somewhere I want to get back," he said.
But does the Thunder have the potential to make back-to-back Mann Cup showings?
"We're a long way from the end of the season, and we're just kind of putting pieces together," Ratcliff said. "We have the parts, but we have to get them working together. We should be good, but there's other good teams in the league."
Following Saturday night's 7-6 road win over the Coquitlam Adanacs, the Thunder were 2-2 heading into last night's home game against the Burnaby Lakers (results are not available due to Wednesday afternoon press deadlines).
- With files from www.ilindoor.com.
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