Nationals eager for opening day

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 10:35 AM ET

The Toronto Nationals begin their inaugural season in outdoor Major League Lacrosse action Friday night in Washington, with only one practice under their belt.

Which was yesterday afternoon at St. Michael's College.

Furthermore, several players invited to join the Nationals will be playing in the indoor National Lacrosse League championship game on the same night and will miss the MLL opener.

Yet, Nationals president and general manager Stuart Brown said yesterday that he expects the club to be instant MLL contenders.

"We've got NLL all-stars, guys who played for Team Canada or Team USA, that are here, that might not make this team," Brown said. "That's the kind of depth we have right now. It's an awesome problem to have, but it's a real challenge."

One of the reasons why the Nationals have such talent is that a core group of players came over from last year's MLL champion squad, the Rochester Rattlers. The Rattlers dissolved after winning the title last season and a group of top players joined the Nationals, who open up at home on Friday, May 22 against the Chicago Machine, at BMO Field.

Brown said another attraction for players to come to the new MLL franchise in Toronto was the chance for Canadian guys to finally play at home in the outdoor game, players such as Orangeville's Brodie Merrill, the top defender at the 2006 world lacrosse championship in London, Ont., and Oakville's Dan Dawson, an NLL all-star.

"Lacrosse here in Canada is obviously played by guys who do it for the love of the game, not for the money," said Brown. "So, for the Canadian players, it's about doing it in front of their friends and family. And if you don't play for the Toronto Rock (of the NLL), and you're a Canadian boy, you don't get to do that. So that's the real attraction."

For Merrill, the chance to play outdoor summer lacrosse at home is huge, given that he has become road weary in recent years. Merrill, who was an all-American at Georgetown University during his collegiate days, plays for the Portland Lumberjax of the NLL in the winter and had played for the Rochester Rattlers in the summer, all the while living in Toronto. He's also the lacrosse director at The Hill Academy, a private sports-orientated school in Kleinburg.

"Since I graduated from university, it seems I've been all over the place, so it's nice to be home," Merrill said. "This morning, for instance, was a five minute drive (to St. Mike's), instead of 31/2 drive down to Rochester."

The weekly commute to Portland, Ore., was even tougher.

"It's tough, like a 12-hour one-way trip. You've got to connect through Vancouver. It definitely takes a toll on your body," said Merrill. "This is definitely a welcome change."

Dave Huntley, the Nationals head coach, said it will take about four games for the players to jell as a team, given the fact that there will be a few absentees for the opener on Friday.

"We've just got to figure out who we are and who plays well together," said Huntley, who played his youth lacrosse in Rexdale.

"One advantage we have is we have a core group of guys who played for last year's championship team, Rochester, so it's a matter of figuring out who plays best with those guys."

Huntley is also the head coach of the Philadelphia Wings of the NLL and is a four-time coach for Team Canada.


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