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HIVE FIVE: Top 5 Players to Watch

Training Camp starts tomorrow, check out Swarm players looking to make an impact

Training Camp for your NLL World Champion Georgia Swarm starts Saturday, three weeks of hard work and rigorous practices to narrow the Active Roster down to just 20 talented individuals. Make no mistake about it: there are a plethora of expectations riding on a team that not only won the Champion’s Cup but also features the reigning NLL MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, and Les Bartley Award-winner. I know that list seems short, but to do this team’s expectations justice, I would have to do a Hive 5 Million about everything right your Swarm has going into the 2017-18 season. The TL;DR for it is that the Swarm has the right tools and attitude to repeat as Champions, especially when you come to The Hive and bolster them to dramatic wins.

So to celebrate Training Camp kicking off, let’s instead take a look at the five Swarm players you should be excited to see make an impact this camp and potentially in the 2017-18 season. I spoke with a few lacrosse experts to help come up with this list, putting in the caveat that we not mention the bigger names you expect to do well. We’re all excited to see Lyle Thompson take the floor again, but I’m looking for breakouts, those players who could come out of seemingly nowhere and pleasantly surprise all of us with hard work and lax skills and smarts, or returning players looking to take that extra step forward. To make things easy, everyone unanimously started their lists off with:

1) Zed Williams

Photo Credit: University of Virginia

There’s no two ways about it: being a first-round pick for any NLL team comes with high expectations. When Georgia won the Champion’s Cup, the 20-man Active Roster featured 16 first-round draft picks. This doesn’t insinuate that only first-rounders make an impact on the Swarm; Leo Stouros and Liam Byrnes and Adam Shute made contributions in 2017. But we’re always looking for players that make those immediate contributions to a defending championship team, and Zed just seems like the perfect piece for the Swarm.

Zed already has extensive experience playing with Swarm players. He played with Swarm team captain Jordan MacIntosh, John Ranagan and Joel White this past summer on the Rochester Rattlers (MLL) before joining Lyle and Jerome Thompson to play for the Native Sons (CanAm, Senior B Lacrosse League) and win the Presidents Cup. He’s been described as dangerous, smart, and ready for the big stage, and Zed himself has said he loves learning and getting better every time he plays. Swarm Owner and General Manager John Arlotta loves his high character athletes, and from all accounts, he scored again with drafting Zed. Look for him to contribute on both ends of the floor and to improve as camp and the season proceeds.

As clear-cut as it seems wanting to see Zed immediately make an impact for Georgia, it’s less clear…

2) Who’s Backing Up Poulin?

This Quick Sting is not so much about an individual as it is the position. Brodie MacDonald was traded yesterday to the Vancouver Stealth, so it’s time for some talented individuals to step up and fill his shoes. Adam Shute was the only other goaltender to see some time between the pipes for Georgia in 2017, but he signed with the Saskatchewan Rush in the offseason, so now the playing field is wide open. This leads to the half a million-dollar question: Who are the contenders?

Warren Hill was re-signed on a one-year deal this offseason. Signed No. 20 overall (2nd round) in the 2016 NLL Draft, he spent all of the 2017 season on the Swarm’s practice squad. He’s familiar with Swarm players, and talking with a few of them and the coaches, they all said him being a consistent and dedicated part of that squad helped the team remain sharp all season long. Hill has played over 4,074 min. between the pipes for the Six Nations teams across the Jr. and Sr. leagues and boasts an impressive career 6.94 GAA. He also helped the Chiefs win a Mann Cup in 2016.

Next up is Kevin Orleman. Georgia signed him as a free agent this offseason. He was drafted No. 18 overall (2nd round) in the 2016 NLL Draft by the Buffalo Bandits, mirroring Hill by spending the 2017 season on the Bandits’ practice squad. Orleman played four seasons with the Jr. A Kitchener-Waterloo Braves, posting a career-low 7.50 GAA over 895:46 min. The Kitchener, ON native played in the BCLA Jr. A for the Delta Islanders in 2016. He helped lead the Islanders to a Minto Cup berth with his 6-2 postseason record, 7.85 GAA and a .846 SV%.

Third is Georgia’s second pick in the third round of the 2017 NLL Draft, Mason Jones (No. 32 overall). The only goaltender drafted by Georgia in this year’s draft, he played in the 2017 Founders Cup and finished the tourney with a 4-1 record, 181 saves, and an 8l20 GAA and .815 SV%.

Three solid candidates who will get plenty of action during the Training Camp. While I can’t answer the million-dollar question of who backs up Mike Poulin this year, I can tell you that barring any significant last-minute goaltender signings, one of these three guys will put the goalie pads on for some professional NLL games this year.

As disappointing as that answer may be, I don’t want to hazard a guess before we see them in action. The whole point of Training Camp is to get guys ready for the upcoming season while figuring out the players that give you the best chance of winning now. The reality is that Swarm head coach Ed Comeau and Co. have instilled the mindset into every player that they have to earn their spot on that bench. Lyle is competing for a spot; Poulin is competing for a spot; MacIntosh is competing for a spot. They all know it, and they all welcome it. After the 2017 NLL Draft, Comeau said, “Complacency is evil in sports.” Come December 8, you will see the players that took that to heart and proved their hard work during the offseason paid off. And while I’m sure everyone has dedicated themselves during the offseason, I am particularly intrigued to see…

3) Liam Byrnes and his sidebyrnes

Photo Credit: Kyle Hess

Last season was Liam’s first season playing box lacrosse ever. And from all accounts, he fell in love with and dedicated himself to it. He only saw action in two games, recording an assist while collecting six loose balls and causing a turnover, spending the rest of his time on the practice squad.

After the Swarm’s season ended, Liam played in the MSL (Major Series Lacrosse) league for the Brampton Excelsiors. In 16 games, Byrnes recorded 13 points (7G, 6A). My most recent viewing of him in action was for Team USA in the Heritage Cup last month, and having not seen him on the floor since the end of April, I was surprised by how he carried himself on the floor, playing smarter and more confidently. Team USA noticeably ran out of gas during that game, but Byrnes was definitely a factor in Team USA keeping the score close to Team Canada before the half.

Byrnes will be entering the first year in his two-year contract, so there is some confidence among the coaches and front office that he will develop even more and continue to be an impactful player, mirroring his prowess as a field player. Granted, he’ll still have to compete for a roster spot like everyone else, but I’d be surprised if he didn’t set foot on the floor at all during the 2017-18 season.

Speaking of players not setting foot on the floor all season, the next Quick Sting will feature…

4) The Return of the King

Photo Credit: Paul Sasso, MV Photo Concepts

Missing the entire 2017 season due to a lower-body injury he suffered during the summer of 2016, the return of Jesse King has a lot of people high on the Swarm offense. With Jordan Hall starting the year off on the Holdout List, the lefty forward’s return is an excellent opportunity for him to step into those mighty big shoes. Far-fetched to say? Not at all.

Let’s compare the numbers. Hall served as the glue of the Swarm’s mighty offense, notching 20 goals and 60 assists, the assists a career high. He also scooped up 70 loose balls while causing five turnovers. In his rookie season, King finished with 22 goals and 55 assists, 83 loose balls, and 9 caused turnovers. All of this was good enough to finish second in Rookie of the Year voting, behind winner and teammate Randy Staats. Oh, and Hall and King are both left handed? And let’s not forget that just because he was injured didn’t mean that King was not in the locker room and interacting with players and coaches all season long.

Not having Hall on the floor is a blow no matter how you slice it, but having King back out there ready to contribute in a similar strong fashion nearly eradicates that blow (yes, I obviously want both out there at all times, it would be amazing). King took his time coming back because he wanted to be ready to contribute at the highest level, even if it meant missing a full year. He’ll be relied on at shutting down opposing transition players in the fast break, and his outside shots are sure to sting opposing goaltenders. With the Thompsons, Johnny Powless, Shayne Jackson, Staats, MacIntosh, and Kiel Matisz all returning, King’s sophomore season I believe will impress solely because he will gel with the systems immediately, providing another left-handed threat and weapon in an already insanely loaded Swarm offense.

You’re probably noticing that two of the Stings are about players entering in their sophomore seasons, and I can’t help myself from finishing in that same vein by mentioning…

5) Bryan Cole and the Sophomores

Photo Credit: Michael Martin

Great band name.

Cole turned in a solid freshman debut in 2017. In 17 regular season games, the lefty tranny played mostly out the back door, recording 11 points (6G, 5A), picking up 54 loose balls and causing 15 turnovers, tied with Lyle for third-most on the team. During the postseason, Cole scored two goals, scooped up 14 loose balls, and caused two turnovers.

His numbers don’t do his presence on the floor justice, though. One of the experts I spoke with made the argument that Cole was one of the top three Swarm defenders by the end of the season. He’s a big, strong guy that handles righties like they’re toys. But the real revelation might be how his offensive game evolves. When there’s an opportunity to score in transition, don’t be surprised if #55 is the one streaking down the floor and making some magic happen.

This sophomore Swarm class is just plain exciting to think about. I already covered Byrnes, King, and Cole, but there’s still Stouros and Connor Sellars to rave about. Sellars was impressive the whole season as a rookie defender, and Stouros stepped into and filled the roster spot left open when Chad Tutton went down in Game 1 of the East Division Finals.

Rookies usually come out playing with that freshman fire, looking to prove themselves. Lacrosse players will tell you that the second year in the league is usually the hardest. Opponents know you now and will adjust. You have to adjust back and then some.

But I’m not worried. The Swarm has a history of players contributing solidly in their second year. Lyle won MVP while leading the league in points; Alex Crepinsek increased his loose ball collection numbers while posting similar stats across the board; Jackson’s offensive numbers barely dipped; MacIntosh’s numbers increased across the board; Tutton’s numbers lowered his sophomore season, but his primary focus on shutting down opponents was noticeable all season long; heck, the only reason Staats’ numbers were down was because he missed some time due to injury (he was actually on pace to surpass his freshman numbers). Proof and pudding and all that. The Swarm has a pretty good history of getting strong sophomore season from its players, and with the bevy of them going into Training Camp, that alone should get everyone pumped up for December 8 to get here.