Sep 24, 2017

KNIGHTHAWKSdraft17.jpgBy Craig Rybczynski -- The Rochester Knighthawks were one of the big winners at Monday’s National Lacrosse League Entry Draft, selecting six potential impact players at the Toronto Rock Athletic Centre.

The Knighthawks bolstered their offense with back-to-back first-round picks, as they drafted Austin Shanks (fifth) and Eric Fannell (sixth). On defense, Rochester brought in some toughness by selecting Trevor Stacey with its fifth-round pick and Kessler Doolittle in the sixth round. The transition game also got a big boost when the Knighthawks chose Jake Withers second overall and Adam Perroni with the 14th pick.

“As a group we are pretty happy,” said Knighthawks head coach Mike Hasen. “We hit everything that we charted as needs and filled in some holes. At the same time, we added some depth to the roster. Stu (Brown), Jody (Gage), Curt (Styres) and (Mike) Accursi had a plan and they stuck with it, and they were able to get us what we wanted going in.”

At their draft table, the Knighthawks had one of the most seasoned and successful lacrosse staffs in the NLL, having 21 Champion’s Cups to their credit. It’s a group that included Hasen, former NLL Executive of the Year and General Manager of the Year Curt Styres, former NLL standouts Mike Accursi and Gewas Schindler, head scout Stuart Brown, and VP of Player Personnel and Knighthawks Hall of Famer Jody Gage.

“This year it’s all about a team effort,” said Styres. “When you work together you get to where you want to go.”

That path leads to the Champion’s Cup, where the Knighthawks appeared in three consecutive seasons from 2012-14 and won a league-record three straight titles. Accursi, who played 17 NLL seasons, was a player for two of those seasons and an executive for the final Cup in that amazing run. Now, he is in the thick of the player side of the business. Having the opportunity to once again be a part of the draft was a thrill for the future Hall of Famer. The former Rochester forward and five-time NLL champion was promoted to assistant coach this offseason and has remained an important part of player evaluations.

“It’s exciting and definitely a learning experience,” he said. “I don’t think the players always realize how much time and effort goes into planning and making sure that we make the right picks. We are making sure we are doing what’s best for the organization.

“(This year) we had a plan and we stuck to our plan, and we got the guys that we were looking for in the draft. From the perspective of our preparation team, we went there and did the job that we wanted to do.”

That hard work was done long before the weekend of the NLL Combine and Entry Draft. It was long hours in the car and on the phone, and watching videos and live-streamed games. With hundreds of games to cover from coast to coast, it was a divide and conquer strategy.

“Myself, Jody, Curt and our coaching and scouting staff spent a lot of time in arenas throughout the summer,” said Brown. “Between our group, we watched a game every night of the week from May to September. Whether live or on TV, most nights multiple games were watched and scouted.”

The main organizers of the scouting schedule of collegiate, junior and senior games were Brown and Gage. With four of the first 14 picks this year, the Knighthawks did their homework to reload their roster.

"We have a dedicated staff of rink rats, and as a result we have great scouting coverage,” said Brown. “That is the type of commitment we have from our staff. Everyone from the top down is heavily involved in our scouting and drafting process.”

Working closely with Brown was Gage, who heads up the scouting department. This summer, Gage traveled to rinks from Peterborough to Six Nations and everywhere in between. When not watching games, he was working the phones talking to coaches, players, executives and the team’s two western scouts, Kevin Hill and Bruce Clark.

“I thought it was a great team effort by everyone involved,” said Gage about the draft. “It started with Curt. He allowed us to get out and see some games and we met throughout the summer.”

O’Toole was a frequent attendee at the summer scouting meetings. This year, more than any other, the NLL and Knighthawks Hall of Famer was engaged in the team’s pre-draft get-togethers. It was around the dinner table and conference table where the Knighthawks identified their needs and tried to predict other teams’ needs. It was a forum that allowed the staff to sort through the paperwork, video clips and scouting reports.

“You get everybody’s input and what you feel we need,” said O’Toole. “To see that come to fruition on draft day, while filling in some positions with guys who can step in, is pretty exciting.”

For Johnson, who was at the draft alongside O’Toole, the 2017 NLL Entry Draft was his seventh as a member of the Knighthawks staff. This summer, he said, there was a noticeable difference in the team’s preparation.

“This is the first one that we had this much communication going on,” said the Rochester assistant coach. “Having meetings this offseason helped a lot. We made sure we were all on the same page. If anything new came up, we brought it up to the group.”

Johnson, who was drafted 20th overall in the 1997 NLL Entry Draft, admitted he prefers the strategy and the behind-the-scenes work that goes into preparing for the event. He has seen it all while working for the Knighthawks, from taking Sid Smith and Cody Jamieson first overall to trading up to take Dan Lomas in the second round in 2016. It’s all about strengthening one’s team and that game takes center stage on draft night.

“I enjoy the chess game that goes on, and who’s doing what and who’s picking who,” he said. “It’s great just being there for that, and then you wait for the surprises.”

The Knighthawks were prepared for surprise picks like when Georgia took forward Zed Williams fourth overall. It was the hours spent in those meetings where the Knighthawks forecasted draft scenarios and planned for possible trades.

“You don’t want to be caught off guard if something does happen because you only have five minutes at the table,” said O’Toole.

For Schindler, who is one of the team’s alternate governors, being at the draft table for the first time gave the former collegiate and Iroquois Nationals star a different perspective. Schindler, who was originally the seventh overall pick by the Philadelphia Wings in the 1999 NLL Entry Draft, was brought in last season for his expertise at the international and professional levels. Going through the process, from start to finish, allowed Schindler to share in the team’s draft success.

“I learned a lot and had a great experience,” he said. “We had a great group that worked on the draft together. We did our homework and it was clear we put the time in, scouted properly and talked to all of our resources. We came together and felt very prepared for every situation. It clearly went our way. I want to thank all the guys who are part of that group. They did an excellent job and it was a successful night for the organization.”

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