Burnaby's hot start far from their end goal
The Burnaby Sr. Lakers are good at downplaying their successes. That might be because their program isn’t historically used to winning.
Since moving to Burnaby from Richmond in 1990, the Lakers have boasted a winning record only 11 times. Of those 11 winning seasons, they’ve made the WLA finals on three occasions but have never represented their league in the prestigious Mann Cup.
Recently, however, the Lakers have turned a corner, making the WLA Playoffs five times in the last seven years. The Lakers even clinched their first WLA regular season title in 2017 with a 12-5-1 record.
Before their surprising 11-9 loss on Friday to the Coquitlam Adanacs, the Lakers started the 2019 WLA campaign with a 5-1 record. It was the team’s best six-game start since they were 5-1 in 2006 - that team was eventually eliminated in the WLA semi-finals by the New Westminster Salmonbellies.
The team’s ultimate goal in 2019 and beyond is to reach the Mann Cup for the first time, but before they can even consider representing the WLA in that series, they’ll need to remain composed and focused on and off the floor. Lakers goaltender Eric Penney is having a phenomenal year and believes that playoff implications could be decided in the final week of the season.
“Right now we’re taking it one game at a time,” said Penney. “It’s early in the season, but we have a goal to make the playoffs. In this league, any team can win on any given night. It feels like this is going to be a classic WLA season where it’s going to be a dogfight right to the end.”
Having faced a less than demanding schedule to start the year, particularly with teams not having their prime rosters, the Lakers know that the second and third stretches of the year will only get more difficult. The hope is that NLL talent Eli McLaughlin will return to the lineup sooner rather than later from his hand injury. His scoring and distributing abilities are some of the best in the WLA; so inserting him back onto the floor could play a vital role to the team’s seeding come late July.
“Our schedule is going to get tougher, so we’re going to have to step up our game,” star forward Robert Church said. “Hopefully we’ll have (McLaughlin) back around a little later; he’s obviously a premier lefty in the lacrosse world. Every team is going to get players back and hopefully, so will we.”
With three games remaining against the third-place Salmonbellies and the fourth-place Nanaimo Timberman - including one more match versus the top-seeded Maple Ridge Burrards - July will be a critical month for the surging Lakers’ playoff hopes. The fact that the likes of Church, Tyler Digby, and other key players have always been available for practices has allowed the Lakers to start building chemistry, while other teams are still in Limbo. Church believes that as the season progresses, that extra time working together will be invaluable.
“We always get a pretty good turnout at practice, and that’s one of the benefits you don’t really think about,” said Church. “That’ll help us build chemistry throughout the year. Hopefully, we’ll build enough chemistry to make it to the playoffs and go on a deep run.”
The Lakers have excelled in large part because of their defence and goaltending. In each of their first four games, they held opponents to less than eight goals to give themselves a 4-0 record. Penney has been in between the pipes for every game following his breakout season with the Vancouver Warriors. As a player who already garners respect, he says that the strong leadership from the team’s core stars has allowed them to achieve such heights this year.
“We’ve got a great leadership group,” said Penney. “We’ve got a great group of guys in the locker room, and everyone is playing off each other’s energy.”
Practice has begotten more consistent excellence in Burnaby of late, but their improved records over the last five seasons suggest that times are changing for the Lakers. This could be the year that the mix of talented younger athletes provides enough balance of every facet of the game.
GM Kevin Hill thinks that there is a special group of guys on the roster, even if many of his guys aren’t household names. He says it’s the team’s dedication and work ethic that defines the character of this team and has gotten them running out of the gates. It’s only a matter of time before we find out how long they can keep this pace up and with the same results.
“We have high-level talent (on the roster), it’s just that no one has heard of them,” said Hill. “They have a strong work ethic, and our coaches can get the most out of them. They work their tails off every game, and they don’t take a shift off. I think that’s the difference.”