When Taylor Ritchie successfully tried out for the Manitoba Blizzard of the junior B Rocky Mountain Lacrosse League (RMLL) years ago, he was the only Thompson player on the squad.
Now, in his final season with the Blizzard, which has clinched the league championship the last two years in a row and is gunning for a three-peat, having a Thompsonite on the team is no longer the novelty it once was.
Not only has his brother Evan joined the team in Taylor’s second year, but the pair was also followed by William Lutz and Isaac Babulic last season, and David Saunders as a rookie this year.
“Now all these guys are the team,” said Taylor. “It feels cool. It shows there’s talent in Thompson, a lot of it.”
“People think Thompson’s pretty isolated with us being so far up north but we do have talent if you just work at it, put in the time and expose yourself to the southern lacrosse,” said Lutz.
Babulic joined the team partway through last season and had yet to play through the first seven games of this season, having suffered a broken collarbone that sidelined him for several weeks.
The newest addition, Saunders, said he wasn’t really sure if he was going to be kept or cut when tryouts ended.
“I was sitting in the dressing room waiting for the coaches to call my name,” he recalls. “I had no idea how I did during the tryouts. When the coach told me I did make the team it was a pretty good feeling. I was pretty excited about it. A little nervous at first, but I got over that right away.”
Saunders had a similar reaction during the first shift of his first game in a Blizzard uniform.
“I didn’t know what to expect because I’ve never played this high a level of lacrosse before so I was just sitting in the dressing room all the guys we’re trying to get me going,” said Saunders. “Getting on the floor for the first time I was pretty nervous but once I got into it, I got pretty used to it pretty quick. It wasn’t too hard.”
Even though they all grew up playing lacrosse together in Thompson, dating all the way back to playing catch in the backyard for Taylor and Evan, Saunders isn’t from quite the same mould as the other four, who mainly takes to the floor when their team loses possession of the ball and has to start defending. Saunders, who has two goals and seven assists through the first seven games of the year, is the only Thompson team members utilized mostly on offence.
As a rookie, his first tally was a milestone.
“As soon as I scored one of the guys grabbed the ball so I have it in my room right now,” said Saunders.
Despite the fact that they’re playing with teammates who grew up hundreds of kilometres away, Taylor says the Manitoba lacrosse community isn’t that large and they were all familiar with each other before they joined the Blizzard.
“We all played on the provincial program with these guys or against them so they’ve all known us for a while now,” said Taylor.
“These guys are all really accepting,” said Lutz. “We just bond really well together so, coming in this year, we have a lot of the same guys so it’s a really easy transition. Some of the new guys like David from Thompson, we have two other rookies and they’ve all fit in really well. We gel really well because we’re always together so you kind of have to get to know these guys and get along with them.”
“They’re a good group of guys,” said Babulic, who was eager to get on the floor for what he hoped would be a long season with Taylor and nine other players all in their last year of junior eligibility.
With two league championships under their belts, the team isn’t looking past the RMLL season, but definitely has bigger aspirations.
“Founders’ [Cup] is the end goal,” said Babulic, referring to the national junior B lacrosse championship tournament.
“Everything we do now is in preparation for Founders’ Cup,” echoes Lutz.
“We came in fourth place [last year],” said Taylor. “That’s the first time Manitoba’s gone up the A side. It might have been the first time we ever had a chance at an actual medal. Any losing team says we should have won but we had a really disappointing end to the tournament for sure. We want to win that this year. That’s been the goal from day one is to win the Founders’ Cup. Everyone has been agreed on that. We’ve got to deal with the league first.”
Saunders said there’s no secret to the Thompson players’ success on a bigger stage in Winnipeg.
“The guys from Thompson who are on the team are all good, they work hard,” he said. “We’re all talented players.”
That sort of confidence is reflected by the team as a whole.
“We think we’re going to win but we don’t play like we’re going to win,” said Saunders. “Obviously we play hard and we just play our game.”
Taylor says the lacrosse talent of Thompson hasn’t even been tapped out by having five players on the Blizzard roster.
“There’s more guys in Thompson that could be playing on this team,” he said. “There’s a lot of good talent in Thompson. They’ve got a good program there, a good high school program there. They’ve got a lot of volunteers who spent a lot of hours teaching us young guys to get us to where we’ve gotten too.”