It was fitting that Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ was blaring from the speakers moments after Saturday’s crucial Vancouver Stealth victory.
As the fans stood and cheered — something they have not done much of since the team arrived at the Langley Events Centre in 2014 — the players were all smiles.
But the fans’ belief in their team was finally rewarded.
The Stealth had just qualified for the National Lacrosse League post-season — their first playoff appearance since coming to Langley from Everett, Wash. — with a huge 13-7 win over the Colorado Mammoth.
I've never heard the @LangleyEvents centre so loud, what a game
— Chris (@HowlingCanuck) April 23, 2017
— Tony Hrkac (@tonyhrkac) April 23, 2017
— Lacrosse In BC (@LacrosseBC) April 23, 2017
— Steph (@steffgracel) April 23, 2017
Not many would have seen this coming after Vancouver began the season 3-6, including going winless in four home games at the LEC.
The last of those losses was a 12-8 setback to the Rochester Knighthawks, with the visitors (who were in last place in the nine-team league at the time) scoring six times in the fourth quarter for the comeback victory.
The loss prompted a lengthy-closed door meeting for the Stealth before they came out to meet the media.
Since that game, Vancouver has gone 5-3, including winning four of its five home games. At 8-9 and with one regular season game remaining, they sit a game back of Colorado (9-8), although the Stealth hold the tiebreaker having won the season series, three games to one.
“We know those games that we were losing were close and we had an opportunity and we just couldn’t finish them out,” said Stealth coach Jamie Batley, following Saturday’s playoff-clinching victory.
“We finally just believed in ourselves.”
Batley took over behind the bench midway through last season, transforming the team to one which is much stronger defensively and more persistent in the transition game.
Through the first half of the season, the coach said one aspect of the team’s game would always be off, but now they seem to have brought it all together.
“The guys knew sticking to the systems would pay off,” he said.
General manager and team president Doug Locker admitted to a lot of second guessing in the first half of the season.
“It was painful. I think whenever you go through a streak like that, you spend a lot of time over-analyzing things, wondering whether you have the right personnel in the right places,” he said.
Even more frustrating was the belief that the team had let winnable games slip away.
Two of the home losses — to Colorado and Rochester —saw the Stealth unable to hold fourth-quarter leads while the team also lost on the road to a badly-banged up Buffalo squad.
But once they finally won at home in early March against Saskatchewan, was a “gigantic monkey off our back,” Locker said.
“I think (that win) made guys relax a little bit and just play the game and not worry about the external factors that were at play,” he said.
“(And) they have a lot of pride in what they do and they were not going to be denied on Saturday.
“They wanted to clinch at home, that was a big deal for them.”
Qualifying for the post-season is a huge relief for the players, especially with so many of them from the Lower Mainland and Victoria (14 of 25).
“It is a special feeling. A couple of the guys were getting a little emotional inside the dressing room,” said Logan Schuss.
A big key to the Stealth’s success has been goaltending and defence.
Tye Belanger leads the NLL in save percentage (.795) after coming through with a 52-save performance on Saturday night.
In addition to the 59 shots that were on target, Colorado had another 36 shot attempts that either missed the target or were blocked.
“The defence was playing aggressive in front of me and were soaking a lot of shots and getting into the shooting lanes,” Belanger said. “(And) they were laying their body out on the line and I appreciate that.”
“Right now, we have ticked off making the playoffs and it is really exciting,” he said.
“Hopefully we can persuade the fans to start coming out again because now we have a team that is turning the corner here.”
Heading into this weekend’s regular season finale, one thing is certain: Vancouver and Colorado will meet next week in the West Division one-game semifinal. All that remains to be determined is where the game will be contested.
Should Vancouver win on the road in New England (8-9) and were the Mammoth to lose at home to Saskatchewan (11-5), then the game would be played at the LEC. If not, it will be in Denver.
$30K for Fund
During Saturday’s game, Stealth owner Denise Watkins and team president and general manager Doug Locker presented a $30,000 cheque to the Lacrosse on the Move Fund.
The money was raised through 50/50 draws and a jersey auction of special jerseys the players wore earlier this month.
Since 2014, the Stealth have raised more than $125,000 for the fund, which helps offset costs for minor lacrosse teams and athletes who are travelling to provincial and national championships.