Rush NLL season ends, but optimism reigns for next season

Steve Hiscock/Saskatchewan Rush Saskatchewan Rush coaches Jimmy Quinlan and Derek Keenan, shown here lined up with players Mike Messenger and goalie Frank Scigliano, will look forward to next season after coming up one win short in 2024.

Had Saskatchewan won Saturday, the Rush would be in the playoffs as all NLL planets had aligned in the Rush’s favour.

Darren Zary

Saskatoon StarPhoenix

“There’s not one player who didn’t get better as the season went along, and that’s what you want to see,” said Rush co-coach and associate general manager Jimmy Quinlan, whose team came up a couple of goals and one win short of making the National Lacrosse League playoffs after a heartbreaking 12-11 loss to the first-place Toronto Rock on Saturday at SaskTel Centre.

“The future’s bright. It’s just unfortunate we’re not playing next weekend.”

Had Saskatchewan won Saturday, the Rush would be in the playoffs, as all NLL planets had aligned in the Rush’s favour. The New York Riptide and Vancouver Warriors both lost their final game, and Panther City also lost its final game.

Instead, the Rush came up just a little short, finishing the season with an 8-and-10 record while still making gains in terms of growth and development.

“(Losing) is always tough to swallow (but) I think, with our group, I thought we made huge strides throughout the season,” said Quinlan. “That’s a group where, individually, we saw players get exponentially better over the course of a season. It’s tough because we competed so hard (Saturday) and we did almost everything we needed to, but, again, that’s sports. It’s a game of inches and we had our chances.

“It wasn’t for a lack of opportunities. We kind of came up on the wrong side. We knew that, if we were fortunate enough to pull this one out, that’s who we’d be facing (in NLL quarterfinal playoffs) moving forward. Even though we didn’t get into the post season, I think the last month of the season, where we were playing do-or-die lacrosse, there’s a lot that the group can learn from and take moving forward and they’ll be better in the future.”

With veteran scoring leader Robert Church and captain Ryan Keenan already re-signed for next season, the Rush squad has a young core with the majority of its players in their 20s, including the likes of Zach Manns, Clark Walter, Patrick Dodds and Nathaniel Kozevnikov up front.

It’s a young group of defenders with Jake Boudreau, Holden Garlent, Connor McClelland, Bobby Kidd Jr., Isaac Ngyou, Ryan Barnable, Adam Jay, Jerrett Smith and Jeremy Searle still in their 20s.

What stands out, adds Quinlan, is “just how much they like each other, care for each other and like being around each other and how close-knit the team is” overall.

“It reminds me of those 2012-2013-2014 (teams) as you start to embark on being a real good lacrosse club,” noted Quinlan. “It’s got the same feeling as that. The guys in the room — even the coaching staff — just want to win and continue to hang around each other because it’s a fun place to be and everyone loves coming into the weekend, whether you’re on top of the power play or one of our practice players, everyone gets treated the same and that’s a lot of fun to be around.”

On Saturday, it was former Rush star player Mark Matthew who ended Saskatchewan’s playoff hopes with the winning goal.

“With Mark (Matthews) closing it out and getting the winner is tough — it’s right in our face,” admitted Rush captain Ryan Keenan, who had a goal and four assists in Saturday’s loss.

Matthews finished the game with three goals and four assists for a seven-point game against his former Rush team, yet the Rush brass will make no apologies for the trade that sent Matthews to Toronto for a big haul.

“It’s one of those trades you like to see in sports because, truthfully, it’s worked out for both sides,” offered Quinlan. “Mark’s had a tremendous season. Zach Manns come in and done great things for us and Adam Jay has been awesome in the back end, and we also got a (first-round) draft pick out of it … When you make trades, you want to see players continue to thrive. It’s just unfortunate that Mark got us (Saturday).”

After a slow start to the season, Saskatchewan began to thrive near the end.

The Rush racked up wins over the Philadelphia Wings, Calgary Roughnecks and second-place San Diego Seals — taking three of its previous four games — before falling to the Rock by just one goal.

“I instantly go back to some of those earlier games where we had opportunities and we didn’t fully take advantage of them,” said Quinlan. “You want those ones back, but you don’t get those ones back. It’s the idea of making sure that, right from the get-go, every game you’re playing with that urgency and desperation that we showed over the last half of the season.

“The season’s tough when you dig yourselves into a hole. I don’t think we’ll be digging ourselves as much of a hole (in the future) because we learned so much this year.”