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Atlanta Blaze Setting New Course for the 2018 Season

March 21, 2018
There are some that might argue the point but if you’re trying to build a successful Major League Lacrosse (MLL) team, equipping your front office and coaching staff with guys who have been steeped in the nuances of the game from an early age seems quite logical.

Atlanta Blaze president Jim Pfeifer hired Liam Banks as head coach in January, adding the Long Island high school lacrosse legend to the staff that already included Maryland icon Spencer Ford. Previously, Pfeifer re-signed Ford as the team’s general manager and assistant coach. (For more about Banks’ and Ford’s prowess as lacrosse stars, click here).

“My first two decisions (as team president) may have been both the most important for the franchise and the easiest to make,” Pfeifer said. “Spencer has an incredible knowledge of both our roster, as well as the intricacies of the MLL system. Liam gives us an accomplished local face of the game to build around, as well as someone whose lacrosse resume is respected throughout the league.”

College and Professional Experience
Banks, who moved to the Atlanta area about 10 years ago from Pennsylvania, was a two-time lacrosse All-American for Syracuse Univ., appearing in the Final Four each year during his college career. In 2000 as a sophomore, Banks and his teammates won the national title and he was named most outstanding player after scoring six goals in the final game against Princeton. Banks was a two-time honorable mention All-American in 2000 and 2001, and went on to play five MLL seasons for the New Jersey Pride, San Francisco Dragons and Chicago Machine from 2005-09. He scored a career-high 21 goals in 2007 for the Dragons.

Ford, who played both lacrosse and soccer at Towson Univ., had 53 assists in 13 games during the 1999 season for the Tigers, including 10 in one game against Gannon Univ. Ford also had a 13-point game that season against Vermont, tallying five times while assisting on eight others. Ford still holds the MLL record for assists in a single season with 47. He established the record in just 12 games while playing for the Los Angeles Riptide in 2007. He was named the MLL’s most improved player that season. In the 10 seasons since Ford established the record, no player has exceeded 39 assists. Ford played two more MLL seasons before becoming G.M. for the Chesapeake Bayhawks in Jan. 2010. The Bayhawks won the Steinfeld Cup that season.

With invaluable experience at the highest levels of lacrosse, Ford and Banks together have embarked on a new direction to attempt to guide the Blaze to its first winning season and playoff appearance.

“Liam was an amazing college player and he was great in the MLL. As a player, he had a high lacrosse I.Q., a lot of skill, and a heck of a lot of toughness,” said Ford, who originally was hired in 2015 as director of player personnel and was then named general manager of the team during the 2016 season. “Plus, he has always won. I thought it was important that he was involved [with the Blaze]. We’re going to see him as a head coach and I want to see him grow in that role.”

Establishing Roots in the Atlanta Area
Banks relocated to Atlanta from Pennsylvania after his MLL playing career was over. He was working as a sales associate for the New Balance and Warrior lacrosse brands, and eventually became head of sports marketing in a nine-state region, which included Georgia. Banks had a club team in Pennsylvania and saw there was a need for creating a similar one in the Atlanta area, which had begun to catch the lacrosse bug in earnest.

Banks began building the Thunder LB3 Lacrosse program and also promoted college and professional lacrosse games as a means to help grow the sport in the Atlanta area. In fact, Banks brought the Univ. of Virginia and Northwestern women’s teams, and St. John’s and Syracuse men’s teams to Kennesaw in 2014 and 2015. Along with Georgia colleges Young Harris and Berry, Notre Dame, Georgetown, Duke, Denver, Hobart and Siena also have played in the Cobb County Classics held at Fifth Third Bank Stadium. Banks also led the charge to bring the ACC Lacrosse Tournament and the MLL Championship Games in 2014 and 2015 to Kennesaw.

“The love that Liam has for Georgia lacrosse and for the people in the Atlanta area can only do one thing for us — and that is to help us move forward. Everyone knows how much Liam cares about the players and the game, and that’s going to spark some energy for us. We wanted somebody young who can relate to the players. We wanted somebody that has great energy and someone who knows Atlanta,” Ford said.

The "Xs" and the "Os"
Banks is looking forward to the challenge and believes that his time playing the “X” position [behind the goal] has served him well for the challenges of coaching.

“I believe in myself and in my knowledge of the game of lacrosse. I am well versed in MLL, having been a player and a fan that watches a lot of lacrosse,” Banks said. “I am also a guy who played X, so I watched a lot of really good lacrosse at the highest level. I think my skills will translate well to coaching. It’s all about passion and getting our players to buy into what we’re doing. If we do that we’ll be successful.”

Banks believes in giving his players the freedom to be creative within the team framework but said executing set plays also has its place depending upon the game situation.

“There needs to be a happy medium of both. It depends upon game flow and we will certainly have some set plays, but these are the best players in the world, so the one thing you don’t want to do is to hold them back,” Banks related. “It’s a quick game, but it’s unlike college where if you turn the ball over the other team can hold the ball for three or four minutes. The MLL game is more like basketball where a bad shot isn’t the end of the world. Giving players more freedom to improvise is important to let them use their natural abilities. If we need a goal or if we need to settle them down a little, we’ll certainly have some things drawn up for those situations.”

Having players that can execute in all situations is paramount. Banks and Ford will lean heavily on long-stick midfielder Scott Ratliff, graduate of Walton H.S. and national champion in 2012 at Loyola (Md.).

“Scott is the best. He plays 57 minutes. The only time he doesn’t play is typically on extra-man offense,” Ford said. “I have never seen a guy play with more passion and more energy than that young man does. He never tires. His last shift is a heck of a lot better than his first shift. Most players are the opposite. The guy really wants to win.”

Short-stick midfielders, Jeff Reynolds, Justin Pennington and Matt Mackrides are vital to the transition game and must contribute offensively. Kevin Rice, attacker and leading scorer in both of the Blaze’s first two campaigns, returns for his third season. Rice has compiled some gaudy statistics for Atlanta thus far, scoring 63 goals and dishing out 41 assists in just 19 games.

Helping Rice put pressure on opposing defenses will be two newcomers, both of who previously played with the New York Lizards, Matt Gibson and Tommy Palasek. Gibson, a renowned stick wizard who played his college ball at Yale, scored 77 goals in 38 games during the last three MLL seasons for the Lizards. Palasek, a veteran of six MLL seasons and 76 total games from Syracuse Univ., has 128 career goals. Dylan Donahue, a teammate of Rice at Syracuse for three seasons, tallied 11 times in 10 games last season. Those numbers are likely to improve in 2018.

A Defensive Posture
Despite their offensive acumen during their playing days, Banks and Ford have an appreciation for those who shine on the defensive end. Jamie Hanford, a three-time All-American defender at Loyola, two-time National Lacrosse League (NLL) champion and MLL champion with the Bayhawks in 2002, and the current head coach at Green Farms Academy, Westport, Conn., will join the coaching staff as a defensive specialist.

“I played with Jamie when I was with the New Jersey Pride in 2005,” Banks said. “He was older, mean, nasty and blue collar. I want defenders who are willing to get in the bottom of the pig pen and Jamie will help bring that kind of nastiness to our defense.”

Ford thinks defender Callum Robinson is ready to take a step forward this season. “Our big Aussie, has to be our leader back there and Callum has all of the attributes to do so,” Ford stated. “He has the personality, the voice, and the talent and I think he’s going to step up in a big way this year.” Robinson had just 10 games of MLL experience prior to joining the Blaze last season. He played in 12 of the team’s 14 games in 2017.

Hanford also will rely upon defender Graeme Hossack, who has played a total of 23 games for the Blaze during the past two campaigns. The 25-year-old from Port Perry, Ontario, who played his college ball at Lindenwood Univ., St. Charles, Mo., also plays for the Rochester Knighthawks of the NLL.

All-star goalie Adam Ghitelman, a two-time All-American and 2011 national champion at the Univ. of Virginia, owns all of the Blaze’s 10 wins during his two seasons in Atlanta.

Expectations with Eyes Fixed on the Future
Banks and Ford expect improvement this season, not only from a won-loss standpoint but also as it concerns engaging the local legion of lacrosse fans.

“I challenged our players to get to know one another socially and to work out with one another if they live in the same areas. It’s very important for us as a coaching staff so that we can be efficient with what we do as a team when they are here,” Banks said.

“This is a new era of Blaze lacrosse. This is more of a homegrown type of plan,” Banks added. “We need our fan base, and we need the lacrosse players in our community to come support us. It’s important for Atlanta to be proud of what we are trying to accomplish, both on and off the field.”

In the near future, Banks hopes more Blaze players will live and work in the greater Metro area, and become fixtures in the community. “We want to get more guys here in Atlanta, to help them get jobs here year round. The closer they are geographically to each other, the closer they will be as a team. And, the more engaged in the community they are, the more loved they will be,” Banks offered.

“We work for the players,” Ford said. “That’s why guys want to come play for us. We give it to them straight. This is year three for the Blaze, and I think we will finally get to the postseason. As everyone knows, once you’re in the postseason, anything can happen,” Ford said.

Blending the qualities and skills of each individual is essential for team success. Banks and Ford will work in concert to develop their own chemistry while helping their players develop a team identity.

“These guys come from different backgrounds, but share the same competitive drive, passion for the sport and desire to bring a winner to Atlanta,” Pfeifer said. “And most importantly to me, I trust them and we all share the same vision for the Blaze."