The sport of lacrosse has been enjoying a well-documented renaissance in the past decade; the number of high school and collegiate programs has exploded across the country outside of the usual popular areas. The NCAA Men's Lacrosse Championship has the highest attendance of any NCAA Championship, outdrawing the Final Four of men's basketball.
Despite this growth, a traditional powerhouse in the sport's long history is being overlooked right down the road in Rochester. This is a fitting place for a dominant team, since members of the Iroquois nation, who invented the game, have long inhabited the area.
In the National Lacrosse League, few teams have had the pedigree that the Rochester Knighthawks enjoy, with 13 postseason berths in 14 years and some of the game's biggest stars despite playing in the league's smallest market.
The 2010 Rochester Knighthawks have the talent to be historically good, and you've probably never heard of any of them. Gary Gait, the league's all-time leading scorer and regarded by many as the best in the league's history, has come out of a short retirement à la Brett Favre. Gait has teamed up to play with the man many think is being groomed to take Gait's crown: John Grant, Jr.
Grant has played for Rochester since entering the league in 2000 and owns almost every offensive record the team has, including most goals, assists and points in a season. In 2007, he was named Most Valuable Player of the NLL.
All five of Rochester's starters are all-star caliber, even down to the team's reserves, who could quite possibly start on any other roster. The defense is excellent as well; goalie Pat O'Toole is one of the best in league history and just keeps getting better, while rookie and first overall draft pick Sid Smith plays a hardnosed, intense style the league hasn't seen in a while.
The Knighthawks season opener pitted them against the rival Buffalo Bandits. Fans looking forward to seeing Grant and Gait play together were far from disappointed as they connected for eight goals in the creative, awe-inspiring style that has become their signature.
The two work on another level; moves that are unthinkable for others are their norm. Watching the two together is like watching Kobe Bryant and LeBron James play HORSE, each trying to outdo the other.
It would be cheap to say that the Knighthawks have too many weapons, but it may be true. Coach Paul Gait, twin brother to Gary and lacrosse legend in his own right, told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle that his team is "kind of half-buying into the system and we need them to buy in wholly. Once it happens, we should have some high scoring games."
Chemistry and a well-organized offense are notoriously hard to come by in the NLL. Things are no different for the Knighthawks, a professional team in a city known as the "minor league capital of America." Most players on the Knighthawks have day jobs and commute to Rochester from all around the country. The team only practices together once a week, and to have every player at practice is rare.
In many ways, what keeps the Knighthawks from realizing their potential as an unstoppable team is what keeps the NLL and its summertime counterpart Major League Lacrosse from being recognized as top-notch professional leagues. The vast majority of players make scraps, and despite lacrosse's growth at a near epidemic pace, attendance at some venues is less than impressive.
Expansion is certainly gaining new markets, as upstart Orlando Titans recorded nearly 9,000 fans in its first home game this season and the league's flagship franchise, at least in terms of attendance, resides in Colorado, where the sport has only flourished. The Colorado Mammoths averaged 10,475 fans in 2008; more than their NHL counterpart, the Colorado Avalanche.
In Rochester, the sport is alive and well when the Hawks are in town. The atmosphere at games is electric; the play is frantic and physical, making lacrosse an easily marketable sport. Highlight reel plays happen every game, all the league needs is for people to see them to become a fan.
The Knighthawks may not win a championship or live up to their hype, but what they will do is drop jaws, spin heads and entertain.