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Shamrock, Salmonbellies face-off to herald return of the WLA

The last time a lacrosse ball was fired in anger, or at least with the intent to score, at The Q Centre was in 2019.
Jesse King and the Shamrocks return to The Q Centre floor on Friday night. (DARREN STONE, TIMES COLONIST)

The last time a lacrosse ball was fired in anger, or at least with the intent to score, at The Q Centre was in 2019. The Western Lacrosse Association-champion Victoria Shamrocks watched as the Ontario-champion Peterborough Lakers paraded the Mann Cup national championship trophy around the floor following Game 5 of the best-of-seven series.

Nobody could have ­imagined during that steamy ­early September night that it would be nearly three years before Senior A lacrosse would return to not only The Q Centre, but any rink across the country.

“It’s been a long time — two seasons, three years — but now Senior A box lacrosse is finally back,” said Shamrocks general manager Chris Welch.

There is no sense of relief — that would have only come if the 2020 and 2021 WLA seasons could have been salvaged from the pandemic, as the Canadian Premier League and Pacific FC in soccer and the Western Hockey League and Victoria Royals managed to do through bubble and partial-bubble seasons. But leagues such as the WLA and baseball’s West Coast League don’t have those sorts of resources and perhaps no Island teams in any sport suffered more through the pandemic than the Shamrocks and Nanaimo Timbermen of the WLA and Victoria HarbourCats and expansion Nanaimo NightOwls of the WCL.

So, it feels more like the end of a weary, and emotionally sapping road travelled when the Shamrocks will meet the New Westminster Salmonbellies tonight at 8 p.m. (CHEK-TV) to open the 2022 WLA season in The Q Centre. Yet, there is still much joy to be mined from that for players and fans alike.

“We have a real mix this season of household names returning [Rhys Duch and Jesse King] but I’m most happy for the younger guys whose careers were just starting in 2019 before being interrupted,” said Welch.

Also interrupted was the club’s milestone chase to reach the 25,000th goal scored since the franchise was inaugurated in 1950. The Shamrocks are on 24,958 all-time goals. Good bets to score that historic 42nd goal of this season would be Duch and King, both National Lacrosse League professionals and prolific veteran Shamrocks scorers returning to the club.

Or it could be a newcomer such as Jacob Ruest, a high-scoring addition in Victoria for summer Senior A lacrosse season from the pro Colorado Mammoth and Albany FireWolves of the NLL. Or perhaps emerging snipers such as Marshal King, Cole Pickup and Larson Sundown. Marshal King, out of NCAA Div. 1 Drexel, will join older brother Jesse King, who played NCAA field-lacrosse for the Ohio State Buckeyes, on the Victoria forward corps this season.

Adding to the offensive punch, once they return from the NLL playoffs, will be Chris Wardle and Brad McCulley. Wardle is currently with San Diego and McCulley with Buffalo in the NLL post-season.

“We will have a lot of team speed and a powerful offence,” said Welch.

Holding down the back-end are veteran defensive specialists Ben McCullough, Tyler Burton and Matt Yager. Goaltender Peter Dubenski will try to reprise his magical 2019 run in the crease.

“Rhys [Duch] gathered everybody together on the floor this week in practice and pointed out how very special this is to be playing for such an historic franchise and how special it is to be able to return and be together to chase a Mann Cup again,” said Marshal King.

That is always the goal for the Shamrocks. In that sense, normality returns tonight to The Q Centre.

“I’ve played pro lacrosse across the continent but this is the team I grew up watching, starting at the old Memorial Arena,” said Duch.

“It means a lot to me and I totally get that I am now a mentor for the younger players.”

The King brothers, also ­Victoria products who have played across North America in the pros and NCAA, also touched on the hometown aspect. It is especially compelling for the siblings, who with five years between them, didn’t play together in youth or junior lacrosse, and who have only briefly been able to do in the past with the Shamrocks and in the NLL.

“This is the green jersey we grew up watching as kids and the energy and excitement of Friday nights at The Q Centre has always stayed with us,” said Jesse King.

“This city gave us a lot of support to get to where we got to in our sport. So it’s really special to be playing at home, alongside my brother, and with our parents, friends, former teammates and former coaches in the stands.”

PICK AND ROLLS: The ­Salmonbellies, the winningest and most iconic franchise in WLA history, will travel up-Island for the Nanaimo Timbermen’s WLA opener Saturday at 7 p.m. at Frank Crane Arena.

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