By Budd Bailey
(John Tavares has been the head coach of the Bandits since 2019, although he’s been around the team non-stop since 1992. John recently took some time after a preseason game with Rochester to discuss the team as it tries again to capture its first National Lacrosse League title since 2008.)
Buffalo Sports Page: Have you been waiting since mid-June for the start of camp?
John Tavares: It’s been a long four months. I’m having trouble getting my mind into training camp mode. My mind is still in championship mode. It’s like it’s not over yet. I have to focus on this – understand that it’s a new season. We’ve got some guys trying out. We’ve got some spots open. Kevin Brownell’s gone (to the New York Riptide). (Connor) Fields is gone; (Chase) Fraser is hurt. Those are guys that played every game for us last year, so we have some big shoes to fill.
BSP: Every season that you don’t win a championship is disappointing. What’s it like to come so close? Is losing in the third and final game of the Finals worse than a sweep or a early loss?
Tavares: I don’t think it matters if you lose, two straight, or two-to-one. It’s obviously discouraging. The goal is to win the championship. No matter how you lose it, it’s disappointing. The closer you get, it hurts a bit more. I don’t think there was a difference about how I felt after losing to Calgary versus losing to Colorado. It’s a case of “How can I improve this team? What could I have done to win those games?”
BSP: I don’t know if you are one of those coaches that likes to come up with a new message or slogan every year. Some of the leadership books think that’s a good idea. Do you have an approach this year?
Tavares: I want guys to understand that we have a really good team, a great team. We just need to learn how to get over that last obstacle to a championship, to find out what it takes. Sometimes it takes more grit, more getting into dirty areas than having stats. We want to commit to making the right play. I’m not saying we have to change much. We just have to build off our success. Yes, we didn’t win, but we do have something good here. It can easily implode. It’s hard just to make the playoffs. Think back to last year. We played one game in the first round. They had a great goaltender. That’s a battle. Toronto – that’s a battle. It’s hard to get back to the championship. I want to build off the positives, because we had a lot of positives last year. Yes, when I think about last year I still think of that championship loss. Sometimes teams take a longer time to win a championship. Our goal is to get to the playoffs, get to the championship (round), and win the championship. That’s our goal every year.
BSP: It’s amazing how short training camp is. You get a month, but you aren’t practicing all the time. Is it difficult?
Tavares: It is four weeks, though. As you know we’re all part-time – athletes, coaches. We go one day a week and then the weekend. It is a four-week period. We do ask the guys to do a lot of work on their own – get the sticks in their hands, work out, train. That was (Sunday’s) message – I expect you guys to be in the best possible shape of your lives when we start. When the game gets down to the fourth quarter, the team that’s in better shape usually make better decisions.
BSP: It doesn’t sound like a lot of time to make player evaluations. It’s not fair, but that’s what you’ve got.
Tavares: It’s hard to give everyone a fair shake, if you will, to show what they have. Obviously you get comfortable with people you know, and they tend to get longer looks over new people. It’s hard to crack a lineup. Sometimes you come in with a preconceived notion – this is what I expect. Then someone surprises you, either good or bad. I’m very open-minded. (Sunday) I tried to run a little different system to see how guy would react and maybe show me something I didn’t know. I like to know what these guys have to offer. I do like having exhibition games. It’s a better way to evaluate the guys than to practice, practice, practice. You get the most intensity from guys when they are actually in a game.
BSP: You’ve got a couple of spots open, but there are some veterans around. Is it tough for rookies to make an impression?
Tavares: If you come in and show me you are in good shape, and you do something really well or show that you can add something that we are missing, you’ll be playing. I just think every team can always be improved. Whether a guy is 20, 21, or 22, I like having that balance of veterans and youth. Sometimes you have too many veterans and guys get too complacent. We need that edge in the lineup, and you get that from the young guys.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)