Bandits title defense fortified by midseason moves

BUFFALO, N.Y. (WIVB) — If defense wins championships, and possession is nine-tenths of the law, the Buffalo Bandits tested both of those theories early in their repeat journey.

The reigning champions outscored the National Lacrosse League all season long. But the Bandits weren’t always winning. After dropping below .500 with a March 1 loss, the acquisition of veteran defenseman Paul Dawson and faceoff specialist Connor Farrell later that month renewed Buffalo’s title chase.

The Bandits begin the NLL semifinal series Friday night on the road against the Toronto Rock, having won seven of their past eight games including last week’s quarterfinal playoff victory. The run started after Farrell was signed in the first week of March, and Buffalo traded draft picks for Dawson at the deadline two weeks later.

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Dawson, in his 18th season after being drafted as a goaltender, is a veteran of 25 postseason games, and won back-to-back championships playing with Bandits goalie Matt Vinc for the original Rochester Knighthawks in 2013-14.

“I can’t say enough about what Paul has brought to us,” Bandits general manager Steve Dietrich said. “He’s a leader. He’s won in this league. There never seems to be a minute in the game when any time is too big for him. He’s been a safety blanked for Matt (Vinc) back there.”

Behind captain Steve Priolo, in his 14th season with the Bandits, and nine-year veteran Nick Weiss, the Bandits were too reliant on young defenders at the start of the season. Adam Bomberry’s return from injury and the deal for Dawson stabilized Buffalo’s back end.

“It’s all coming together for us at the right time,” said Dietrich, the goalie for Buffalo’s three championship teams in the 1990s. “Paul and Adam have given Matt more confidence in the defense. As a goaltender, he knows the shot lanes where they are going to stand, and he can take another part of the net away.”

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In the faceoff circle, last year’s specialist Max Adler was unavailable for the season due to his finance job commitments at ESPN. The Bandits held out hope until March that Adler might be able to return for the stretch run, and Buffalo began the season with a defensive strategy of mostly conceding draws.

On a three-game losing streak that dropped Buffalo’s record to 5-6, “we were getting punched in the face in the circle every week,” Dietrich said.

Farrell won 73% of his draws in college at LIU Post, and was the NCAA Division II Faceoff Player of the Year in 2019. He won 57% playing for Chrome Lacrosse Club in the outdoor Premier Lacrosse League. But Farrell hadn’t played professional box lacrosse before signing a two-year contract with the Bandits on March 6.

Dietrich described the challenge of taking faceoffs and sprinting off the field in the faster-paced as “a different beast. And the FOGO position requires off-the-field savvy.

“It’s kind of like being a field goal kicker in football,” he said. “It’s a specialist position. They don’t get to play a lot. Their role is important, but it has to be someone who fits well in the locker room.”

In eight games including playoffs, Farrell has won 55% of his draws for Buffalo. He also won the Breakout Bandit award voted by teammates.

“We have been real blessed with Connor,” the Bandits GM said. “He has been great.”

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Jonah Bronstein joined the WIVB squad in 2022 as a digital sports reporter. The Buffalonian has covered the Bills, Sabres, Bandits, Bisons, colleges, high schools and other notable sporting events in Western New York since 2005, for publications including The Associated Press, The Buffalo News, and Niagara Gazette. Read more of his work here.

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