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Bennett savors return to Bandits' lineup

Matthew Bennett will be wearing a knee brace during Friday night's game for the Buffalo Bandits in Toronto against the Rock (7:30 p.m., Radio 1520 AM).

It's something like a souvenir for the young player. He suffered a knee injury late last regular season that - much to his regret - forced him to miss the rest of the regular season and his team's run to the National Lacrosse League finals.

"The injury first occurred in February in Georgia," the third-year pro said. "I was going one way, and got picked. I tweaked my knee a little bit. I didn't think anything about it, and I went on to play several more games.

"Then on April 9 against Rochester, I went out to pick up the ball carrier. He passed the ball so I stopped, and my knee gave out. I saw the doctor right away, and there was nothing broken. I finished the game, but two days later I had an MRI that revealed that I had a partial ACL tear."

Doctors told Bennett that the ligament was about 20 percent torn. A 50 percent tear is required before surgery is necessary, so he dodged that bullet. But he still needed to rest until it healed.

"This was my worst injury to date," Bennett said. "I broke my jaw in Junior A, but other than that I've been good."

The tough part was sitting on the sidelines as the Bandits finished up their excellent regular season. Bennett then had to watch the team reach the championship round of the playoffs. He had some hopes of getting back in the lineup, but those were dashed.

"I had an MRI prior to the championship game," he said. "The doctor said the tear was healing, but it wasn't ready. If I went out and played, I could hurt it more. If I tore it completely, I'd have to get surgery and miss all of the next season. So I had to sit out and get ready for next year. Still, it's always in the back of my head that I could have played in the finals. I would have liked to have been there."

Assistant coach Rich Kilgour added, "As a player it's terrible to sit there to watch. It just rattles in your head, because you never know if you could have helped."

Bennett didn't rush back to action even after the Bandits' season ended. He continued his rehab and eventually got back into the lineup for Brampton in Ontario's summer league.

"I only played four games, all late in the season," Bennett said. "My team wasn't going to make the playoffs. I didn't push it. I was glad I got to play a little, because otherwise I wouldn't have played in a game from April until December. It's good to get in a couple of games and convince yourself that, yeah, you still have it."

Bennett has moved back into regular duty this season, bringing a good sense of when to jump into the play as a transition player.

"That's tough to come back from an injury like that, but he's playing well," Kilgour said.

The Bandits, however, have not yet bounced back from last year's disappointing finish to the season, a loss in the finals to Saskatchewan. The team takes a 1-3 record into Friday's contest. Buffalo is tied for New England in last place in the division.

"We have the team, a good team," Bennett said. "I told the guys at practice that we are good, but we have to believe that we are good. The first four games, we haven't played our game once. There are no positives in 1-3, but we haven't played our game yet. It's not like we're playing well and losing."

Buffalo will need to study some video of the Rock, because Friday's opponent has had quite a turnover in personnel in the past year. Toronto is still fast and athletic, and likes to move the ball up the field quickly. In that sense, the Rock play like the Bandits.

Buffalo should be helped by the expected return of Alex Kedoh Hill, who missed last week's game in New England but was a full participant in Tuesday's practice. Dhane Smith worked out without pads on Tuesday, which is a sign of progress. Smith is still questionable for Friday night's game.

The Bandits also should get a boost from playing in Toronto. Most of the roster has ties to Southern Ontario, so games in Toronto are something special.

"When we play in Toronto, it seems everybody has 10 family members come to the game," Bennett said. "All of the guys get excited. The first time I played a game in the Air Canada Center, it was a surreal experience. I have some friends and family that come to Buffalo, but Toronto is a little more special."

email: bbailey@buffnews.com

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