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COWIE BACK, BUT NOT IN BANDITS' UNIFORM

It doesn't seem like that long ago to Ross Cowie.

The school teacher who wore uniform No. 1 in Buffalo Bandits orange and black had a special knack for electrifying big crowds, first at Memorial Auditorium, later at Marine Midland Arena.

Chants of "Cow-ie, Cow-ie" rang off the roof after each save the soft-spoken man inside all that bulky goaltending equipment would make. For seven years, Cowie was an integral part of the Bandits' last line of defense. They were good times, three of them championship seasons.

But the times, they are a changin'.

Cheers don't echo off the rafters anymore because nobody sits in the 300 level at the MMA on nights the Bandits play. The bottom levels easily accommodate the fans who show up these days. And Cowie now tends goal for the Syracuse Smash.

"I'd be lying if I said I didn't think about the time I spent in Buffalo quite often," said Cowie, who'll be a visitor at the MMA for the first time when the Bandits (0-1) face the Smash (0-2) tonight at 8 as the National Lacrosse League's only winless teams meet.

"I really loved every minute I spent in Buffalo and the fans always treated me great," said the 35-year-old Cowie, who teaches second- and third-graders in Peterborough, Ont. "It will be strange sitting on a different bench and playing for an opposing team. I love Buffalo but when I'm going against them, I'm out for that W."

Cowie piled up more Ws than any goaltender in Bandits history, compiling a 19-13 record in a franchise-high 46 games and 1,724 minutes. On April 10, 1993, he went the distance in a 13-12 win over the Philadelphia Wings in the Major Indoor Lacrosse League championship game before a raucous sellout crowd at the Aud. He calls that game his most memorable moment with the Bandits.

Much less memorable was the day he was released, before the start of the 1999 season. The Bandits had just drafted current starter Matt Disher and would later sign veteran Marty O'Neill.

"I saw it coming," said Cowie, who made three-hour trips to Buffalo for practices and games that often got him home in the middle of the night. "I knew my time was up there. But I always appreciated Buffalo for giving me the opportunity."

Cowie sat out last season and didn't anticipate another shot in the NLL. But Smash associate coach Mark Vitarelli, who's also from Peterborough, convinced the organization to give Cowie a shot.

Since the Smash practices on Friday nights, Cowie is able to spend much of his weekend during the season in Syracuse without it interfering with his teaching duties.

He's made the most of his opportunity. Cowie replaced Derek Collins midway through the second quarter of an opening-night loss to Rochester and went the distance in a loss at New York the next week, making 42 saves.

"Somehow he always ends up playing even when he starts out No. 2 on the depth chart," said Bandits head coach Ted Sawicki, who worked with Cowie for two seasons as a Buffalo assistant. "He's a hard-working guy and always has that positive attitude."

Seeing the original Bandit leave wasn't easy for Sawicki.

"I'm a loyalty guy myself," Sawicki said. "But Ross needed a change; Disher was on his way up. I wasn't happy to see him go because he's such a quality person."

Said Cowie: "They were good years and I have no regrets. But I'd love nothing more than to play a good game there and get a win."

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