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Conditioning coach puts wind in Bandits' sails

Strength and conditioning coach Connie Mearns may not be the Buffalo Bandits' favorite person when she's whipping them into shape.

But when it's the fourth quarter and a foe is sucking air, Mearns is able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of her labors.

"It used to drive me nuts when I'd see our defensive guys start swinging their sticks wildly during the last 10 seconds of the [30-second] shot clock," said Mearns, who is the wife of Canisius College lacrosse coach and former Bandit Randy Mearns. "They were such a good defensive team but they'd start doing that because they were dead tired. I couldn't stand it."

That's no longer a problem, especially late, when most games around the National Lacrosse League are decided. The Bandits have been outpointed in the fourth quarter just four times in 11 games.

On opening night, they scored the first three goals of the fourth quarter to break away from a tie and went on to win in Toronto, 13-9. In Rochester earlier this month, the Bandits scored eight of the final 11 goals and edged the Knighthawks, 14-13, in overtime. Last Friday, they scored the final three goals in Minnesota for a 13-11 win and were fresh enough the next night to again beat Rochester at home, 18-13, despite a miserable day of travel.

"We seem to be putting it to teams in the fourth and the second quarters," Bandits captain Rich Kilgour said. "That second quarter can take a big bite out of you, too, once the adrenaline you have at the start of the game fades away. We seem to get stronger when other teams are getting weaker."

The Bandits (7-4) figure to need their sea legs this weekend when they go west to face the San Jose Stealth (5-5) at 10:30 tonight (Radio 1520) and the Arizona Sting (6-5) Saturday night. The Bandits can clinch a playoff spot by winning both.

"If you look at the fourth quarters, I think we're the stronger team," said Darris Kilgour, the Bandits' coach and general manager. "Not necessarily always the smarter team but the stronger team. I think that's a real tribute to the way Connie puts them through their paces. She is a person who is absolutely not going to let them say, 'I'm tired and I'm not going to do it.'

"She'll call you on it and tell you that you're not working hard enough and nowhere near what you could be."

Mearns began her conditioning program during training camp and works with the Bandits during each weekly practice session and before games.

When forward Jason Crosbie attended his first Bandits workout, after having been acquired in a trade from the Sting in mid-March, Crosbie "thought he was going to puke," according to Mearns.

But making the players sick to get them into better shape isn't all she does. She's also introduced a stretching program to help prevent injuries.

"At my age, these limbs need a bit more stretch and she's great with that," said Rich Kilgour, 37. "She always makes time for everyone, knows everybody's needs and works to them."

Mearns, 36, is a Long Island native who graduated from Canisius College in 1992.

She owns Fitness Plus gym on Transit Road in East Amherst. There, she works with 65 to 70 clients, ranging in age from 26 to 73.

They include people who have been stricken with multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, diabetes, hypertension and cardiac disease. "I love the variety," said Mearns, who played two years of varsity volleyball and club lacrosse at Canisius. "The pro athletes will do most anything you ask of them, especially when they realize the benefits. Having these special cases puts me in a whole different realm."

But even pro athletes occasionally come up with schemes to take shortcuts.

"In the middle of a set, J.T. [John Tavares] will start asking me inane questions like, 'how many clients do you work with?,' " Mearns said. "I answer his question but then I tell him that he still only has 90 seconds of recovery time and that's it. Then it's right back to work."

And if that doesn't do the trick, there's always:

"These guys have a woman standing there and telling them, 'You're not working hard enough,' " Darris Kilgour said. "And whether they admit it or not, they don't want to buckle in front of her."

Said Rich Kilgour: "She's not above calling out your manhood and making you dig a little bit deeper. . . . She knows what she's doing and it works. Boy, does it work!"

e-mail: tborrelli@buffnews.com1

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