The Buffalo Bandits have no desire to sit idly by as lacrosse continues its remarkable growth around Western New York.
The National Lacrosse League team is excited about having the chance to present its Summer Lacrosse Experience this July. It's just the latest outreach by the Bandits (10-4), who finish their regular season with games at 7:30 tonight at HSBC Arena and Saturday at Blue Cross Arena against the East Division-leading Rochester Knighthawks (12-2).
"This is absolutely huge. It's working with the grass roots, with your fan base," said Darris Kilgour, Bandits coach and general manager, whose team has won eight straight and can capture the No. 1 seed in the East with back-to-back victories this weekend. "The more kids that are playing means more kids are going to want to come watch and learn. You just never know when you could be working with the next John Tavares."
The Summer Lacrosse Experience -- featuring an instruction staff that includes Kilgour, Bandits players Mark Steenhuis and Delby Powless, Orchard Park High coach Gene Tundo and his son, former University of Massachusetts standout Gene Tundo Jr., and Canisius College coach Randy Mearns -- takes place in two sessions, from July 9-12 at Orchard Park High and July 16-19 at Erie Community College's North Campus.
"We want to have something not only for on-field play but to also instruct them about off-the-field things as well," said Dave Zygaj, the Bandits' director of lacrosse operations. "Things like nutrition, the importance of academics, mental fortitude. We think we have a unique blend that can be successful with youth from 6 to 18, whether they've played lacrosse in the past and want to learn the game, or whether they're looking to play in college and beyond that."
The instructions will be geared mainly toward the field game but box skills will also be taught.
"To work with kids, expose them to the game, you just have such a great time," said Mearns, who started and finished his nine-year pro indoor career as a Bandit. "These are kids who want to someday play in the NLL, the MLL [summertime Major League Lacrosse] or get a scholarship somewhere. I still relish the skill sets I learned as a tyke [8-under] player."
The Bandits, who have seen their average home attendance increase all of the past four seasons, from an all-time low of 7,002 to 14,998 this season, have been busy giving back.
"One of the best parts about being a pro lacrosse player is being able to help the kids," said Powless, who was an All-American field player at Rutgers University. "It's one of the things I absolutely love to do. The guys I used to look up to back in Six Nations gave me their old stuff, signed things for me, showed me little tips. That's something that carries on in this sport. It's like a duty that I relish."
Last month the Bandits got involved with the Western New York Lacrosse for Kids Fund's showing of the documentary film "Keeper of the Kohn" at Sweet Home High School, and a portion of the summer camp's proceeds will go to that cause.
The Bandits also provided about 2,500 tickets to more than 15 schools at a reduced cost for the March 31 home game against Chicago. Each school was then able to sell the seats at window price as a fund raiser for its lacrosse programs. The Amherst High girls lacrosse team sold the most, about 250.
Many in every home crowd wear orange wigs, a tribute to Steenhuis, who is a fan favorite. The four-time All-Star and two-time All-Star Game MVP has bushy blond hair and wears his trademark orange shoes.
"If I don't see myself in the kids, I'm sure everyone else does," said Steenhuis, who has always been one of the team's most tireless autograph providers. "I like hanging out with the kids as much as they like hanging with me. I definitely cherish those moments. Putting a smile on a kid's face is just a precious thing for me."
The cost for the Summer Experience is $235 per camper. Registration forms can be requested by writing the Bandits at HSBC Arena, One Seymour H. Knox III Plaza, Buffalo, 14203, by calling 855-4428, or by downloading from www.bandits.com/pdf/flyer_camp07.pdf.
Tavares (41 goals, 56 assists, 97 points) and Rochester's John Grant Jr. (45-52-97) enter the final weekend tied for the league scoring lead. . . . Tavares, with 590 career goals, is six behind Gary Gait's record. . . . The Knighthawks lead the all-time series, 17-11, but the Bandits have won the last five regular-season games in HSBC Arena.