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NLL title would complete Smith’s rise to stardom

Dhane Smith said it’s good to know that Buffalo sports fans are talking about the Bandits, an actual playoff team. It’s not all about the Bills for once. So when did Smith get the most animated Saturday? Talking about football, of course.

“I played football in high school,” Smith said after practice at the downtown arena. “I played quarterback, actually. I was supposed to go to this summer camp where state schools would look at me. But I broke my ankle and didn’t go. That ended my career.”

What sort of quarterback?

“Rollout,” Smith said with a knowing smile. “Yeah, typical rollout. I played slot receiver for a bit.”

Of course. With his kind of blazing speed, what else would you expect? The Kitchener, Ont. native – who was also a good hockey player – is one very fast young man, as anyone who has watched him dominate the National Lacrosse League this season would attest.

Smith’s rise has been seemingly swift. At 23, the same age John Tavares was when he played his first season in Buffalo, Smith blossomed into an indoor lacrosse superstar, breaking the NLL records for goals (72) and points (137) in a season and leading the Bandits to the East Division title.

“You know, it is a little weird when you look at it like that,” Smith said. “I am pretty young, but I’ve been in the league for four years. I’ve been under so many great players – Shawn Williams, John Tavares, Mark Steenhuis and others – who have taught me so much.”

Granted, it’s hard to make comparisons. Despite its avid following here, lacrosse is a minor sport. Smith makes $25,000 a year. The NFL minimum is nearly 20 times that. But you could make the argument that Smith is the best pro athlete in Buffalo.

That’s what the arena’s major tenant, the Sabres, hope to get very soon with their young star, Jack Eichel – a player who evolves into a superstar in his early prime and lifts his team from an average one to a champioship contender.

But while Smith reached the top of his sport at a young age, it was an uncertain climb. When he came out of juniors, he was seen as an enigma, a gifted but inconsistent player.

In his first two seasons in Buffalo, he served multiple roles, mainly as a transition player. He was a selfless team guy who did whatever was asked of him.

It wasn’t until a year ago that Smith became a full-time forward. It was a natural move for coach Troy Cordingley to make, born of necessity and common sense. Cordingley said at the time that he believed Smith could be the best player in the NLL in two years. It happened even sooner.

Who could have imagined that Tavares, the greatest player in NLL history and the league’s career scoring leader, would retire and Smith, a man not half his age, would emerge as a superstar the very next year?

“Am I surprised he did what he did? No,” said Tavares, now a Bandits assistant coach. “Not really. Every game, he was so consistent and he’s one of the few guys that can create his own shot. If you can create your own shot and be effective from the outside and the inside, and beat a good player and pass the ball, you’re going to get a lot of points.”

Smith should win the Bandits’ first league MVP since Steve Dietrich (now the general manager) became the first goalie to win it in 2006. Tavares won it three times. Those two have something Smith wants even more – a championship.

“Oh, winning is definitely more important than those records,” Smith said. “Obviously, those records are pretty cool to break, but at the same time, it’s a new season.”

When the Bandits play the first game of the East finals Monday at New England, the slate will be wiped clean. Smith will have the same offensive numbers as the last guy on the bench: No goals, no assists, no assumptions.

Numbers and awards are fine, but this is when players in any sport make their reputations. When the stage gets bigger and the lights brighter, greatness is judged by an ability to express that talent under pressure and find ways to raise the level of your teammates.

“That’s great that he did so well as an individual, but that’s over now,” Tavares said. “Now it’s time to do whatever it takes to win. We expect the defense to pay him a lot of attention. He has a very good supporting cast with Tony Malcom and Mark Steenhuis; I don’t think they get enough credit.”

New England will surely focus on the league’s most prolific scorer, just as the Bandits will key on the Wolves’ Shawn Evans, who set the league scoring record that Smith broke one year later.

Smith’s challenge will be to lead the offense and produce offensively, while not trying to do too much to justify himself as a playoff performer.

“Everybody’s going to look to me,” Smith said. “But at the same time, I’m trying to get my teammates open. We’re looking for one shot. It doesn’t matter who takes it. It’s exciting if I get those shots, but we’re trying to get the best shot available and put the ball in the net.”

The Bandits haven’t won the Champion’s Cup since 2008, when they won it in Buffalo. They haven’t reached the final since that season. Winning it all would be a storybook conclusion to the franchise’s silver anniversary season – and the year of Dhane Smith’s lacrosse life.

Smith said he wants to win it for the older guys on the team, the ones who showed him the way. He acknowledges the pressure, but feels he’s ready.

“Last summer, I played for Team Canada and we won the Worlds,” he said. “That was the biggest stage and the biggest thing I ever won. I’m looking forward to winning a championship here. So hopefully, this is the year.”