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Craig England turns into pleasant surprise for Bandits

At this point in the Buffalo Bandits' season, with the team sitting at a disappointing 1-4, fans could use a little good news.

Here's some: Craig England's offensive production in 2017 has caught just about everyone by surprise.

He has scored five goals in three games. That's five more goals than he had scored since entering the league in 2014, admittedly in mostly brief auditions. Only four players on the Bandits' roster have scored more goals this season.

"It's a little bit of a shock," England said. "I didn't think I'd have that many goals at this point. When you play with some of the righties on this team, it's pretty easy to get those opportunities."

The Bandits wouldn't mind seeing the forward keep it up this weekend. They have a home-and-home series with New England, starting Friday night in the KeyBank Center (7:30 p.m., Radio 1520 AM).

England's journey to the Bandits'  has been a winding one. The native of Fergus, Ont., (due west of Toronto, north of Guelph), started playing lacrosse at the age of 4 or 5. His father played junior lacrosse, and handed young Craig a stick as soon as possible.

"I always enjoyed it," Craig said. "Growing up, it was hockey in the winter and lacrosse in the summer, all the way through school. Then hockey ran out, so I stuck to lacrosse."

England played some lacrosse in nearby Orangeville, one of Ontario's hotbeds for the game. He took part in the field game at Brock University. In 2011, at the age of 21, England was picked in the fourth round of the NLL draft by Colorado - but didn't make the team. That made him a free agent, and he was on the Bandits' practice squad in 2013.

"After that, I went and signed with Toronto," England said. "I played a few games there" in 2014, "and then they traded me to New England. That was a little different. They called me, and said, 'You've been traded.' It was time to move along."

The Black Wolves gave England a chance to play regularly in 2015. He played in 13 games, grabbing 34 loose balls and showing an edge with 43 penalty minutes. England did not have a goal or an assist is his role as more of a defensive player.

He was cut in training camp in mid-December 2015 by the Black Wolves, and was signed by the Bandits for their practice squad the next day.

"It's the best place to play lacrosse," England said about Buffalo. "With the fans, the organization, the tradition, there's not another team like it.

"The only thing better would have been to play in Fergus."

England played one game last season and had two assists. He was invited back to camp for this season and, at 26, tried to improve his odds.

"I think the biggest thing is that I got in pretty good shape," he said. "I moved to Buffalo, and worked out with a group. When I was working out in Fergus, I was on my own. I made more of a commitment to take advantage of an opportunity."

"That's what we preach as coaches," Bandits assistant coach Rich Kilgour said. "He's a great teammate. He showed up at camp in great shape, and he got an opportunity to play."

England will never be the first option of the offense, but he can help out the team's big threats such as Dhane Smith and Ryan Benesch in other ways.

"He's willing to go to the dirty areas, and that needs to be done," Kilgour said. "He sets picks. That leads to more bruises than goals for a player, but a bruise can lead to a goal for someone else."

England's contributions has been buried by the team's poor start. The offense has slipped a bit, as goals per game have gone from 13.9 in 2016 to 13. On the other side, goals allowed per game have gone from 11.9 to 15.2.

"I can't put a finger on what's wrong," England said. "We're taking a lot of penalties, and we have to be ready at the start of the game. I think we've been pressing a bit."

The Bandits this week shook up the roster by releasing veteran Daryl Veltman and activating rookie Bryce Brochu. The games with New England on Friday and Sunday are a chance to get back in the playoff picture ... or dig a much deeper hole.

"Since we had the bye week, having two games in one weekend could benefit us," England said. "If we win both, we're right back in the playoff race."

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