The Buffalo Bandits opened this season with two former National Lacrosse League MVPs still learning to play together, two new co-head coaches and one secret weapon.
“I think the guys just see me as an added edge over their competition,” Christopher Siuta said this week. “I think the Bandits are the only team in the NLL that has somebody like me on staff.”
Siuta, who has a doctorate in psychology, is an associate professor and the director of counseling programs at St. Bonaventure University. He is in his fifth season as the Bandits’ mental performance coach and team counselor, a holdover from the previous regime, tasked with helping to massage the new pieces into place.
And going by the team’s results, he’s done a heck of a job.
The Bandits finished the regular season with the best record in the league (14-4), own home-floor advantage throughout the playoffs and are one victory from playing for a championship after defeating the New England Black Wolves, 13-6, in the division semifinals.
Top-seeded Buffalo hosts the No. 3-seeded Toronto Rock in the East Division Final at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in KeyBank Center. The East and West Division winners will play a best-of-three series in the NLL Finals beginning May 17.
The Bandits are looking for their fifth league championship and first in 11 years.
“Our team takes care of us in every aspect of the game,” forward Shawn Evans said, “from getting treatment and worked on so we’re healthy and we’re ready to go in the game, and Siuta does the other angle. He does the mental game. He gets us prepared in a nice, quiet environment before every game, to get our mind focused and mentally stable, to get us ready for the next game and the next situation that we’re going to encounter.
“Some people do use him and listen to what he has to say, and some people don’t. But a lot of people that do use him, I think they find a benefit in it.”
Evans is a two-time NLL MVP, winning the honor with the Calgary Roughnecks in 2013 and ’15 after leading the league in scoring each of those seasons. Evans was traded to Buffalo midway through last season, a move that paired the forward with Dhane Smith.
Smith was named NLL MVP in 2016, after setting league records with 72 goals and 137 total points in 18 games. He led the team in scoring in 2017, as well, finishing with 30 goals and 81 points in 14 games.
Last season was an adjustment for both players, alpha dogs who needed to learn how to play alongside one another and reach their potential.
This season, their scoring is way down. Smith finished 17th in the NLL with 32 goals. Evans was 28th with 28.
But they were first and third in assists, Smith with a career-high 70 and Evans with 66.
Five Bandits, meanwhile, scored at least 28 goals. And the team’s results speak for themselves.
“There was definitely a feeling-out process because they’re both guys who kind of want the ball in their stick,” Bandits co-head coach Rich Kilgour said. “They’re both really good one-on-one and they’re both really good passers. It was almost like they had to check a little bit of their game for the betterment of the team. And they both did that.”
Evans and Smith agreed Siuta’s counseling helped them mesh.
“When Shawn came in, it was kind of different for both of us,” Smith said. “We never really had guys in those situations. Usually, in the past, we each had the ball more times than not, and we had to kind of figure it out that we were better off together, that we needed to work together. And all those exercises and all those things (Siuta) told us about working together, it’s definitely better than working by yourself.
“You see all the great teams, they’re made up of great players figuring out what their role is. And I feel like he’s done a great job of letting us know what we’re all great at, and that we’re better all together. That’s the main message.”
Siuta, who has worked individually with players from virtually every pro and Division I college team in Western New York, including the Bills and Sabres, started delivering that message before the start of the Bandits' season.
At the time, offseason upheaval wasn't limited to the roster. Former Bandits players and assistant coaches John Tavares and Kilgour were named co-head coaches in September, replacing Troy Cordingley, who was named assistant general manager and director of scouting.
“You had to get through the changes quickly with the coaching staff, and I’ve got to tell you, this team did,” Siuta said. “During training camp, it was very quick. And I think it’s all the different supports coming together, whether it’s medical, training, sports psychology, coming together to help these guys adjust and move on with the new regime.”
Siuta began to work on his part of the equation by splitting the players into three groups and locking them in separate rooms at Queen City Escape Room. They were forced to work together, relying on communication, observation and critical thinking skills to decipher clues to open the door.
Of course, there was competition to see which group was first to escape.
Other group bonding activities initiated by Siuta have included shooting Airsoft guns at Buffalo Battleground and, in past seasons, blindfolded dodgeball.
“Those are big team bonding things,” Evans said. “It’s getting guys working together. And when you’re working together outside of lacrosse, it becomes a lot easier when you’re playing to work together on the floor.”
Siuta had last put the Bandits in escape rooms in 2016. The team advanced to the league championship series but lost to the Saskatchewan Rush.
“The great thing about the escape room,” Siuta said, “is that you can actually witness the groups working together to solve problems with clues on a monitor in the back room. And you’re able to see who kind of comes to the front as far as leadership, who needs to be led a little bit more, and more than anything, the team players, the ones that are there to work hard to solve what needs to be done.”
Siuta works with individual players during the season, delivering tailored 12- to 15-minute recordings geared toward relaxation and visualizing what they’ll need to do on game days. Siuta also records a clip for the entire team.
“Every game, and this is home or away, I put together an imagery/meditation clip that focuses on two things,” Siuta said. “One is relaxation and then the second is lacrosse-specific imagery, where I’m helping them basically gain some mental reps prior to them being out there on the floor in competition, just narrowing that focus for what’s lying ahead.”
Siuta attends games for anyone who needs to talk and provide an added edge over the competition.
Indeed, no other team in the league lists a mental performance coach and team counselor among their coaching or medical staffs.
“It’s definitely benefited myself and the team,” Smith said. “I think a championship team needs to be the tightest group of them all, and he’s done a great job of keeping us close and doing fun activities with us and doing things I feel like other teams don’t do. He’s done a great job keeping us as tight as we’ve been throughout my years here.”