Junior Leagues Lacrosse

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Winning Canadian Jr. B lacrosse title ‘pure exuberance’ for Nepean Knights

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic

By Martin Cleary

Matt Firth has been immersed in box lacrosse for 20 years, embracing a variety of key roles – player, head coach, team co-owner, president, general manager and proud father of two elite-level players.

During that span, he has been involved with hundreds of games, practices and tournaments and travelled tens of thousands of kilometres.

But never in his two decades of being connected to Canada’s national summer sport has he ever experienced such an improbable and memorable year as 2022.

After coaching the Nepean Knights junior B lacrosse team to Ontario and Canadian championships for the first time in the club’s history with his oldest son Sam on his bench staff, he played the role of nervous parent watching his youngest son Willem win multiple, regular-season awards and chase the national junior A championship.

All of that happened in August, which was two months after Sam recorded his first goal and first assist as a professional player in the decisive third game of the best-of-three National Lacrosse League final, which helped the Colorado Mammoth win the championship over Buffalo Bandits.

It definitely has been a whirlwind lacrosse season for the Firth family and there are still moving pieces. Sam is playing for the Snake Island Muskies at this week’s Presidents Cup Canadian senior B championship in Edmonton, while Matt continues to explore the possibility of moving the Nepean Knights junior B team into the Ontario Junior Lacrosse League’s junior A circuit.

The timing for a junior A expansion franchise would be perfect for the Knights, after Nepean had what could be called a perfect season by accomplishing the unthinkable in an unimaginable manner.

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The Knights stormed through their Ontario Junior B Lacrosse League’s Far East division with a first-place 18-2 record. Entering the playoffs, the Knights wouldn’t lose a single game for the rest of their season. The Knights had nail-biting, single- and double-period overtime games, but they went 12-0 in the provincial playoffs (sweeping four best-of-five series) and finished 6-0 at the Founders Cup to win their first Canadian junior B championship.

(From left) Willem Firth, Matt Firth & Sam Firth with the Ontario Jr. ‘B’ Lacrosse League championship trophy. Photo provided

When Sam started his junior B career with the Knights in 2016, his father Matt cashed in his many years of coaching in the Nepean Knights Minor Lacrosse Association to step up and coach the 17- to 21-year-old players. Matt eventually became co-owner and general manager of the Knights’ junior B team.

That was the start of a seven-year run which would take the Knights to two unforeseen major championships.

After posting records of 3-17 and 5-15 in 2016 and 2017 respectively, the Knights qualified for the playoffs at 12-8 in 2018 and made the Eastern Conference final in 2019, after going 13-7.

But the Knights’ momentum was put on hold in 2020 and 2021 as the COVID-19 pandemic rolled into town and cancelled two seasons. Despite lockdowns and arena closures, Matt Firth found ways for his dedicated players to train at outdoor box lacrosse venues and eventually indoors, but without contact.

“I could see a wave building in terms of talent and when COVID hit, it was a huge disruption,” Firth said in a phone interview Thursday. “But I credit the players for the work they did in COVID. They weathered the storm. It was a testament to their resilience and athleticism.

“We had a wave of talent. There was a general improvement in the program. And there was a readiness to jump back in and be ready to go.”

The Knights blasted from the starting blocks when the Ontario junior B circuit started this spring and never let up under an interesting mix behind the bench – senior coaches Matt Firth and Jason Tasse and recent Knights grads Riley Ash, Harrison Jones and Sam Firth.

“They (Ash, Jones and Sam Firth) played for Nepean, aged-out and circled back to coach,” Firth continued. “I find this blend of experienced and young coaches was another reason for our success.”

At 18, Thomas Kiazyk was unflappable as the team’s main goalkeeper, posting a 14-0 Far East record in the regular season and 9-0 in the Ontario playoffs. He improved his goals-against average in the playoffs to 4.64 from 4.69, and save percentage to .887 from .871.

“In front of Thomas, we had a strong, aggressive and athletic defence. We had a capable offence. We had no weaknesses. It was a good, grounded team,” explained Firth, who helped the Capital Region Axemen to a nationals appearance in their debut 2013 season once upon a time at the end of his playing career.

Offensively, the Knights were led by Jared Downey with 96 points, who placed fourth on the league’s scoring table based on 26 goals and 70 assists and Sam Parent with 28 goals and 36 assists for 64 points. James Donnelly had a team-high 29 goals.

In the provincial playoffs, Nick Pelletier stepped up with 45 points in 12 games on 19 goals and 26 assists, while Downey contributed 27 assists and Parent had 20 goals.

Winning tight games and being able to figure out their opposition quickly in the Ontario playoffs allowed the Knights to dominate the post-season.

The third and deciding game of the Ontario championship series against Windsor Clippers was played in front of a capacity crowd of 600 fans at Howard Darwin Centennial Arena on Merivale Road.

Read More: Nepean Jr. B Knights sweep their way to Ontario title, set sights on national championship

The crowd support and energy grew throughout the game as Downey, Donnelly, Parent and Cameron York scored two goals each in the 8-1 victory as the Knights scored their first provincial title.

“There were 600 jammed in the arena. It was maximum capacity to watch us play. That super charged the team with that community support,” an excited Firth said, reliving that uplifting feeling. “It helped propel us.

“I was elated and happy for the players. The message we put through to the players was we’re building to nationals. But winning the Ontarios was extremely special.

“We had never beaten Akwesasne in the playoffs. We beat Windsor and it was tight (first two games in Windsor). We won the league and there was a celebration. There were 600 in the arena, alumni came on the floor to celebrate and the commissioner handed out the trophy. There was a sense of relief. Did we do this? Yes!”

The Nepean Knights celebrated the region’s first-ever Ontario junior lacrosse championship on Aug. 11 at Howard Darwin Memorial Arena. The 1976 runner-up Nepean Timbermen were the only Ottawa team to have ever previously reached the league championship final. Photo provided

Four days later, the Knights were in Brampton, ON., for the Founders Cup Canadian junior B lacrosse championship. The Knights were unmatched in round-robin pool play, defeating Coquitlam, B.C., 8-3, Edmonton 9-6, SWAT of Saskatchewan 14-3, Onondaga 17-5 and host Brampton 12-7.

The gold-medal final saw the Knights score two late goals and play the final 2½ minutes short-handed to squeeze past Coquitlam 7-6 for their first-ever national lacrosse championship. With the message from the coaches to get shots on the net, Donnelly tied the game at 6-6 and Pelletier counted the eventual game-winner.

“At that point, it felt great, but we knew there was time on the clock,” said Firth, who was worried and starting to doubt. “One-goal leads are hard to defend. We got into penalty trouble and were short-handed for 2½ minutes and in lacrosse there’s a high power-play success rate of 30 to 35 per cent.

“Can we kill the penalty and win? Coquitlam was feeling the stress to score, but our penalty kill was outstanding. We blocked a shot, threw the ball down the floor and time expired. For five to 10 seconds, I blacked out and our kids celebrated. You’ve done it. We’ve won our biggest trophy ever.

“It was pure exuberance. Nepean has never done this before, never even come close.”

While the players scored the goals and the coaches provided the proper direction, the Knights also were fueled by the home cooking of Lisa and Trevor Woods, who brought their portable gas grill to nationals and provided 450 nutritious meals for the players and staff during the week. Their son Nate was a member of the Knights’ team.

Sam Firth initiated a meal sponsorship program and different team sponsors and supporters provided money so the team could have three healthy meals a day.

After the on-floor national championship celebration, which included Pelletier being named MVP and Kiazyk as the top goaltender, Matt Firth returned to Ottawa with the players on the bus. Arriving at the Nepean Sportsplex at 3 a.m., it was the last time the team would be together, until maybe the Christmas break. He didn’t want to miss the trip home.

“There was a sense of relief because of what we accomplished,” Firth added. “It was a great feeling to be with the team. Those who could were drinking beer and there was singing. The coaches were at the front of the bus exhausted. But it was a great feeling.”

The next morning Firth was on a train heading to Toronto to watch son Willem play for the Toronto Beaches in the Minto Cup Canadian junior A lacrosse championship.

“It (turn-around trip) was exhausting, but I was riding a high of just winning a national championship,” Firth said. “I was eager to go and support Willem. I hadn’t seen him play much. I was tired … but I was looking forward to being a lacrosse dad.”

Willem, who was named the MVP and top rookie in the Ontario junior A league this year, will return to Hill Academy this academic year before attending Cornell University in 2023-24. He was the top scorer for Beaches, 2-2, at nationals with eight goals and 12 assists.

“It was nice to walk in as a fan to watch. It was nice to be there and support him and not coach. I never get tired of it.”

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 49 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.

Martin can be reached by e-mail at martincleary51@gmail.com and on Twitter @martincleary.

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