Jr. lacrosse preview: New boss, new confidence for PoCo Saints

In their 25th anniversary season, a lot is new for the Port Coquitlam Saints.

The biggest change for the BC Junior A Lacrosse League team is at the top. Josh Wahl is the Saints’ new president and general manager, taking the reigns from Reg Thompson, who headed the franchise since it was founded in 1994 until he retired last October.

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While Wahl may be new in the role, he’s no stranger to Port Coquitlam’s lacrosse scene. A former coach of the Saints’ Intermediate and Junior B teams, he’s also been the president of the city’s minor system for the past five years.

That makes Wahl uniquely qualified to strengthen the Saints from the bottom up, reinforcing the bond between the pinnacle of lacrosse in Port Coquitlam and the kids of all ages playing the sport.

“It’s really important,” said Wahl of the ties between the junior team and the minor system that hasn’t always been the most secure, especially in recent seasons when Thompson tried moving the Saints to Maple Ridge, where he lives. “The kids want to be a Saint. They aspire to be a Junior Saint.”

Stoking that dream is Wahl’s top priority, he said, as BCJALL rules dictate most of a team’s players must come from its immediate territory.

To achieve that, the Saints have to be competitive, a goal that hasn’t always been easy.

They haven’t won a playoff game since 2016 and their last series’ victory was in 2006 when they defeated the Delta Islanders and New Westminster Salmonbellies to advance to the league final, only to be swept in three straight games by the Burnaby Lakers

Still, the Saints haven’t been completely bereft of talent. Keegan Bell, Ryland Rees and Dylan Foulds all ran the floor at the PoCo Rec Centre, and, of course, Curtis Dickson was an all-star two of the three seasons he wore the team’s black and gold colours.

Wahl said he plans to create an alumni club to highlight the top players who’ve developed through the Saints’ system.

“We need to educate the current minor players,” he said.

Current Saints will also be charged to coach minor players and help out with clinics, to be role models for kids still learning the game. Already through the off-season, several players have visited every elementary school in Port Coquitlam to talk about lacrosse and the team’s history in the community.

“We’re doing everything we can to get out there,” Wahl said.

Still, challenges remain.

On the eve of last season’s playoffs, the Saints fired head coach Kelly Scott, who’d guided the team to a third-place finish, and replaced him with Canadian Lacrosse Hall of Famer Dan Stroup. The team quickly bowed out of the first round, but Wahl said Stroup’s reputation and recent experience as an assistant coach with the Colorado Mammoth of the National Lacrosse League will help attract top young players.

“We’re more interested in players who want to play here,” Wahl said. “It’s not just taking whoever comes along.”

Another hurdle will be the myriad construction barriers in and around the Saints’ home, as work progresses to complete Port Coquitlam’s new $132 million recreation complex that is being built in several phases around the old twin-pad rink. That means one more season in the venerable green rink, then another season or two in the new centre’s leisure rink with limited seating capacity before the team hopes to be able to move into its new home in the project’s second phase that is scheduled to be completed in the summer of 2021.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Wahl said, adding fans will again be able to park in the West Coast Express lot just across the street.

But the Coquitlam Adanacs had to endure a similar disruption when their home arena was renovated and expanded into the Poirier Sports and Leisure Complex, and that team hasn’t missed qualifying for the Minto Cup national junior lacrosse championship since.

Not a bad precedent to emulate.

“They’ve had a lot of success,” Wahl said of the Saints’ rivals up the hill. “But now it’s someone else’s turn to take a run.”

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