Ryan Benesch has been in the spotlight since his professional career started one year ago. It all started on the night of last year’s Entry Draft, when he was drafted with the first overall selection, which belonged to the San Jose Stealth.
“I had never been to California before”, said Benesch, who grew up near Toronto. “It was a always just a place I had seen on TV. The 21-year old headed west in November, and began to gel with his new teammates in training camp. “It was awesome practicing and playing with guys like Jeff Zywicki and Luke Wiles in San Jose. We had a good time out there.”
Benesch noticed the difference at the professional level right away. “The biggest differences from junior lacrosse are the speed of the game and the intensity of the practices”, he said.
As Benesch prepared to make his NLL debut when San Jose opened on January 5th, a big surprise came in the form of a blockbuster trade just two weeks before the start of the season. Star forward Colin Doyle was being traded from Toronto to San Jose. The package of players heading east to Toronto included Benesch. After preparing to battle the West in San Jose, Benesch was heading home to play for a team he grew up following. But he was in the unenviable position of being looked at by fans as the player brought in to replace the beloved Doyle. A tough role to live up to, especially for a rookie.
“(Rock Director of Player Personnel) Mike Klopfer was the one who broke the news to me about the trade. When he told me I was coming to Toronto, my first thought was ‘sweet, I get to play with Colin Doyle’. Then he told that Doyle was part of the trade. I was shocked, but still excited about the opportunity to play in Toronto”, said Benesch.
Ryan explained how he dealt with the pressure and expectations that come with playing in Toronto. “The situation and the trade added a bit of pressure, but I just approach the games here like I would any other. I play the way I can play. Colin can’t be replaced by any one player.”
He also received a lot of encouragement from his new teammates. “Shooter (Josh Sanderson) told me ‘It’s your time to show everyone the trade was worth it”, said Benesch.
After a tough night in the season opener at Rochester (no goals, one assist), Benesch broke out for four goals and an assist in the home opener a week later. “That game gave me the confidence to know that I could play in this league”, he said.
That game, a 19-15 loss to Rochester, also provided his Welcome to the NLL Moment. “It was my first career NLL goal”, said Benesch. “I got a pass from Blaine Manning. As I caught the ball and fired the shot, I got absolutely creamed (by Knighthawks defenseman Dave Brown). I was on my back with my feet straight up in the air. I didn’t see the ball go in, but the fans reaction told me that I scored. I had to watch it on the jumbotron”, he said with a laugh.
The next several games were no laughing matter, however. Ryan was held to just one goal in five consecutive games.
“I felt kind of snake bitten. Bounces weren’t going my way. I thought to myself, I gotta just play through it”, he said. The message from head coach Glenn Clark was sent loud and clear when Benesch was taken out of the lineup for the March 3rd game at New York. “I was upset, but I realized I have to play well or I’m not going to play at all. That lit a fire under my ass.”
Ryan responded to the benching. In the seven games that followed, he averaged three goals per game. The forward was living up to his #1 draft pick potential. His second half of the season recovery was strong, and Benesch would go on to win the Rookie of the Year Award.
“It was an incredible honor for me, and I’m proud to join some of the great players who have previously won the award”, said Benesch. He’s already set some personal goals for next season. “I need to improve on my defensive skills, so I can be of more help to the guys if if I get caught back in the D zone. I also plan to get into better shape so I’m not gassed at the end of 3rd quarter”, said Benesch. “I also want to get my second season off to a much better start than my first.”
Known to his teammates as ‘Benny’, Benesch is now 22 years old and working as a carpenter this summer in Barrie, Ontario. “I’m sort of a jack of all trades during the day”, he said. “One day were putting siding onto a house, and then doing trim the next. My favorite part of the work are the finishing details.” He’s keeping his lacrosse skills sharp this summer by playing for Kitchener of the Ontario Lacrosse Association.
“I felt kind of snake bitten. Bounces weren’t going my way. I thought to myself, I gotta just play through it”