Of the 306 goals that Robert Church has scored over his nine seasons with the Saskatchewan/Edmonton Rush organization, plenty have arrived on his stick from a Mark Matthews pass.
This upcoming National Lacrosse League season will be different, however, as the Rush sniper is without his premier setup man for the first time in his career.
“It’s just life and we’re going to move on,” said Church. “We got some new guys and we’re excited to have them and get playing. Let’s just see how things go because we got to have an improvement from last season and I think we got the guys who can do it.”
Church is now one of just three remaining members from Saskatchewan’s NLL championship-winning team in 2018, alongside Mike Messenger and Ryan Keenan.
Following a second-straight season outside of the playoff picture, Rush general manager Derek Keenan completed a blockbuster trade with the Toronto Rock in the off-season to send franchise icon Matthews east in exchange for a 2023 first round pick, forward Zach Manns and defender Adam Jay.
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With the Rush’s all-time leading scorer out of the picture, Church will be tasked with leading a Saskatchewan offence in 2023-24 surrounded by mostly new faces.
“I definitely had a lot of chemistry with Mark,” said Church. “He’s one of those guys where I’ve never played an NLL game without him. Mark is an incredible player but Ryan (Keenan) is awesome, Zach Manns has stepped in and he’s awesome, Clark Walter is going to have a big role this year. So just building chemistry with them.”
Along with Church, Keenan, Manns and Walter up front, the Rush will be leaning on 2022 NLL Rookie of the Year nominee Patrick Dodds as well as Mike Triolo, Cameron Wengreniuk and Nathaniel Kozevnikov in depth roles.
Even with all of the moving pieces up front, Rush head coach Jimmy Quinlan doesn’t believe his star forward will have any issues generating chemistry.
“He’s earned everything he’s had in this league,” said Quinlan. “You watch (Church), it doesn’t matter who he’s playing with. He has success because he’s such a student of the game.”
Despite a disappointing season on the floor for the Rush, Church is coming off one of the most productive seasons of his career.
Church reached a new career-high with 51 goals, the third-most in the NLL last season, while he surpassed the century-mark in points for the second time since being drafted by the Rush with 104 points in 18 games.
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However, the Rush aren’t planning on being a one-trick pony with their most veteran player.
“He doesn’t need to score all of the goals,” said Quinlan. “He doesn’t want to score all of the goals, in fact he comes a lot of nights saying he doesn’t want the ball on his stick. He likes to do the dirty work, he likes to get himself into areas without the ball so that when he catches the ball he’s a threat.”
That’s just fine for Church, alright with taking a step back as the face of the offensive unit as long as it results in wins and greater success than what’s been seen in the last few seasons in Saskatoon.
“To be honest, I could care less about the individual stuff,” said Church. “If I score half as many goals and half as many points but we win 12 or 13 games, I’m more than happy. If it means me playing off-ball a little bit more and getting guys open, I’m all for it.”
The Rush will head to the east coast for their first game of the 2023-24 NLL season on Friday night, battling the Halifax Thunderbirds at 5:30 pm before returning to SaskTel Centre on December 9 to face the Rochester Knighthawks in their home opener.
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