Thunder making plans to rumble Long-struggling team enters '99 a favorite


Owner Dennis Townsend has vowed that the Thunder will capture the National Lacrosse League championship this season. Coach John Tucker and club superstar Gary Gait consider the Thunder one of the league's elite teams.

Yes, that's really the Thunder talking.

A team that hasn't won a league championship in over a decade. A club that has perenially been the league's doormat and a virtual long shot for a winning season.

Now, the Thunder finds itself one of the front-runners for the title as it prepares for its season-opener tomorrow.

"Everything is in place here," said Tucker, who is entering his third season as coach. "We feel like we improved a great deal. We're bigger, stronger and a better team at every position."

But don't consider this to be hollow chatter or an attempt to increase ticket sales -- or an overestimation of talent.

The Thunder backed up its claims last season, ascending from last place in 1997 to NLL runner-up. It averaged a league-high 15.3 goals per game and advanced to the championship series, where it was swept by Philadelphia.

For the first time since the late '80s, the Thunder can legitimately talk in the preseason about winning a championship.

The Thunder upgraded its goalkeeping, drafting Virginia's Chris Sanderson in the first round. It also improved its faceoff strength, as it recently acquired Rodney Tapp, who, with Paul Cantabene, will form the best combination in the NLL.

And the team retooled, becoming younger and quicker by adding David Evans and John Fay, who will fill the scoring roles of veterans Chris Panos and Bob Martino.

Not to mention, it returns a core of scorers in Matt Shearer, Tim Hormes, Rob Shek and Kip Fulks.

"Our overall team speed is exceptional, more than any team I've ever been on," said Gait, the league MVP the past four years.

"Personally, I set the goal of winning a championship on nearly every team I've been on. Usually, I've been pretty close."

Especially when you take into account that the Thunder has improved while its two primary rivals last season, Philadelphia and Rochester, have had to deal with off-season turmoil.

The Wings, last year's NLL champions, were suddenly faced with the biggest turnover in team history when five players retired.

Meanwhile, the Knighthawks still have not signed the top pick in last season's NLL draft, Casey Powell, NCAA Division I's Player of the Year the past two seasons.

"The Thunder is going to be a force to be reckoned with," Philadelphia coach Tony Resch said.

"Just start with Gary Gait and what a difference he makes and go on down. They made a great move forward last year and appear ready for that next step."

Thunder opens

Opponent: Rochester Knighthawks

Site: Baltimore Arena

When: Tomorrow, 7: 30 p.m.

Tickets: Available at the Arena box office, or call 410-481-SEAT

Pub Date: 1/01/99

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