Thunder nears playoffs with reshuffled lineup; Shearer, Sanderson seek redemption after benching


Will the Thunder continue its lineup shuffle or do a playoff jig?

If its last game is any indication, the National Lacrosse League-leading Thunder (6-1), which is one victory shy of clinching a playoff spot, might do a little of both.

Case in point: Refusing to let the club coast with five regular-season games remaining, Thunder coach John Tucker shook up his offense and defense in an 18-15 win over New York on Feb. 12.

After seeing Matt Shearer's play decline over recent weeks, he scratched the Thunder's third-leading scorer from the lineup.

And when Tucker felt Chris Sanderson was off his game in the first quarter, he benched his starting goalkeeper.

Sanderson was set down for the fourth straight week, but it marked the first time it occurred within the first 15 minutes.

It's obvious that these decisions have had an effect, and both players will start tonight.

Against New York, Sanderson was re-inserted back early in the third quarter, stopping three breakaways in 10 minutes and holding the Saints to just three goals in the final 23 1/2 minutes.

"I thought they were quick to take me out, but that's their decision," Sanderson said immediately after the game. "I knew I had a good game in me and I redeemed myself."

"With all due respect to Chris, we make that determination," Tucker said. "It's really just a feeling I had more than anything. I do what is best for the team and whatever warrants it."

Before pulling Sanderson, Tucker made his most shocking lineup change of the season earlier that week in practice, when he removed Shearer from the active list for the New York game.

While Shearer might have been struggling, he still had 20 goals and nine assists in six games -- the fourth-best total in the league.

"At that time, Matt had some games where he didn't particularly shoot very well," Tucker said. "So we gave him a week off. Matt's a great player, but we have 23 other great players, too."

Shearer didn't seem too fazed. Last week at the NLL All-Star game, he had three goals and four assists for the Canadian team.

"I was definitely disappointed," said Shearer when recalling the moment Tucker read off the lineup that didn't include his name. "But it's in the coaches' hands, and you have to roll with whatever happens.

"Now you just have to look to the future, and we'll see what happens."

Thunder tonight

Opponent: Buffalo Bandits

Site: Baltimore Arena

Time: 7: 35

Radio: WCBM (680 AM)

Outlook: The Thunder (6-1), which has a two-game lead in the National Lacrosse League, can clinch a playoff spot with a victory at the Baltimore Arena, where it has won nine of its past 10 games. The Bandits (3-3) lost to the Thunder, 22-15, on Jan. 16 in Buffalo for their third straight defeat in the series. The Thunder's Gary Gait, who is slowly recovering from a pelvic injury, had seven points in his last outing against Buffalo. Thunder attackman Paul Cantabene has already matched his single-season high for goals (12) in just seven games while collecting a league-best 75 loose balls. Pub Date: 2/27/99

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