Stand next to Ryan Benesch for a moment, and you might not believe that he’s one of the top offensive stars in his professional sport. After all, he checks in at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds.
But by any standard, the Buffalo Bandits’ forward measures up as one of the top performers in the National Lacrosse League. He enters tonight’s home game at the First Niagara Center with the Minnesota Swarm (7:30 p.m., nll.com, Radio 1520 AM) as Buffalo’s leading scorer with 40 points in five games.
That’s in spite of the fact that Benesch gives up a lot of body mass to defenders who seem to get bigger by the year.
“You definitely have to keep your head up,” he said. “In practice, you definitely get tested. Some of those guys are monsters. Also with fewer roster spots in the league, you have to concentrate on your job more. You have to get to the gym. You have to make sure you are in shape, and stay off injured reserve.”
Benesch’s lacrosse story begins in the Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., area – only a couple of hours away from Buffalo. He doesn’t remember the first time he picked up a lacrosse stick.
“I think it was one of those things where my dad was trying to keep us all occupied during the summer, and lacrosse was the sport to play,” Benesch remembered. “I tried baseball, and I played soccer, and I didn’t like them. I played hockey growing up, so it was an easy transition to lacrosse.
“The stickwork was easy with playing hockey; it was almost the same. The hands were there. We had great coaches growing up in Kitchener. I have to thank those guys along the way.”
Benesch was a standout in junior lacrosse in his home area, to the point where San Jose made him the first overall draft pick in 2006. But, he never played a game there.
“Getting drafted by San Jose was great,” the forward said. “They traded me to Toronto right away, which was a little bit of a shock. They got a great player in Colin Doyle, so I think the deal worked out pretty well for both sides.”
Benesch played well in his two years in Toronto, and then in 2009 he and future Bandits teammate Derek Suddons were dealt to Edmonton for draft choices. After a season there, it was on to Minnesota.
“I’ve been around, that’s for sure,” Benesch said. “Even in the summer, I played in Kitchener, and I played in British Columbia. I’ve been at both ends.”
His best years were with the Swarm, peaking with 46 goals and 95 points in 2011. When Benesch looked around the Minnesota roster last year, he suddenly realized he was an elder statesman of a youth-laden squad, and one that appeared to be going places.
But Benesch was traded to the Bandits last offseason. Now in the Buffalo locker room, he realizes he’s not even close to being one of the most experienced players on the roster.
“It’s definitely the opposite end of the stick, that’s for sure,” the 29-year-old Benesch said.
Veterans John Tavares and Shawn Williams “have a higher lacrosse IQ than everyone else in the league combined.
“It’s a great experience for me. It’s something I’ve looked forward to since I found out I was coming to Buffalo. I play with the greatest player of all time, John Tavares, and one of the greatest players of all time in Shawn Williams. I’m soaking everything in that I can, and learning everything I can for the years to come when we start drafting younger and younger players.”
While Benesch is looking up a little at the team’s veteran stars, Bandit rookies like Mitch Wilde are looking up to Benesch.
“He’s a superstar out there – shooting, passing. He does everything out there very well,” he said.
Benesch knew that the Bandits were coming off a non-playoff season in 2013, and that he was part of a roster shuffle. The veteran is happy about the team’s 6-2 start.
“Our team has really come together, and come together quickly,” he said. “Everyone gets along in the locker room. We’re just one happy family, and that’s the key. We’re all brothers, and we all have each other’s back. We’re all there for each other.”
Benesch’s old team comes to town with a dreary 2-7 record. It’s not just another divisional game for the team scoring leader. It’s a reunion.
“It’s something I’ve looked forward to since I got traded,” he said. “I checked the schedule to see when we were going to play. It’s something that I will have to get ready for. Maybe I’ll up my game a bit if it will help us get the win. It’s obviously one I want to win.”