The Baltimore Thunder, determined to make the playoffs after a three-season absence, will open its Major Indoor Lacrosse League season tonight at the Baltimore Arena against the Detroit Turbos.
The Thunder, MILL champion in the first season of the league -- five years ago -- has 11 new players on its 25-man roster, 10 of whom are rookies.
"This is the best team we've had since I've been in the league," said Thunder captain Jim Huelskamp, beginning his fifth season. "We have some excellent veterans and a lot of young guys who are hard-nosed lacrosse players and want to win. We have more speed this year than in the past and a tougher defense."
The Thunder, coached by John Stewart -- in his fourth year -- won its first four games last season, then lost its remaining four and did not make the playoffs.
"I really think we have a team that can challenge for the league championship," said general manager Darrell Russell. "We have an excellent blend of youth and experience, more speed, which I think is a key to this game, plus better offense and defense."
Among the newcomers is goalie Jeff Gombar, a native of British Columbia, who played collegiately at Whittier College in California. Gombar will share the goaltending with Tom McClelland, from Loyola College, and Tom Manos, from Towson State.
"Playing goalie in indoor lacrosse is entirely different from playing it in outdoor lacrosse," Russell said. "In indoor, the goalie holds his stick like a hockey goalie and guards the goal more and roams less than in outdoor lacrosse. We believe that Gombar will give us the goaltending we need to challenge for the championship."
Other newcomers include Brian Kroneberger and Chris Gunkle, both from Loyola; John Heil and Vince Angotti, Cornell; Gregg Gunning, Johns Hopkins; Chris Dollar, Washington College; Matt Kerwick, Hobart; Greg Tolker, Mount St. Mary's; Dave Smith, Virginia; and Steve Beardmore, who played with the Washington Wave two years ago.
The veterans are Ricky Sowell, Matt Lewandowksi, Jeff Jackson, Dan Britton, Bart Aldridge, Tim and Pat Welsh, Todd Canby, John Nostrant, Don Giblin and John Boote.
Detroit features the Gait brothers, Paul and Gary, who helped Syracuse to three consecutive National Collegiate Athletic Association Division I championships. Both grew up playing box lacrosse in British Columbia.
The MILL will be split into two three-team divisions for the first time. The Thunder is in the American Division with the two-time defending champion Philadelphia Wings and New York Saints. Detroit, the New England Blazers and the Pittsburgh Bulls are in the National Division.
Two rules have been changed: The shot clock has been reduced from 45 to 40 seconds, and the goal size has been increased from 4 feet by 4 feet to 4 feet by 4 1/2 feet.