ILWT Feature: Orangeville home to the best of the past, present and future generations of lacrosse

Nick Rose. Toronto Rock @ Philadelphia Wings, January 26, 2019. (Photo credit: Tracey Happold-Brown)

Orangeville, Ontario is a small town approximately 80 km (that’s 40 miles for our American friends) outside of Toronto. It is not a huge area, home to around 29,000 people. It is a pretty little town similar in many ways to other Canadian towns. Most people outside of the lacrosse world probably wouldn’t give it a second thought; however, lacrosse greats of the past and the present are changing that.

A good number of current and past NLL players claim Orangeville as their hometown. And many fans remember other players from Orangeville who boosted Canadian lacrosse greatness outside of the NLL. Why Orangeville? How did this happen and is there anything being done to continue the greatness?

Most current players from Orangeville are defensemen or goalies. Of all current NLL players, only two play offense. There are nine defensemen and five goalies, and four of those goalies are arguably the best in the game.

The defense has to start with longtime NLLer Brodie Merrill. Merrill’s greatness could and have been a separate article in and of itself. He set the all-time loose ball record this past February with 2518, a number that would have increased if COVID-19 had not ended the season early. Merrill also successfully helped Canada win gold and silver medals against the United States and the Iroquois national team in international play.

Next on the list are the Noble twins, who are also graduates of The Hill Academy where Merrill runs the lacrosse program. The twins thrived there before playing at college. Jason, a defenseman, starred at Cornell and Jeremy, the forward, starred at Denver. Jason was acquired by Toronto several weeks ago where he’ll continue the great career he started in Georgia. Jeremy was recently acquired by San Diego after several seasons in Colorado. As a forward, Jeremy is the exception in this group of players. Both twins have also represented Canada in international competitions.

Georgia Swarm v. Colorado Mammoth at Pepsi Center, Saturday, Dec. 23, 2017, in Denver. (Photo by Jack Dempsey for the Colorado Mammoth)

Andrew Suitor is the toughest of the bunch to call Orangeville home. A graduate of RIT, “Suits” is always a fan favourite wherever he plays because of his nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic and willingness to stick up for any teammate.

Trevor Smyth is a rookie who also played at RIT before moving on to the NLL. He is another highly decorated young player hoping to continue in the tradition of outstanding Orangeville players, having just finished his rookie season in Halifax.

Jon and Greg Harnett are another pair of Oville brothers, who like the Nobles, play on opposing teams. Jon was recently signed by the New York Riptide, while Greg just finished his ninth season with the Roughnecks. Both are skilled defenders, with Greg being known also for his toughness.

While many from Orangeville go on to play college ball, there are some who have cracked NLL rosters due to their strong play in the Canadian junior box system. Greg Harnett is one of them. Instead of attending a US college, he honed his skills at Bishops University of the Canadian University Field Lacrosse Association. Likewise, Dustyn Pratt and Brandon Slade stayed in Canada for their postsecondary education. Pratt got into one game with the Knighthawks in his rookie season this past year, while Slade has become a fan favourite with the Rock showing off in transition. Slade is a graduate of the powerhouse Brock Badgers CUFLA team.

Now, onto the goaltenders. Being a goalie in Orangeville seems to be synonymous with greatness; at least for four of the current NLL goalies.

Three of those goalies were starters last season. At one point Dillon Ward, Nick Rose and Evan Kirk were up for the same Goalie of the Year award. And although Brandon Miller was not nominated, he is as strong as his fellow counterparts.

Miller is unique in that he also played a role as a coach for Toronto immediately after his first retirement was announced. After a one season stint as a coach (perhaps under guidance from Paul Day or his love for playing the game) Miller returned as a goalie for the Philadelphia Wings who struggled between the pipes last season.

Miller has said that Evan Kirk is a good friend and their stories seem to weave together. In fact, Kirk and Miller played together for the first Philadelphia Wings for a short time. Miller played under Kirk and then started over him. Shortly thereafter Miller was traded to Toronto and Kirk moved with the team to form the New England Black Wolves.

Toronto Rock goalie Nick Rose is another proud member of the Orangeville population. Tony Rose Arena, where kids have grown up learning their box skills since 1972, is named after Rose’s late father. “Rosey” saw time with a few teams before cementing his place as the Rock’s starter. He also proved in 2016 that he can score a goal from his own cage and seems to do so again at least once a season, to the thrill of his fans.

The youngest goalie from Orangeville is Dillon Ward. Ward is unique in that he can be successful as a goalie in both the indoor and the outdoor games. More can be read on Ward here.

As outstanding as some of these players are, the unusual fact is that these players come from different generations of play. There’s only 20 years between the oldest mentioned (Miller – 1979) and the youngest (Smyth – 1999), and in those years the strength of the Orangeville system has never been questioned.

Goalies who grew up in the late 90s and the 2000s were lucky to learn from two of the game’s best in Chris Sanderson and Kyle Miller (Brandon’s brother) before they both tragically passed away from cancer. They helped pave the way for Kirk, Rose and Ward.

Josh Sanderson, of Orangeville, and John Lovell (former Northmen coach) induct the late Terry Sanderson into the NLL Hall of Fame. September 2015. (Photo: Anna Taylor)

There’s so much rich history in Orangeville lacrosse that the sport should remain a lacrosse player factory for many years to come. Just look at the names of the retired NLLers to see how long Orangeville has been making a difference in the game:

  • Patrick Merrill – Brodie’s brother and current head coach of the San Diego Seals
  • Mike Kirk – Evan’s brother, also a defenseman
  • Bruce Codd – assistant coach with the Rock
  • Pat Coyle – head coach and assistant general manager with the Mammoth
  • Rusty Kruger – assistant coach with the Bandits

And of course, the entire Sanderson family – Terry, Lindsay, Phil, Josh and more. They were the pioneers of Orangeville lacrosse and helped build a reputable name for the NLL, too.

All the players already mentioned in this article have already made their mark on the game; youngsters Cameron Dunkerley (G, Saskatchewan), Braiden Davis (D, New York), Mackenzie Mitchell (D, New England) and Dallas Bridle (O, Rochester) also call Orangeville home, and the number of great players graduating from the Jr. A, B and C Northmen systems only keeps growing.

The 2012 Orangeville Northmen celebrate their Minto Cup win. (Photo: Tim Prothero/Vintage Lax)

Will the greatness continue? That’s where the Northmen program comes in. That’s right – many of the players in the NLL with ties to Orangeville weren’t born there, but played their junior lacrosse there. The Northmen have won seven Minto Cups since 1991 and are the defending champions, having last won in 2019. Pratt was on that team, as was Rylan Hartley, the young goaltender that impressed the Knighthawks.

Other players from the Northmen system include Scott Dominey, Thomas Hoggarth, Joel Tinney, Matt Gilray, Dan Craig, Nolan Clayton and Ian MacKay – and that’s just from the last five years. Go back further and you’ll find Kri, Hellyer, Hostrawser, Sorensen, Gillies and more.

Several more are eligible to be drafted in the coming years, like Ty Thompson, Sam Firth and Mac O’Keefe, as well as Tanner Buck, Jonathan Donville and Jordan Caskenette (2021) or Kyle Waters, Zack Deaken, Dylan Watson (2022).

There is one current Orangeville representative on the U19 Canadian National Field Team 32-man roster. That one player is Tyler Van Wart. It should come as no surprise that Tyler is a goalie.

The Northmen have a strong program. The history and the dedication make all the difference. With the strength of that program and with the impact current players have on their hometown lacrosse community, Orangeville will continue to propel more players into greatness. The legacy of these men and their impact is seen worldwide.


— with files from Anna Taylor