Jake “the Wiz” Withers has been living up to his nickname this year.
The defenceman for the Halifax Thunderbirds leads the league in faceoff win percentage with 83, while the next closest player, Philadelphia’s Trevor Baptiste, has 69 per cent. Withers is battling with Vancouver’s Reid Bowering for the loose balls crown. Bowering has 153, while Withers has 145 with one fewer game. Those numbers have Withers on pace for breaking the league’s single-season records in both categories. He is on pace for 407 faceoff wins, which would make him the first player to hit the 400 mark in one season and beat the record by 44 set by Baptiste in 2019. For loose balls, Withers is on pace to collect 261, which would clear him of Jay Thorimbert’s record by 15.
“I think if any player tells you it’s not in the back of their mind or they don’t take a peek at statistics here or there throughout the season, they would be lying to you,” says Withers. “It is definitely pretty cool to have the opportunity to have your name up there with some of the names on the top of that list. But at the same time, the only validation that I ever seek is the one from my teammates, coaches and management, and I think the biggest validation anyone can have in their career is hoisting that trophy.”
Since he stepped into the NLL in the 2017-18 season, he’s always been a wizard at winning faceoffs and picking up loose balls. During the Rochester Knighthawks run to the NLL Finals in his rookie season, Withers set team playoff records in faceoff wins with 88 and loose balls collected with 56, including setting an NLL Finals single-game record with collecting 20 loose balls. But he credits his success this season with being more experienced as a fifth-year player and having more familiarity with his teammates.
For all his success in those two areas, they’re not skills Withers felt he’s always been good at, but developed over his years playing minor lacrosse in his hometown of Peterborough, Ont. and college lacrosse at Ohio State. He’s always enjoyed battling for the ball and passing it to his forwards and worked at it throughout his minor lacrosse days. Withers also wrestled in high school, and he said that helped him with faceoffs because he learned to maintain his athleticism when he’s in a low stance. Once he played at Ohio State, he was put into a role to take faceoffs and pick up ground balls, further helping his development.
“No loose ball is one I shy away from; I’m always trying to go into that full speed and kind of fearless,” he says.
While Withers deserves a lot of credit for his faceoff and loose ball abilities, he is also one of Halifax’s best defenders. Withers plays whether his team is leading, trailing, holding the lead or playing a man down. He’s also a threat in transition, scoring two goals and eight points this season.
“What makes him great is his perseverance, his tenaciousness, he always has an extra little motor and he can wear guys down,” says Thunderbirds’ assistant coach, Billy Dee Smith.
“Personally, I like to think of myself as a lacrosse player first and a faceoff specialist as a compliment to my game,” says Withers. “I think sometimes it overshadows my ability, but at the same time, I obviously have the utmost confidence in my game outside the faceoff dot, and I definitely take immense pride in being able to help contribute on the floor and to my team’s success in any way possible.”
During the offseason, veteran defenceman and Halifax assistant captain, Scott Campbell, retired, leaving another player to wear the ‘A’ for Halifax. The team chose Withers to be the new assistant captain. The 29-year-old joins captain Cody Jamieson and fellow assistant Graeme Hossack as the primary leadership group on a veteran team.
“I’m not gonna lie, it was a little bit of a shock that I got it,” says Withers. “It’s a huge honour and a huge privilege… being in the position where I guess you can say I replaced Soupy’s (Campbell) letter. He’s such an influential guy not only in the Thunderbirds’ organization but the Knighthawks too. But personally, having him as a mentor in my first four years in the league and now taking the reins is something I have the utmost respect for, and I understand I have a duty to uphold there.”
Withers said he was comfortable leading on the floor with his play but being a leader off the floor has been a learning curve, and he’s relied on veteran players and Campbell, who is now the team’s assistant general manager, for support. Smith feels Withers is doing an excellent job leading his teammates.
“He can build guys up, and he has a way of leaning on guys without them taking it too personally, and them wanting to do better,” says Smith, who played 16 seasons in the NLL. “That is something I learned later in my career, when do you build someone up and when you say ‘hey man, that’s your responsibility, I need you to do better,’ and he’s good at relaying both.”
Withers is a leader, he plays in all defensive situations and is the best in the league this year in faceoffs and loose balls, so naturally, his name has come up in MVP conversations. Lacrosse Flash published their mid-season awards predictions, and Withers was an MVP candidate. We also heard from a credible source he was considered for the league’s mid-season MVP social media campaign.
However, Withers doesn’t put stock into the chatter.
“The only validation I need is from my teammates and hoisting that championship trophy.”
However, Smith thinks he should be in the conversation.
“To me, a most valuable player is someone that can control the game. And Wiz, he can completely control the game… So Wiz, to me, is so valuable that he changes the course of a game. If we lose Wiz, it’s not easy to replace him back there. We lost him in the Rochester game, and now we’re scrambling on faceoffs, now we’re losing our ability on defence, especially the right side, and you’re losing such a big leadership voice. To me, it is a no-brainer, like between him, Jeff Teat and Dhane Smith.”
As for the Thunderbirds, they have five wins and five losses halfway through the season and sit comfortably fourth in the Eastern Conference. They have championship aspirations, so being a .500 team halfway through the year is not where they want to be, but Withers thinks they can get back on track.
“I think we’re in a good position. I would be lying if I said we didn’t think we have underachieved a little bit. I don’t think we’re a .500 team by any means, that’s the way the cookie crumbles sometimes,” says Withers. “I think we’re by no means out of the fight and by no means where we want to be. It’s kind of a good position to be in at the mid-way point of the season. And we’re excited to compete for a playoff spot and down the road a championship.”