Roughnecks' Justin Inacio 'getting better every game' at faceoff dot

Draftee getting chance to show his talents with NLL club

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Justin Inacio may never become the face of the Calgary Roughnecks.

He’s not the gunner captain, like Jesse King.

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Or the MVP backstop, like Christian Del Bianco.

Or even the loose-ball boss, like Zach Currier — although that title isn’t exactly out of reach for the young transition talent.

But Inacio’s work as a faceoff specialist is making him a valuable figure on the team — for now and the future.

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“I feel great,” said the 25-year-old Inacio. “I mean … getting my feet underneath me is great, but I’m leaning on the older guys — our veterans. They’ve been doing a great job of supporting me and encouraging me, and … yeah … we’re building chemistry now.

“And it feels good.”

His fitting in and finding his feet — and hands — as a draw-man is very good for everyone around the Roughnecks (5-5), who take a three-game win string east Saturday to cap their home-and-home series with the host Philadelphia Wings (3-6) at Wells Fargo Center (11 a.m. MT, TSN+).

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It’s what the club has needed since Tyler Burton took his touch at the dot to the Panther City Lacrosse Club in August 2022. Burton was the primary faceoff guy for the Riggers for a number of seasons before free agency drew him south, putting Chris Willman in that role last season.

But with Willman now with the Vancouver Warriors, Inacio is getting his chance to shine as the specialist the Roughnecks brought him in to be.

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“We had the opportunity to draft a player who has had great success on draws in university, at the international level and in the box game, so we took it,” said Roughnecks GM Mike Board, of making Inacio the 10th overall pick in the 2021 NLL Draft. “Getting possession of the ball off draws is always a five-man effort, but having a player who has specialized on draws throughout his career is a bonus.

“There seem to be more and more truly good draw-men in the league, so it’s never a bad skill-set to have on your roster.”

Inacio was certainly skilful at the dot with the NCAA’s Ohio State Buckeyes, with whom he put up the school’s second-best faceoff percentage — 60.7% — during his five-year decorated college career.

And now, after sitting out his entire rookie NLL season with a knee injury, he’s beginning to show his stuff at the professional level this season.

Sure, the native of Oakville, Ont., is just 61-of-157 in six games — for a meagre 39% success rate. But he’s still learning the ropes in the pros while trending upward on the curve.

His 16-of-29 effort in last Saturday’s 14-11 home clip of the Wings is proof positive of that.

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“Good for JI,” said Roughnecks head coach Josh Sanderson. “He’s still young. He’s still learning. So he’s just only getting better every game. And I think (Saturday) was probably his best game at the dot.

“Our entire loose ball team, faceoff team … whatever you want to call it … was a lot better (Saturday),” continued Sanderson. “Obviously, we had a really really good start. And they got a chunk (of loose balls and faceoffs), but then we got some other big ones, that helped us get the win.”

Inacio was certainly positive about his performance, which also included five loose balls. Only superstar Currier had more for the Riggers.

“It’s adds fuel to the fire, for sure,” Inacio said. “Winning faceoffs gets the guys going, gives them momentum. And it gives me momentum, as well. If they capitalize on my wins, it gets me in a rhythm, as well. So we’re all working together.

“The third quarter went slow (Saturday). I had a few losses in a row, and they built momentum on that. So playing the full 60 minutes? I definitely owe that to the guys.”

It’s helped that Inacio is getting some direction from a couple of former Roughnecks who were star NLL draw-men.

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Both Sniders — Calgarians Bob and Geoff, the backbones of the city’s ELEV8 lacrosse program — have impacted Inacio’s journey to the pro dot.

“Geoff was actually our under-19 coach for Team Canada, so it was pretty cool,” said Inacio, recalling his silver-medal adventure at the 2016 FIL World U-19 Lacrosse Championship. “And Bobby’s coming out consistently now, which helps.”

So have his recent NLL matchups — as part of this successful three-game run by the Riggers — against Halifax Thunderbirds’ veteran Jake Withers, who is 76% at the dot and a winner of more faceoffs (229) than anybody else in the league this season, and the Toronto Rock’s TD Ierlan, who is tops with a 77% efficiency.

“Me and Jake are really close — we played on Team Canada together,” added Inacio. “So it was really, really cool. I think that’s the first time we’ve faced off against each other in a real game. Going up against big guys like him and TD, it gives me confidence that I can go against anyone in the league.”

QUICK STICKS

Riggers defender Seth Van Schepen (upper body) is probable for Saturday’s game … Roughnecks assistant captain and star defender Eli Salama will miss his fourth straight game due to injury (lower body) … NLL veteran F Logan Schuss (MCL/ACL), who has yet to play for his new club, remains out, as well.

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