Local Roller Hockey Players Compete on International Stage

SHORT STICK: Four Local Players Played the Best in the World in Spain

By Matt Baide

mbaide@chronline.com

In Lewis County, hardly anyone knows about them. In Spain, there are people asking them for pictures and hoping for an autograph.

For Devon Taylor, Corbin Gross, Wyatt Eliason and Rubi Saranchuk, they experienced celebrity status when they competed for Team USA at the World Roller Games on June 29 to July 14 in Barcelona.

The short stick roller hockey program known as the Centralia Sharks at the Rollerdrome in Centralia is one of the top programs in the country, coached by former professional player Brian Stallman. He played for 10 years professionally over in Europe as a goalie and has been coaching Centralia for the last four years.

“It’s a big deal. When you’re on Team USA, you get a lot of different opportunities to go around the world. From my experience, when I was on the US team, I got to go everywhere from South Africa to China to Brazil, Argentina, everywhere in Europe,” Stallman said. “Even though the sport isn’t that big here in the US, there are professional leagues in Argentina, Spain, Portugal, France, Italy. Those are the major countries that play this game and because of it, it gives kids opportunities to kind of see the world and experience what it’s like to be outside the US. That’s what’s great about being on the USA team for those kids, getting that experience, getting that exposure to see there’s more outside than just the US.”

Taylor, Gross and Eliason each competed on the U19 men’s team while Saranchuk played for the senior women’s team.

It was an eye opening experience for Gross, who made his first trip out of the country as a 14-year old playing on the U19 Team USA squad.

“For me, it was like a dream come true. Honestly, like it’s so unbelievable that I made it that far and to where I’m playing for a team where they’re all the same level as me and people will think it’s like a team environment,” Gross said. “It’s really like a family once you get to know everyone, it’s really cool.”

It wasn’t easy to make the squad for Taylor, who is just 16-years old.

“I did work really hard to try to make the team and I did practice a lot but I was surprised just because most of the kids that were trying out were a lot older,” Taylor said. “We were some of the youngest kids to try out so it was just one of those things where if we made it, it would be cool but if we didn’t, it was understandable and we could go back and practice more.”

While competition in the states can be tough, the international competition took some adjustments to get used to for the new players on Team USA.

“Many of the kids overseas there, like their whole team, all of them are 19 (years old). They were way more experienced and way more skilled than us so they were playing a lot faster and a lot stronger,” Taylor said. “It was definitely something to get used to and the sport isn’t as popular over here so it was a different playing style too. They play different, but after a few games going in, it was easier to adapt to.”

According to Stallman, short stick roller hockey is the second biggest sport behind soccer in Europe, a major reason why other countries are superior to the Team USA program.

“They start them when they’re three, 4-years old. You have Portugal, I think Washington state is bigger than Portugal, but Portugal has over 150 clubs in a very small area,” Stallman said. “I mean, the development, roller hockey over there is second to soccer. Soccer is number one, roller hockey is number two so you have more opportunities to develop your kids. Over here, we’ve got to compete with football, soccer, baseball, ice hockey, we’ve got to compete with all those other sports and since it’s not really big over here, it’s harder to develop your kids when they don’t have that level of competition all throughout the year just as these other countries that are top in the world.”

The results proved how much better the other programs were compared to men’s U19 Team USA. America lost all six games in the tournament and was outscored 26-1 in the seventh place game. Team USA was outscored 66-3 in group play.

Saranchuk’s women’s team fared much better, finishing 2-3 overall and 1-2 in group play, defeating China 43-0 in their lone group play win. Team USA defeated India 6-5 in bracket play before falling to Japan 5-1 to take fourth.

While the scores weren’t in their favor, the local athletes were happy with the experience of playing the sport they love internationally.

“Definitely a life changing experience, going over to a different country where your sport is like the sport is not popular here,” Gross said. “Going over there, hockey stores, just going to some of those is really cool because you get to see all the gear and a wide selection.”

Taylor scored one of U19 Team USA’s rare goals in a 14-2 loss to Chile.

“It’s a little fuzzy because I was in tunnel vision but I remember, we were all fumbling the ball in the middle, everyone got packed together. Speed is kind of my thing, I’m one of the fastest out of the team I would say,” Taylor said. “As soon as I managed to grab the ball, I sprinted full speed down the floor. The only time I ever score back home is like breakaway’s just by myself or one-on-one with someone and that’s what happened, I was by myself with the goalie. I made one move like my coach always tells me too and I ended up scoring upper corner so it was definitely exciting.”

The next World Roller Games is in 2021 in San Juan, Argentina, and Taylor, Gross, Eliason and Saranchuk are all expected to be on their respective team’s again. Stallman may be joining the four locals next time, applying to be the Junior USA World team coach. He’s hoping to make Team USA great again, so to speak.

“Those teams dominate, they have great players. Their skill levels are so much higher than ours at this moment in time. It’s a great accomplishment to score a goal at that level, it’s still a work in progress with those kids,” Stallman said. “I’m trying to get them back to where we used to be. We used to be as a nation about mid-range. For example, the senior team took basically 22nd in the world. When I played, when I was a teen, we were around ninth, 10th in the world. That’s what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to develop our kids, my juniors, I’m trying to develop them to where they can kind of compete at that level and get back to where we were.”

Stallman’s players were excited about the prospect of playing for him in club and international competition.

“Very cool because I think a personal connection could help with the teaching because we’d listen a lot better,” Gross said. “We’re still listening but it’s different when we know what he’s talking about. We know all his plays in his book and he’s a really good goalie so I think he’d be able to coach the goalies very well.”

Stallman has to turn in his application by Sept. 1 and will find out if he earned the position in the months following the application deadline, but believes he has a pretty good chance of earning the job.

“We have a really good chance of getting those positions just because of how dominant our two clubs have been in that age group,” Stallman said. “We’ve been pretty fortunate in the way that we’ve been able to develop our kids up here. Myself and the coach in Olympia, he’s played many years on the world team, played overseas for a while. Our combined knowledge has really helped grow the sport in this area at least, so we feel that we can contribute to helping the program grow.”

The Centralia team has some time off now and will resume activity in January, but for anyone interested in playing, contact the Rollerdrome for more information.

“I would definitely say that although the sport doesn’t seem popular or cool at first, once you get into it, it’s a love,” Taylor said. “I met my best friends on the team and the team is my family so if there was no hockey, I’d be very bored.”

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