For the last couple of weeks, there had been uncertainty as to who would coach the under 16 male lacrosse team for Team Saskatchewan — until Russ Matthews got the call.
Don Larson, who was an assistant coach for the Saskatchewan U16 lacrosse at the 2014 edition of the North American Indigenous Games in Regina and had been slated to be the head coach of the 2017 team, but had to back out of the games on short notice due to health problems.
"Sometimes life throws you a huge curve ball and that's what happened to me, being diagnosed with an aortic aneurysm as well as a bicuspid valve needing replacement," Larson said from Regina.
"All that combined with spells of presyncope has me forced to stay home."
Matthews was the bench boss for the U16 boys team Monday morning as they faced off against Team Ontario at the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena on the Six Nations of the Grand River, south of Hamilton, Ont., where they fell 8-6.
Larson said his health problems have been affecting him for a couple of weeks now. His doctors have said he needs surgery and travel isn't recommended.
"I was hoping right to the bitter end that I could get there but the final nail in the coffin — and I know that's a bad pun —was on Friday," Larson continued.
The team left for the tournament on Saturday.
During the game, Larson and Matthews were keeping up close contact, with Don offering up adjustments between
'It's so hard not to be there... it's kind of killing me.' - Don Larson
periods through text message — but the cell service in the ILA was spotty at best during the game.
In between offering up adjustments, Larson has noticed some breakdowns in the play of Team Saskatchewan, some of which have been costly mistakes.
But the biggest thing for Larson is not actually being on the bench with his team.
"It's so hard not to be there," he said. "It's kind of killing me."
Larson and Matthews have worked together on the Standing Buffalo Dakota First Nation, located 64 kilometres northeast of Regina, since about 2013 but Larson has coached for years before that.
"We coach together a lot so we didn't see [Don's stay] as a pretty big problem," Matthews said.
For Matthews, Larson's absence has to be treated like any injury.
"When someone goes down, someone has to step up, whether it's a player, defender, offensive guy," Matthews said.
"That's how we look at it."
"Russ stepped up huge for me on this NAIG team," Larson said of Matthews, noting they've worked together with Indigenous youth to set up the program at Standing Buffalo.
Saskatchewan hasn't medalled in U16 or U19 lacrosse at NAIG. Despite that, Matthews said it's not like Team Saskatchewan is a team which just started playing yesterday.
"Everybody in that room has been playing lacrosse for nine years," Matthews said. "We didn't come here to roll over so we're going to give it everything we got."
The loss to Ontario, who Matthews referred to as some of the best U16 and U19 lacrosse players around, was still a tough one.
"We're trying to win it for Don, we're worried about his health and we're all playing for him," Matthews said.
Team Saskatchewan went down 3-0 early in the first and they battled back, taking a 5-4 lead at one point. It was a moral victory for the underdog team — but those don't count on paper, Matthews said.
"I believe that these games are just a great thing for the athletes to go," Larson said. "I hope they would come out of that with some good, lasting friendships and just soak in everything that NAIG has to offer."