How Did We Get Here?
Almost 365 days ago, we didn’t know that future PLL MVP and Championship hero Matt Rambo would quarterback the Whipsnakes. We didn’t know Andy Towers would helm the Chaos with a leadership style brimming with passion and intensity.
We didn’t know the event locations, the club names, their colors, or composition.
Safe to say the landscape of professional lacrosse has shifted radically in the last year. So with PLL Day and your chance to rep your favorite club upon us, let’s take a step back and look at the pivotal moments that defined the league’s inaugural year.
10:18 AM, October 22, 2018.
At that moment Paul Rabil posted a letter on Twitter complete with a yellow background and the PLL’s shield logo. Rabil not only expressed his intentions along with his brother, Mike, to start the PLL but also highlighted the initiative of the league and his hope for its impact on the lacrosse community.
“This league is built by the players, for the fans,” Rabil wrote. “The players will be the catalysts for generations to come. Bringing their talents into your living rooms, onto your phones, and into your backyards every season. Much like my stick today has evolved from the one I used when I began, so has the game. The Premier Lacrosse League will pioneer a new future for our sport. Can’t wait for you to experience it.”
There was more. A tour-based model, 150 of the best players in the world, full-time wages, and a media rights deal with NBC Sports Group were a few of the highlights.
“None of this happens alone, and especially without the players,” Rabil added during a YouTube video about the formation of the PLL. “Early days, this idea doesn’t even begin to build without players. So you sit down and say, hey, we’re disrupting the model. We’re creating something different. We get our rocket fuel from the players.”
“The only thing I wanted to make sure I was getting into something better,” Whipsnakes Head Coach Jim Stagnitta said last month about joining the PLL. “Something that was going to be more fulfilling for me as a coach and was going to give me an opportunity to make a difference. It has been that and even more.”
On December 12, 2018, the PLL announced that Stagnitta, Chris Bates, Nat St. Laurent, John Paul, Dom Starsia, and Andy Towers would lead the six clubs.
On February 26 the PLL unveiled the names and logos of the six clubs.
The clubs each had their own slogan like “Born to Dominate” for Redwoods or “A force to be reckoned with” for Atlas.
“Each team has its own unique crest,” Chris Schwartz, co-founder and CCO of We Are Bill explained in a video about the genesis of the team logos. “If a viewer sees one of these crests then you’ll know it’s associated to a different team.
From Archers’ arrow to Atlas’ horns, the signage helped establish the clubs’ identities that continued to take shape over the coming months.
Fitting with the emphasis on “by the players,” on March 4 the stars of the PLL broke the news on social about their club affiliations.
Vital to the composition was chemistry, both from a collegiate and former professional standpoint. That was evident in the championship game six months later when the Redwoods and their Notre Dame heavy roster took on the Whipsnakes teeming with former Terps.
While adding an extra layer of excitement to the news, the announcements (complete with Bitmojis) also triggered the debate about which club looked the most stacked or how different players would fit on the same side. Do the Whipsnakes have too many weapons? What style of offense will Chaos run with their inside finishers and traditional dodging middies? Will anyone be able to stop Atlas?
At the NBC Sports headquarters in Connecticut, the six coaches were tasked with adding some of the top talent from the collegiate ranks.
While some earlier picks like Clarke Petterson (5th pick, Redwoods) and Jack Rowlett (7th pick, Chaos) were immediate fits for their clubs, few could have predicted the outsized contributions from fourth round draft picks Tim Troutner Jr. (20th overall selection) in goal for Redwoods and Connor Farrell (22nd) at the faceoff x for Chrome.
Over the course of five days in early May at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, we witnessed chemistry begin to form, rivalries take root, and even a preview of the Championship game.
We got a glimpse at the new rules that included a 52-second shot clock, 15 yard two-point arc, and shorter field dimensions, intended to speed up the game. We also got a behind the scenes level of access that defined the rest of the summer. Whether it was Connor Farrell explaining how he got back into lacrosse while at LIU Post via a wrestling match bet, or Nat St. Laurent detailing the process behind selecting a starting goalie, the lively videos introduced us to some of the personalities we got to know more about as the season entered full swing.
On the field there were now familiar sights like Jack Concannon making insane saves or Myles Jones running over people.
Let the Games Begin:
The PLL’s first weekend at Gillette Stadium kicked off with a bang. Stephen “Bones” Kelly won the opening faceoff and scored 11 seconds into the game.
Within the first quarter you could tell this wasn’t a normal broadcast. From player interviews after goals, Mic’d up audio, to cameras in the huddles, the NBC Sports product was innovative and just downright entertaining.
The first game also set another trend. Overtime. Both games on Saturday required extra time. Will Manny scored from the left wing to clinch a 13-12 Archers win over Chrome.
Despite a valiant comeback in the second half by Chaos, the Whipsnakes prevailed. Rambo dished to Drew Snider who launched a bounce shot from 10 yards past Blaze Riorden for the win in extra time. Rambo’s ability to take over in clutch moments was not a one time deal.
On Sunday the Redwoods topped Atlas, 12-9. Tim Troutner earned the Warden of the Woods hardhat for his 17 saves and Garrett Epple did his best Ray Lewis impression with this hit on Joel Tinney.
The first sellout of the season occurred at one of the prime venues in lacrosse, Homewood Field at Johns Hopkins University. However, the Whipsnakes and their Maryland contingent spoiled the homecoming for Rabil and the three other Hopkins alums on the Atlas roster: Joel Tinney, Ryan Brown, and Tucker Durkin. While the Whipsnakes trailed early in the fourth quarter, a 6-0 run helped them secure the 15-10 win.
“There were a lot of things that happened tonight that made us feel like we’re going in the right direction,” Rabil told The Washington Post after the game about the league’s progress.
During the first game at Homewood, Redwoods topped Chrome 13-11. It was Jules Heningburg’s first time in a Redwoods jersey after he was traded by the Whipsnakes. Heningburg required little time to gel with his new club. He scored five goals along with three assists and set the mark for most points in a single game.
A week after he earned the nickname “bodyslam” Blaze during a Chaos overtime win against Redwoods, the eventual Goalie of the Year proved he’s just as intimidating between the pipes. He made a season-high 21 saves to push Chaos past Archers, 14-13.
All Star Game:
Composed of teams drafted by captains Matt Rambo and Trevor Baptiste, the league’s best put on a show in the City of Stars. There was Riorden scoring two goals and an assist...at attack. There was Rambo pulling off an Air Chef, his version of the Air Gait. There was Jarrod Neumann scoring from another zip code. And, of course, there was Paul Rabil with the around the world pass to Will Manny that was heard round the world and made SportsCenter’s Top 10.
Team Baptiste, in their tie dyed inspired Adidas kits, ultimately prevailed over Team Rambo, 15-14. During the Skills Competition afterwards, Justin Guterding walked away with the Freestyle Challenge top prize, Dan Eipp proved he’s the fastest player, Marcus Holman the most accurate, and Tim Troutner was victorious in the goalie contest. Last but not least, Neumman won the fastest shot contest after he hit 115 mph while breaking the head of his stick.
Neumann still wasn’t satisfied.
“I was a little disappointed with that,” he told me after Week 7. “The week before I practiced and was taking ten yard step downs. I actually put up 118 [mph] twice, so I was a little disappointed that I didn't have that extra pop.”
The Defensive Player of the Year scored five two-pointers during the regular season.
Entering the final week of the regular season at Albany, the playoff picture was anything but clear, largely because of score differential’s role in the rankings. While Redwoods appeared on the brink of locking up a spot before Week 9 in Hamilton, Ontario, their odds plunged after getting trounced 17-4 by Whipsnakes. The situation looked even more dire once Atlas, arguably the most in form club over the second half of the season, upset Chaos 12-9 in front of a sold out Tom & Mary Casey Stadium on Friday night. Now Redwoods needed to top Chrome by at least seven goals to secure their place.
The next afternoon they made that margin look quaint. They vanquished Chrome 18-7 on the back of seven points from Ryder Garnsey, at halftime buzzer beating heave from Matt Kavanagh, and a Sergio Perkovic hat trick.
Atlas’ luck didn’t improve as they watched the next game. Archers outlasted Whipsnakes 12-9, highlighted by Drew Adams saving almost 90 percent of the shots he faced and helping his club to a 7-1 second half advantage. Tom Schreiber did Tom Schreiber things and finished with six points. While he makes it look easy, his crossfield pass to Will Manny was the assist of the year.
The second seeded Whipsnakes advanced to the Championship after they dispatched the top seeded Chaos 15-7 in the first round. Mike Chanenchuk proved again that he’s a one man bomb squad after scoring two goals from behind the arc. Just ask Jake Bernhardt.
The PLL’s unique playoff structure featured a First Draft Pick bracket for the clubs eliminated from the Championship hunt. Redwoods needed two wins to make the final. They topped Archers 16-12 in Columbus. The next weekend at Red Bull Arena they held Chaos to only one goal after halftime and rolled to a 12-7 win. The victory earned them the opportunity to gain redemption against Whipsnakes after their lopsided affair in Hamilton.
The Championship did not disappoint. Although Redwoods were down 9-2 late in the third quarter, a diving goal by Jack Near initiated a furious comeback. The flurry of goals included a Perkovic two-bomb, a Garnsey snipe, and a Kavanagh finish after the ground ball battle of the year.
The Whipsnakes remained undaunted. They gave the ball to their MVP. Rambo turned Redwoods’ dreams to nightmares. He scored with 21 seconds remaining to tie the game at 11. After Joe Nardella secured the opening faceoff in overtime, Rambo did it again. He saw there was no slide prepared, so he went right at Matt Landis. Chef Rambo put the finishing touches on a masterpiece and a Whipsnakes championship run.
“I knew it went in when I heard the whole crowd go crazy and saw all my teammates running to me,” Rambo (3G, 3A) said of the game-winning goal.
On the dais during the trophy presentation his teammates serenaded him in chants of MVP, MVP!
“When the game was on the line he took over,” Stagnitta said. “He has unbelievable potential and believe it or not he is still getting there.”
Rambo was quick to focus the praise on his entire club instead of his own exploits.
“Top to bottom, do we have the most talent? I don't know,” Stagnitta said about how Rambo embodied the team-first mentality. “But I know the best team is going to win this thing at the end of the day. That was our approach. We have to be the best team because the best team wins, not the best players. Down the stretch here with all Matt's accomplished, to hear him put it that way, he truly bought into that and believes it.”
If your weekends feel like they’re missing something, you’re not alone. Sure we can bide our time tinkering with our fantasy football teams and waiting to see how LeBron will mesh with AD. We can even dress up like our favorite PLL players for Halloween. But Saturdays aren’t the same without highlights from Connor Fields or soundbites from Trevor “Speed” Baptiste after he wins yet another faceoff. Could LeBron deliver a sequence as memorable as Baptiste did during Week 10?
The playoffs officially ended on September 21 as Whipsnakes cut down the net while Drake’s Started From The Bottom blasted through the speakers at Talen Energy Stadium. The PLL’s “on-season” is just getting started. In the last week we learned about coaching changes including Dom Starsia’s transition from Chrome Head Coach to a leadership role within the league. Expansion seems imminent. With more than five months left until Training Camp, there promises to be no shortage of big moves that will shape the 2020 season and the league moving forward.