Denver Outlaws defenseman Mike Manley

Denver Outlaws veterans helping lead youth movement

By Topher Adams | Jun 22, 2024

Denver Outlaws captain Mike Manley arrived in Charlotte for shootaround before the second game of the season. On one of the youngest teams in the PLL, the 35-year-old Manley is an outlier as the oldest player in the league. That experience helps him guide his young teammates.

Rookie Brennan O’Neill had a quiet first game one week earlier with one goal and one assist. The expectations for the No. 1 overall pick couldn’t be higher. Manley knew O’Neill was dealing with all that pressure and talked to him at shootaround.

“We picked you for a reason, just act like it and be the man because you are,” Manley said.

The Outlaws are led by young stars like O’Neill, but the few remaining veterans like Manley are providing the support and culture to let the rookies shine right away.

Denver’s roster has gotten significantly younger over the last few seasons. The team had a core that played together for a long time, from the Rochester Rattlers to the Chrome. Jordan Wolf, Jordan MacIntosh, Joel White and Manley were among the leaders who led that group for years.

Now, Manley is the last player remaining from that original group of Rattlers. Defenseman Jesse Bernhardt and short-stick defensive midfielders Will Haus and Mike Messenger are the only other players on the roster in their 30s.

Even with all the youth and roster change, the culture of the team has stayed consistent. And that starts with the veteran leaders.

“It's incredibly important at this level, to have good leadership and good role models,” Outlaws head coach Tim Soudan said.

The veterans help maintain the culture and also help the coaching staff decide who joins the locker room. Before the draft, Soudan spoke to several players on the team, including the veteran leaders, about who would be the best fit for the group.

While Soudan ultimately has final say as the general manager, finding the right personalities to be a part of Denver’s culture is important to the entire project.

“They could be a great player, but they could be a terrible locker room person and we don’t want them,” Manley said.

A sense of team and community is the core of the Outlaws' culture. When the team went out together during training camp, every guy was there, Manley said.

This strong team culture makes the transition to the pros smoother for younger players. Second-year attackman Cross Ferrara felt welcomed by veterans like Bernhardt, and that made his adjustment to the PLL easier.

“You don't have to deal with the egos and stuff because when everybody just welcomes you in, all you have to worry about is playing lacrosse,” Ferrara said.

The culture is supportive, but it’s also demanding. The Outlaws struggled on the field last season, and Manley and Bernhardt hold their teammates to a high standard. When things start to go wrong, they’re the first ones to raise their voices on the sideline.

“Sometimes we will literally start screaming or yelling at guys to get going,” Manley said.

When the Outlaws went down 7-1 early against the Utah Archers in Charlotte, Manley spoke to the team in the huddle. He told his teammates to just go out and play because it couldn’t get any worse. Denver started to play more freely and eventually won an 18-17 overtime thriller.

In the fourth quarter, O’Neill turned into the dominant force Manley and the Outlaws expected. The top draft pick scored seven goals in the fourth quarter and overtime, including the game-tying and game-winning tallies.

Justin Anderson was a young player on this roster a few seasons ago, playing alongside veterans like MacIntosh and Ned Crotty. Now, as one of the team’s three captains and the most experienced offensive player, he knows how important it is for young players to have veterans to lean on.

“Having an older offensive guy that's been around the game for a little bit longer, who's understood some different things when it comes to playing certain people, I think that, for me, was really pivotal for getting into the league,” Anderson said. 

Denver’s youth revolution has fully taken over. O’Neill, Josh Zawada and Sam Handley lead the team in scoring. Luke Wierman and Jake Piseno are having strong rookie years. Even JT Giles-Harris and Ryan Terefenko are only in their fourth pro seasons.

But the veterans are just as hungry and determined to win as ever. Manley, who hasn’t won a title in his pro career, is still motivated to compete for championships.

“We haven’t proven anything,” Manley said. “That drive is still there.”