Dhane Smith: Fastest first step in the PLL
By Austin Owens | Sep 15, 2021
Dhane Smith is etching himself as a star in the making with his strong play with Chaos, but when he made his MLL debut in 2016, he hadn’t played field lacrosse in over five years.
“I kind of regret it. I kind of wish I had experienced that lifestyle of being a Division I athlete and going away to school. But I also can’t complain about where I’m at today.”
The 29-year-old had played field growing up, but his focus has always been box. His first foray into field came in Kitchener-Waterloo, but he quickly caught the eye of Team Ontario. At just 16 years old, he was asked to come out to tryouts, and he made a team that featured the likes of Dillon Ward and Mark Cockerton.
After playing in a tournament that was being led by Brodie Merrill, Smith had his share of choices when it came to NCAA Division I scholarships. But he decided to take an alternative route.
Smith renounced his NCAA eligibility at 19 years old to enter the 2012 NLL Draft, and after being selected as a top-five pick, he quickly found his footing against the best in the world. He attended Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ontario, however, they didn’t have a lacrosse program. So when Smith got a call from current Chrome head coach Tim Soudan in 2016, it was a chance for him to take his talents outdoors once again, suiting up for the Rochester Rattlers.
“That first game was crazy because it was against the Lizards and against Paul Rabil,” Smith said. “It was cool getting to play him my first game, and he had some words for me after that game and I’ll always remember that. It was kind of crazy to get my feet wet, and then from that first game, it kind of took off.”
Smith only played nine total games in the MLL, scoring 12 goals and 24 points over three seasons, spent with the Rattlers and Chesapeake Bayhawks.
During that first year with the Rattlers, Smith always had the backing of Soudan, who kept pushing him and putting him in the lineup. He added that Soudan saw something in him that Smith didn’t see in himself at the time.
“Before the season started, I was looking for a righty Canadian-style guy, and Randy Mearns brought up Dhane’s name. I started watching him during the indoor season and went, ‘Oh my God, this guy has the quickest first step.’ And it was a no-brainer,” Soudan said. “I talked to Jordan MacIntosh and some other guys and they all said that he was the real deal. It took him like a game and a half, and in the second half of that second game, he was just lights out.”
In 2019, Smith signed on to join the PLL for its inaugural season. He ended up on the Chaos roster alongside now roommate Josh Byrne. The pair began playing together in 2017 after Byrne was selected first overall in the 2017 NLL Draft. They also teamed up in 2018 with the Bayhawks.
The two Canadians have been rooming together for five years, first in Toronto and now in Hamburg, NY, where they’ve bought a house.
“Our connection both on and off the field, he’s kind of like my little brother,” Smith said of Byrne. “We always look for each other and we always make each other better, and we push each other in the gym. It’s cool to have a guy on your side to play with but it’s even cooler to have that kind of connection across the field as well.
Smith didn’t make his debut with the team until Week 4 in Baltimore against the Archers. But that one game was enough to thoroughly impress Chaos head coach Andy Towers. Despite the likes of Myles Jones, Deemer Class, Jake Froccaro, and Kevin Buchanan suiting up, among others, it was the new addition to the lineup that stood out.
“I saw him play and I just thought that he was the best feeding midfielder in the world. He really does do everything that you need him to do, and his decision making is awesome,” Towers said. “At times, he may be a little aggressive. But because he’s so talented and his confidence is so high, he feels like he can make any play. He usually can and usually does.”
Last season was Byrne’s best in the PLL, as he finished the Championship Series with 20 points, and while he’s continued that production into 2021, Smith has been the breakout candidate for Chaos this year. Really, Smith has been making a statement for the past two summers.
He had just one point through the group play last summer, but in the quarterfinals against Chrome, he posted a hat trick along with three assists. He also added a goal in the semi-final and two points in the Championship game against the Whipsnakes.
“The first year especially, I kind of just sat back and was happy to be there,” Smith said. “Last year in the bubble, I made a name for myself once the playoffs started. (Byrne) always believed in me and told me that I could be just as good. That helped me a lot.”
Smith is one of the most unique players in the game currently. He stands at 6-foot-3 but possesses a unique blend of speed and strength while also possessing one of the best first steps in the game. He’s a matchup nightmare. He can beat defenders off the dodge and also drop a shoulder into their chests and back them down to create his shot.
You won’t see him switch hands too often -- he is Canadian after all. But it doesn’t matter. He still finds a way to set himself or his teammates up in prime scoring positions.
The Chaos’ offensive system also caters perfectly to Smith and the box-style players that the team possesses. The switch to more Twins sets allow them to work three two-man games, freeing one another up through picks and off-ball cuts.
“We’ve just grown up playing these systems for our whole life, and just to throw it in the field game where it’s never been seen before, it’s awesome,” Smith said. “Coach Panetta and Coach Towers give us full range. There’s not many times that you see guys pick on-ball, let alone off-ball, and I think we’re changing the game.
“It’s just fun to play in. During the season, it was about finding those right pieces, and now that we have, it’s definitely fun. We know where we’re going, we know what we’re doing, and that makes it enjoyable.”
This off-season, Towers loaded up on Canadian and Iroquois talent, acquiring Ian MacKay, Wes Berg, and Chris Cloutier via trade, adding Chase Fraser in the player pool, and selecting Ryan Smith and Tanner Cook in the College Draft along with Kyle Jackson and Challen Rogers in the Entry Draft.
Smith has flourished this season within this offense, as he’s put up 20 points, boosted by a team-best 13 assists -- which ties him with Tom Schreiber for fifth league-wide in the category.
In the quarterfinals against the Archers, the headlines did go to Kyle Jackson, who stepped into the lineup and had a big game. But lost in the headlines was the stellar play of Smith, who had a six-point outing to help Chaos move onto the semis. In that game against Atlas, Smith was front and centre with another six points.
Chaos also mixed in a different look with Smith in the semi-finals, as they inverted him and had him isolated on a short-stick from X. Both times that he operated from behind the cage, he scored, using his strength to overpower the defender to get a topside finish.
With 12 points in the pair of postseason contests, Smith is among the hottest players in the league at the moment. He credited the confidence he has in himself and his teammates, but Smith is also excelling in every situation he’s put into. He’s a tough player to try and gameplan for because he’s the complete package.
“He’s a dangerous passer and a dangerous dodger, so that’s trouble,” Soudan said of Smith. “You try to take away his strong hand because he’s strong to the right, but he’s got such a good first step that he S dodges you underneath. So it’s almost like you want to give him some of his right to encourage him but yet, you don’t want to let him get under early.
“He’s so good in the two-man game and with the Chaos, those Canadian guys know when to pick and roll, when to slip the pick. So if you make any error, they’re going to capitalize.”
On the field, Smith is becoming a star in the PLL, and he’s also been able to use this new platform to help push for social change.
A civil rights movement took place last summer, as people across North America protested against police brutality and racism following the death of George Floyd. Smith was one of the individuals that was at the forefront of the movement within lacrosse, as he started the “I Belong Here” campaign -- a non-profit providing education o nthe difficulties that players and coaches of color face while promoting inclusion within the sport.
Smith also joined the Black Lacrosse Alliance, which was also formed in an effort to help some of the biggest names in lacrosse build a better future for the sport.
Every time that Smith takes to the field, he’s doing so with more than his play in mind.
“Anyone that knows me knows that I’m a quiet-spoken person. But last year, I felt that it was important to speak my story. I felt uncomfortable doing it, but those things that are uncomfortable are the most important things to speak up about. Those are the conversations you have to have with other people,” Smith said. “I had kids reaching out to me that have been in the same situations, and that’s what was most important and hit home for me. I wish I had that growing up. I went through a lot of things -- racial things -- growing up, but I didn’t really have that platform. Now that I do, I felt that it was very necessary (to speak up).
“...You don’t see many Black lacrosse players at the professional level, but in the PLL, there are tons this year. I know this was my first All-Star appearance, but there were six to eight of us that got into the All-Star game, and that’s just a next level type of thing. It’s pretty cool to see us growing, but we want to see more. But with us being in that game, it just shows kids that they’re able to do the same. So we’re not close to where we want to be, but this helps a lot.”
During his career, Smith has been able to make it to championship games on multiple occasions, but he hasn’t been able to bring home his first title as of yet. He has the chance to change that this weekend.
He had to watch last summer as the Whipsnakes rolled to a 9-0 fourth quarter en route to their second straight PLL Championship. But a lot can happen in a year. Chaos finished as the sixth seed, going under .500 through the regular season. But they turned it on at the right time, beating the Archers and Atlas to cement their position in the title game.
They now have the chance to get their revenge against the Whips while ending a chance at a three-peat in the process.
“Obviously, there have been some ups and downs. We started the season 0-3 and we were kind of going, ‘Oh no, not this again,’” Smith said with a chuckle. “I think any championship team has to peak at the right time, and I think we’re doing so. We did it last year and we’re doing it this year. We just have one more game and it’s obviously an important one.
“We’re excited about it but it’s really just one play at a time at the end of the day. One quarter at a time, one shift at a time. I think that last year really helped us with this year. We have a lot of familiar faces and I think we’re going to come out different this year.”