From unprotected to champions: Andy Copelan’s roster building comes full circle with title

By Josh Schafer | Sep 20, 2022

In the moments after hoisting the PLL Cash App Championship Trophy, Andy Copelan explained how his team went from a group of unprotected players to PLL champions. 

He didn’t even need to say anything. Together four players and their head coach took the podium and deferred praise to the other repeatedly. The intent of his team was clear. It’d been about building a team atmosphere. A thankless group, where one player wouldn’t stand out from the rest. 

Sure there’d been an MVP in Michael Sowers, a nice story with three points in his hometown. Sure, a world class goalie in Dillon Ward had just bested last year’s MVP in save percentage. But there were groundballs to talk about too. And some late stick work from Eli Gobrecht to keep the ball away from Chaos wouldn’t go unnoticed either. 

For Copelan and the Waterdogs, the star power was certainly needed at times, but really it’s been a team built on winning little battles. So the head coach led as he always hoped his players would follow. 

“I had very little to do with this,” Copelan said. “It’s all about these guys. But they honestly got exactly what they deserve.”

The Waterdogs snagged 15 more groundballs than Chaos and forced four more turnovers than their counterparts. Original Waterdogs like Kieran McArdle (four points) and Jake Withers (11 groundballs) led the way at times, while the second wave of Waterdogs additions in Ward (13 saves) and Sowers (3 points) helped push the Waterdogs over the edge. 

After trailing 3-0 to start the game, Waterdogs rolled. And as each moment played out, a piece of what Copelan had strategically picked out over the last three years fell right into place.

“We’ve kind of had that same group of guys that we’ve been with since the bubble. The journey has been a battle. But each year, we got better and here we are. We’re champions,” Waterdogs attack Kieran McArdle said on the podium after a champagne shower.

Building a ‘Selfless team’

In the PLL, where head coaches are general managers, coaches have more impact on the roster than in most other sports. That’s been particularly the case for Copelan, who build out his own roster from scratch when the Waterdogs were added as the first expansion team prior to the 2020 season.

Copelan often references his initial plan. It’s a blueprint, really, an initial sketch it seems the coaching staff is often still checking back on to make sure their building matches the initial drawings.

Back in 2020 prior to the Waterdogs' first season, Copelan talked about playing through the arcs. He loved the pace of the PLL and thought the short field should be taken advantage of. He wanted his team to be full of two-way players, guys that could win a groundball battle on one end and take it down for a goal. 

He wanted to be well-rounded over one-dimensional and made that clear when he drafted Zach Currier over Rob Pannell in the expansion draft. Instead of a flashy offense, Copelan opted for the game’s best two-way midfielder. 

Currier would become the face of what the Waterdogs wanted to be. 

“(We’re going to be) a selfless team,” Currier said prior to the Waterdogs first season. “We don't have any guys that need their five points and need to get their highlight-reel goals to get posted on Instagram, so they can get their followers all pumped up...We're going to be making smart lacrosse plays and plays that help our team win as opposed to plays that are going to end up on Instagram.”

‘Gritty’ goes a long way

To understand why the first adjective Copelan uses to describe his team is “gritty,” you have to rewind to 2020.

The first two seasons of the Waterdogs history could probably be as much defined by who didn’t play as who did. Currier started the bubble exactly how Copelan wanted. The Canadian dove straight into the crease, risking his body for a goal. But the goal was waved off by a crease violation and an injury on the play left Currier laboring for the rest of the bubble. The Waterdogs left Utah 1-4 following a first round exit.

Copelan knew there were some obvious changes needed for the Waterdogs in Year 2. The Waterdogs needed more offense. They didn’t have a secure answer in net, either. The team comprised almost entirely of unprotected players needed some firepower. 

So Copelan traded for the best player who wasn’t playing a lick on his PLL team and drafted one of the most hyped college lacrosse players of the past decade. The Waterdogs No.1 seed in last year’s playoffs didn’t translate though. An inexperienced ‘Dogs club fell to a similar fate as the year prior. That No. 1 pick Michael Sowers played sparingly after an injury held him back, just as injuries had plagued Currier the year prior.

“We certainly had a vision and kind of a philosophy and approach for how we navigate all those multitude of drafts. And, you know, how we saw the thing coming together,” Copelan said.  You know, obviously, just like anything else in life, it never goes in the straight line. There's always some speed bumps along the way, we certainly have had our fair share. So you know, I guess above all else, that's the thing that I appreciate most is just guys who have responded to every situation, the way I really would have hoped that they would have responded.”

The Waterdogs started this season 0-2. Dillon Ward hadn’t played yet. Last year’s star midfielder Mikie Schlosser started battling early injuries and the roster that had been built to win felt like it might fall short again. 

But then things started to flip. Original Waterdogs began to take over. Kieran McArdle posted his best PLL season yet, tallying 42 points and leading the league with 23 assists. Connor Kelly led the PLL in two-point goals with four, and would show flashes of his early-career alpha scoring self.

And Ward, fresh off an NLL championship, turned into the franchise keeper Waterdogs had hoped for. 

 “He’s elite in cage as a performer,” Copelan said. “But he’s just as elite as a teammate and as a leader. And when he speaks up on our team Zooms (guys listen.) He's a guy that I call every week just to go ahead and pick his brain on what went well, and what didn't go well, And let's talk about our next opponent and just kind of sharing some thoughts. He’s unbelievable.”

So really what happened on Sunday all made sense. It played out much like the Waterdogs story thus far. They fell behind early. They won in the areas people won’t highlight on Instagram but they’ll laud in the film room. 

Currier started a scurry at the end of the first quarter, that led to a momentum shift. Yes, even in the championship game, a near fight proved to be a positive catalyst for the Waterdogs who scored more after the penalties than the Chaos despite the man-advantage.

Six Waterdogs scored goals. Five forced turnovers. It was a little bit of everything from a little bit of everyone.

The final real sequence where Chaos showed life played as they often do in those moments. The ball bounced a bit chaotically. The crowd cheered as Chaos picked up the loose ball.

Alone in front of the net, it felt like a momentum-changing shot was destined for the back of the net. Instead, Ward dropped low one final time and denied the shot. 

Chaos' best opportunity to score and bring the game within one had been turned down by one of the key additions in Copelan’s masterful build of the PLL’s first homegrown champion. Three years after the group of unprotected players were formed into an expansion team, they were champions of the PLL.

“We could care less about personal stats, personal accolades,” Waterdogs captain Steven DeNapoli said.  Nothing in our locker room matters from an individual standpoint. We’ve become a family.”