Philadelphia Waterdogs midfielder Matt Whitcher

How Matt Whitcher leads Waterdogs’ ‘run and gun’ transition offense

By Wyatt Miller | Jun 6, 2024

A turnover off the faceoff put the ball in Liam Byrnes’ stick, and the Philadelphia Waterdogs started their transition offense, just as they’d practiced all week. The Dogs were down 12-4 early in the third quarter, and they needed some momentum during the Cash App Championship rematch against the Utah Archers.

Byrnes sprinted past midfield and tossed to the wing, with Matt Whitcher trailing. Once he saw the long pole wasn’t sliding, Whitcher thought, “Alright, I’m the second guy down in transition, I’m just going to crash the pipe,” as he’d done for the duration of training camp.

So, when the ball made its way to Zach Currier at the top of the arc, he knew exactly where to put it. He hit Whitcher on the doorstep, who dunked it before getting walloped by Cam Wyers. This was a “direct result” of the structure that assistant coach Dylan Sheridan added to Philly’s transition offense during camp. And Whitcher, whom former Waterdogs head coach Andy Copelan trusted implicitly on offense last season, was the perfect person to capitalize.

Whitcher was a two-way midfielder at York College, and his offensive instincts are still strong. That makes him a pivotal piece of the Waterdogs’ transition offense, especially with a short shot clock. His five goals last season ranked third among short-stick defensive midfielders, and he’s already on his way to top that with two fast break goals in the 2024 season opener.

“We like to play this run-and-gun style, and (Copelan) empowered us to seek out those opportunities,” Whitcher said. “I think at training camp this past week, Coach Sheridan did a great job of giving us some structure within our transition offense.”

The Waterdogs owned the PLL’s best transition offense in 2023, leading the league in transition goals and shooting percentage, as well as fast break percentage. The first game of 2024 indicated they’ll have similar success this summer.

“The two biggest things I look for are matchups and spacing,” Whitcher said. “If there’s a good matchup and enough space to operate, then I’m going to take a chance and see what I can do.”

A trapped offensive midfielder is a green light for defenders to initiate in transition, especially if they have backgrounds as attackmen. Sure enough, that’s what Whitcher saw in the fourth quarter with the Waterdogs down 12-10 and five minutes remaining.

When Currier found Whitcher on a fast break for a second time, it was because they both saw Tre Leclaire coming up to guard him. Whitcher chopped his feet into a textbook split dodge from the top and stung the right corner going to his weak left side. That made it a one-goal game.

Whitcher bookended the Waterdogs’ 7-0 run in the second half with those two goals. It wasn’t enough to complete the comeback, as the Dogs fell 12-11, but it showed that the tenets of this Waterdogs team are still firmly in place, even with a different coaching staff under Bill Tierney. The Dogs play fast and attack in transition because they have the versatility to pull it off.

Plus, Whitcher isn’t Philly’s only SSDM with offensive acumen. All four of Philadelphia’s defensive middies had at least two points last season, and Tierney has continued to train with positionless lacrosse.

During training camp, the Waterdogs consistently ran a short-field, four-on-four set with a tennis ball where everyone played every position. Last Friday, less than 24 hours before the first game, multiple defenders scored or assisted goals during that drill. It was obvious that every player on the team had established some offensive chemistry. 

“It is a lot of fun, especially for the guys who don’t get to shoot on the goal very much,” Whitcher said.

During a social media interview, Waterdogs midfielder Jake Carraway called Whitcher “the best short stick d-middie in the league,” before inserting him into his all-Dogs fantasy lineup. Whitcher finished with two caused turnovers and a ground ball on top of his two goals. Those 38 fantasy points probably won Carraway some matchups, as Whitcher finished first in fantasy scoring among SSDMs and second among all defenders.

Every Waterdogs starter from 2023 returned to the team, so they know how dependable their short sticks can be in transition. But Whitcher poses the biggest threat, having scored 86 goals and 33 assists in 84 college games at York, and his teammates know where he’s most effective. 

“There’s a big trust component,” Whitcher said of his involvement on offense. “They understand where I’m going to be at my best and what I can do in certain situations.”