How the Archers Have Unleashed Mac O’Keefe
“If your hands are free, I’m never going to tell you not to shoot.”
That was Archers Head Coach Chris Bates’ message to Mac O’Keefe leading up to the club’s second game of the 2023 season. After O’Keefe put up three goals on 11 shots and 41 touches in his first game as an Archer, Bates only wanted more out of his new big weapon.
“Him getting as many touches as we can get him is good news for us,” said Bates last week. “I find myself thinking about ways to get his hands free. Through the course of a game you realize, it doesn’t take a whole lot. His release is so quick and he’s got that gunslinger mentality that is just going to create a volume of shots. And it’s not typically a save-able shot.”
Game two was a similar story as game one. Even with college teammate and close friend Grant Ament out of the lineup this past weekend, O’Keefe still managed to put up serious numbers. He notched four points with two one-point goals and one more which he ripped home from two-point range. He shot 3-7 (42.8%) and registered 32 touches, good for second on the team — only behind Tom Schreiber.
For O’Keefe, such a message from his coach has been special, particularly after he had to play out of position as a midfielder for Chaos in his first two years in the league. In fact, O'Keefe only took three shots per game with the Chaos.
“As a player, having a coach that has that type of confidence in you [means that] you’ll never really second guess opportunities that you might have,” noted O’Keefe. “In the past, I’ve definitely hesitated at times, just because I want to play within the offense and not overstep. But having a coach that instills that confidence in you, it allows you to be creative, to take chances. It lets you play a little bit looser. It’s definitely helped my game.”
Through two weeks, O’Keefe is shooting 33.3% on nine shots per game. His shooting success rate is fifth in the PLL among players with more than ten total shots, his five one-point goals are tied for third in the league, and he’s one of just eight players with a two-pointer in the first two games.
Clearly, the confidence the club’s coaching staff has in O’Keefe and the way they’ve prioritized him within the offense has changed how he’s played. O’Keefe is averaging six more shots and 16.6 more touches per game than he did in his two years with Chaos. Importantly, that increased volume has come with practically no drop in efficiency with just a 0.6% decrease in shooting percentage from his first two seasons.
The most obvious answer for how the Archers and Head Coach Chris Bates have unleashed O’Keefe has been quite simply giving him a higher volume and quality of touches and shots. But there’s more to it than that because sustaining the efficiency that makes O’Keefe great goes beyond simply telling him to let it fly more often.
Playing O’Keefe at attack
Moving O’Keefe back to his natural position of attack has worked wonders for him and the club. Being on the field for the full 48 minutes of game play and playing on the right wing where he’s scored so many goals throughout his career has immediately proven beneficial for both his comfort level and the volume of opportunities he gets.
O’Keefe commented that “with the shot clock, as a midfielder you’re only out there for a quick period of time. So the opportunities to get shots off are definitely more limited.” Now that he’s back at attack after Chaos used him at midfield for two years, O’Keefe has found it a lot easier to get the volume of shots necessary for his skillset to be maximized. “Being on attack now, being in every single possession, there are way more opportunities and chances to get my hands free and let shots go that I might not be seeing if I was coming out of the box and only playing for 20-25 seconds and then getting right off.”
Starting O’Keefe at attack has been the first step among many to create surplus shots for him. After the Cannons win, Bates expressed that “we’ll get him as many shots as we can get him,” and that by “leaving him at attack, there’s going to be production.”
Allowing O’Keefe to be a complementary player by surrounding him with initiators
Obviously the pairing with college teammate and close friend Grant Ament is a factor in all of this. But there’s so much more to how the Archers have used O’Keefe in settled offense that has worked wonders for him and the pass-heavy players around him.
When asked before the season about how excited he was for the O’Keefe-Ament connection, Bates actually highlighted how valuable he thought O’Keefe’s presence as a lefty shooter would be for Tom Schreiber and his love for feeding off a split dodge up top.
Such value was immediately evident in the season opener. A Schreiber right-to-left split off a Ryan Ambler pick got his hands free to feed and forced O’Keefe’s defender to hedge for a beat long enough to open the passing lane. With Schreiber’s feeding ability and O’Keefe’s shooting prowess, that sliver of space is all that’s necessary.
For O’Keefe, playing alongside passers and dodgers like Schreiber, Ament, Matt Moore, Connor Fields, and the rest of the Archers offense has been a relief which has allowed him to focus on doing what he does best.
“It definitely takes a lot of stress off of my shoulders,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about taking the ball and going to the goal to create offense. I can just find pockets on the field and rely on those guys to beat their man. When you’re playing with guys of that caliber, it’s pretty easy. Just stay out of their way at times and then find space and they’ll make plays and set you up.”
Bates noted that “I don’t think there’s any doubt,” that O’Keefe is set up to thrive alongside the likes of Schreiber, Ament, and company. “I think Mac can just fit in so many different ways,” the coach added. “He doesn’t need the ball, but he just creates opportunities, stretching the defense, being off-ball.”
If one team in the league is suited for creating that little bit of space necessary for O’Keefe to catch and shoot, it’s the Archers. The ball movement that the club prioritizes has tangible on-field impact, and that hasn’t ever been more evident than over the past few weeks as he’s fit seamlessly into the league’s pass-heaviest offense.
The substitution game is just one way that the Archers try to get a step on opposing defenses, and the quick ball movement in the play below illustrates how O’Keefe’s ability to get his howitzer of a shot off quickly has been maximized in Bates’ offense.
After Reece Eddy flies to the midfield line to get another offensive player on the field, Connor DeSimone gets a step on his defender which Fields immediately recognizes by passing to his cutting teammate. DeSimone judges the situation well and after he draws a defender (importantly, O’Keefe’s defender), he moves the ball to Tre Leclaire and continues to clear through to stretch the defense further towards the left side of the field. Because he does that, both O’Keefe’s defender and the short-stick that followed DeSimone out of the box follow the ball, and Leclaire pings the ball right to O’Keefe on the other side who properly utilizes the few yards of separation he gets to bury the ball in the upper left corner.
This is just one example of what will undoubtedly be many instances of the complementary relationship between the Archers’ offensive principles and O’Keefe’s shooting prowess. With time, the value of the pass-first instincts that the club has instilled should only further ignite O’Keefe’s productivity.
Building around O’Keefe in advantageous situations
In 6-on-5 or 4-on-3 situations, the Archers have one goal: Make Mac O'Keefe the uncovered player.
In transition, O’Keefe runs the point as the attackman set up to receive the initial pass. While that hasn’t resulted in any goals for him yet, it’s a clear point of emphasis from the staff to either get the ball in O’Keefe’s stick in scenarios where the defense has to close out to him or use the threat he poses to force defenses to stay home and allow a shot from the player carrying the ball down the middle.
More notably, the Penn State alum has been the featured component of the Archers power play. The team has had eight true power play possessions in two games. On those eight possessions, O’Keefe has shot the ball six times, scored twice, registered three points, and been the key decoy for the club’s third power play score.
For O’Keefe, the emphasis that’s been placed on getting him the ball in these scenarios has been meaningful. “Whenever the flag goes down my eyes get pretty big,” he said. “Having more opportunities on the power play, it’s an easy way to get going early on in games. You have opportunities to shoot the ball. As a shooter, if you get one early then you start feeling it for the rest of the game. So having that confidence from the guys around me to get me the ball… It’s nice when guys are looking for you, especially Tom as of late.”
“He just stretches the field so you have to account for it defensively,” said Bates of O’Keefe’s impact. “If he can pull guys away from the cage it can open room for other things to happen, for other seams and flash cuts.”
That field stretching ability that Bates highlighted is backed up by the film. O’Keefe’s first goal with the Archers and the club’s first of the season came on the power play where he and Ament simply banged the ball back and forth to one another before O’Keefe found the space to step into a shot. Against Chrome on Friday, he benefited from the defense not properly closing out to him, burying a two-pointer off a similar progression of events when Schreiber passed the ball to him and he stepped into one after throwing a fake to his right.
Those types of goals and O’Keefe’s reputation as a flamethrower from the perimeter have allowed the Archers to get creative. He noted how “if [the defense] is cueing in on me on the man-up, then there’s Ryan Ambler, Tom Schreiber, Grant Ament, Connor Fields, all these guys who can bury the ball as well.”
Take this power play possession from the Archers' game against the Cannons as an example. After the previous power play possession had ended in an open but missed O’Keefe step-down from the wing, the offense ran the same exact action: two rotating, three-player wheels on either side of the field with Schreiber looking to pass to his left before spinning and actually dishing to his right.
On the first possession, Schreiber found a curling O’Keefe while the defense played catch up. The second time around, the Archers exploited the Cannons’ eagerness to carry with O’Keefe off-ball and Schreiber hit Ambler slipping into the space left by the defender who followed O’Keefe too far out onto the perimeter.
Generating opportunities for O’Keefe to hit pay-dirt is one thing. But, in game one, already recognizing the respect opposing defenses have to give him and parlaying that into open looks for other players is next-level scheming which indicates how perfect the fit is for O’Keefe on the Archers.
Looking ahead to Archers vs Chaos, Saturday at 12:00 EST on ESPN
This Saturday, the Archers meet O’Keefe’s former team, Chaos, at noon on ESPN. Andy Towers’ club has eliminated the Archers from the playoffs each of the past three seasons. O’Keefe acknowledges the rivalry that’s been established between the two clubs, admitting that “it’s interesting from position because I was a part of those teams that beat [the Archers] in the past, but now I’m on the other side.”
Nevertheless, for O’Keefe and his teammates, the lead up to the weekend isn’t any different. “I don’t really try to approach it any other way,” he said. “You just have to prepare during the week like you’re going to be playing the best players in the world and it’s no different every single week. Trying to go into this game with the same mindset, don’t let the emotions take over and just try to put the best product I can on the field.”
Saturday’s contest will carry plenty of storylines. The continued success of Archers specialists Brett Dobson and Mike Sisselberger, whether Ament has recovered from his left hamstring strain, how Challen Rogers fits for the Archers in his first game, and the continued re-integration of Chaos’ offensive stars will all play a part in what should be a thriller.
But while there’s plenty more to watch, the potential difference maker for the Archers this week and moving forward will be how the club continues to find ways to unleash Mac O’Keefe in the role and the offensive scheme which works best for him.