Matt Dunn: The alpha of the Whipsnakes defense
By Lauren Merola | Sep 17, 2021
In Matt Dunn’s collection of Spotify albums sit his originally crafted ‘Chill’ and ’More Chill’ playlists. Back on the first day of quarantine at the 2020 Premier Lacrosse League Champions Series bubble, Dunn and his hotel roommate Michael Ehrhardt couldn’t leave, so they needed something to pass time.
They started adding their favorite Maggie Rogers, The Lumineers, O.A.R., Mt. Joy and Vampire Weekend songs to two different playlists depending on their chill level.
“‘Chill’ is for more of hanging out,” Dunn said. “‘More Chill’ is more for decompressing, the kind of music you listen to by yourself after a long day.”
Despite having a rank of soothing albums on hand, Dunn’s preparation for and play on the lacrosse field is anything but chill. It earned him 2018 Major League Lacrosse Defensive Player of the Year before joining the Premier Lacrosse League in 2019, when he was a Dave Pietramala Defenseman of the Year finalist and in 2020, when he won.
In 2021, Dunn was again a DPOY finalist and first team All-Pro. In nine regular-season games, Dunn grabbed 18 ground balls, caused eight turnovers and had two assists. Dunn’s defense is less about individual accolades and more about the team: Less about his stats and more about his body positioning, field vision and shutting down the league’s best producers.
“Matt is our alpha when it comes to our defense,” said Whipsnakes defensive coordinator Mike Murphy. “He will also command a film session."
The day of a game, Dunn watches a lot of film on his phone. He’ll watch his opponent’s past games and highlight tapes of the attacker he’ll cover. The more he learns, the better he plays.
“I never like to feel like I have to guess too much out there,” Dunn said. “I really like to get control and understand the guys I’m covering before the game, understand what areas of the field they like to go to, what they like to do when they start to dodge, what they like to do from different spots on the field. I like to know what to expect and what shots they’re good at.”
Once Dunn knows what his cover is capable of, he tries to eliminate it from the attacker’s arsenal.
“I’ve been rooming with [Matt] the last couple of games and every free moment he has, he’s on his computer watching opponents’ film,” Jay Carlson said.
Carlson and Dunn became close friends at Maryland. The two Baltimore natives played in the same lacrosse conference in high school, but once they got to College Park, they spent nearly all their time together on the lacrosse field and in the business school.
“People should try to emulate who Matt Dunn was as a freshman, a rookie,” Carlson said. “He was all ears. He picked up everything super fast. He worked very hard. At Maryland, there’s a lot of strong leaders and personalities and Matt was able to follow everyone’s lead. He made an immediate impact on the field and off the field as a great teammate.”
Since his days at Maryland, Carlson said Dunn developed into a vocal, articulate leader. Even though Carlson is two years older, he looks up to Dunn.
“He does the right thing 24/7,” Carlson said. “He doesn’t stop improving, and he’ll speak up when he has to.”
Like Dunn did in the quarterfinals in Week 9, when the Whipsnakes were losing to the Redwoods 9-5, but Dunn wasn’t ready to call the season.
“At halftime, Matt spoke and everyone listened,” Carlson said. “He was like, ‘Hey, we’ve been here before. Let’s not panic. Let’s not shy away. Let’s still play our game. If they can go up four goals in the first half, we can go up four goals in the second.’ We were able to rally around him. He’s really stepped up as a leader the past couple of years. Everyone looks up to him.”
The Whipsnakes battled back and won 14-13. They then defeated the Waterdogs 14-10 in the semifinals, where Dunn had two ground balls and two caused turnovers. Now, the only team that stands between the Whipsnakes and a three-peat is the Chaos.
Only a few professional sports franchises ever have pulled off winning three consecutive championships. In recent history, the 2002 Los Angeles Lakers, 2000 New York Yankees and 1998 Chicago Bulls achieved the feat.
Even rarer, the Houston Comets won the first three championships in WNBA history. With a Whips win Sunday, they too could take home the hardware after the first three finals in a league’s history.
Still, there’s been no mention of a three-peat in the Whipsnakes locker room.
“I want to win the championship this year,” Dunn said. “The past years are the past. What happened last year doesn’t matter. What happened two years ago doesn’t matter. This year’s goal is to win a championship, just like next year’s goal will be to win a championship.”
“Matt is so happy to play alongside guys like Bryce Young and Tim Muller,” Carlson said. “They’ve played together for 5-10 years straight. Them as a unit is so impressive. They’re on the same page, they play great defense and Matt holds it down as one of the leaders down there.”
Murphy is confident his d-line will get the job done. Dunn, Young and Muller all played together at some point in their college careers at Maryland and rely on that synergy to defend against the best in the league.
Drafting players from schools that teach and play similar defensive schemes is the foundation for a cohesive Whipsnakes defense.
“Defense is defense,” Murphy said. “There’s not many ways to skin a cat. We’ve got built-in chemistry because so many of these guys have college experience together or are from the same system. We’re able to keep the system these guys are comfortable with and then, when you introduce a Colin Squires or a Ty Warner like we did in our first two years, it’s a common language to the Whipsnakes. Like it was a common language at Denver and Yale. It was a common language at Maryland.”
This “common language” of defense is more than being a great on-ball cover, but a better off-ball one. Murphy said Dunn can dissect what’s happening in real-time and react quickly, constantly talking to his teammates, sliding and double-teaming when he needs to.
“That is why Matt is one of the best defensemen in the world,” Murphy said. “He’s not just a great on-ball cover guy. He’s a great defenseman.”
Dunn wasn’t always a consistent, lock-down defender. In fact, he didn’t even like lacrosse until middle school.
Growing up, Dunn played football, basketball and lacrosse. He first picked up a stick around five years old, but the game didn’t click for him until seventh grade at Loyola Blakefield when his coach gave him a long pole and moved him to defense, where his basketball footwork translated perfectly.
“I never worked a ton on shooting or stickwork, but I had good athletic instincts playing basketball and football,” Dunn said.
Those instincts transferred to the PLL, where Dunn often covers opponents’ best attackman. But Dunn, Murphy said, is a team guy whose first focus is on the Whipsnakes, a team that sacrifices the ‘me for the we.’
“This is a new group,” Murphy said. “Matt Abbott wasn’t on our team last year. Nick Manis wasn’t on our team last year. Brian Phipps wasn’t on our team last year. This group is looking to win a championship for this group.”
That’s Dunn’s goal, too.
Dunn is a constant on the Whipsnakes’ whiteboard. His chest liner, however, is a new addition he’s brought with him to the 2021 season.
On April 16, Dunn, a defensive assistant at his alma mater Loyola Blakefield (Md.), watched as the team almost lost a player to commotio cordis, or cardiac arrest as a result of a blow to the chest, on Loyola’s home field.
In the first quarter of an MIAA matchup between Loyola Blakefield and McDonogh, Loyola freshman defender Peter Laake took a shot to the chest off a fast break. At first, Laake seemed fine, but seconds later, he collapsed.
Dunn watched from the sideline as Loyola’s team doctor Aaron Tracy ran to Laake and started administering CPR. Laake was revived with the use of an AED and rushed to the hospital where he fully recovered.
“It was hands down the scariest thing I’ve ever seen and been around,” Dunn said. “It’s so sobering. It’s a snap into a different world. You go to a lacrosse game and the emotions are high because you’re competing and want to win, but in the snap of a finger, you realize none of that matters.”
After an alarming few minutes of Dunn’s life, he chose to wear shoulder padding and a chest liner for the 2021 season.
“If anybody else was on the field that day, they would wear [chest liners] too,” Dunn said.
As a coach and player, Dunn achieved a lot in the sport of lacrosse so far: He trains younger players, won both MLL and PLL defensive player of the year awards and two PLL championships, but his lacrosse checklist is incomplete.
“I would like to play for Team USA and win a Gold medal with Team USA,” Dunn said. “That’s always been one of the things I’d like to do is play with the U.S. Team in the World Games. I’ve done it for indoor, but not field lacrosse. I also want to win an NLL championship.”
First, he wants a win Sunday.