‘Stop Sleeping On Me’: Why Austin Staats could be the breakout rookie at the Championship Series
By Josh Schafer
Jul 14, 2020
Austin Staats scored more points than nearly every player in the U19 World Games the summer before his freshman year of college. In that 2016 tournament, he outscored fellow Iroquois national teammate Tehoka Nanticoke by five points. He tallied eight and 14 more points than future All-American’s Jeff Teat and Michael Sowers, respectively.
But he never attended an Ivy League school or became a household lacrosse name like those he outscored. He never appeared in SportsCenter’s Top 10 or traveled to the Final Four on Memorial Day Weekend. Staats attended Onondaga Community College, won two national championships in front of a few thousand fans, and left for professional lacrosse.
In 2018, the year he finished his career at OCC, he seemed destined to finally break out into the mainstream. He was the only Iroquois National Team member to make the All-World Team at the 2018 World Lacrosse Championships. Yes, that includes all of the Thompsons and Nanticoke. He won NLL Rookie of the Year in 2019, leading all rookies with 61 points. Yes, that was despite playing three fewer games than everyone, and yes, it was more points than 2019 PLL MVP Matt Rambo posted in his 2019 rookie NLL season.
But a torn ACL in April 2019, prevented Staats from his first NLL playoff appearance. He didn’t play a game in the PLL’s inaugural season last summer. This winter he posted 15 points in his fourth and fifth games back from knee surgery before COVID-19 halted the NLL season. He’s been right there, waiting to fully break out, waiting to be the player everyone knows.
On Saturday, July 25, he’ll have his chance when the PLL kicks off the Championship Series, Staats will suit up with the Chaos for a 7:30 p.m. ET game on NBCSN. For the Six Nations, Ontario native and a two-year community college star, it could be the breakout into U.S. field lacrosse he’s been waiting for.
“I want people to know who I am, know what I can do on the field and stop sleeping on me,” Staats said.
A different path to the pros
Austin Staats' journey to professional lacrosse began in a Spider-Man suit and cowboy boots. It was goofy, sure, but that’s what he preferred to wear to his older brother Randy’s lacrosse practices. Six years younger, Staats trolled the sidelines, sometimes stick in hand and learned the game from a future All-American.
Together they practiced in the backyard. They’d run breakaway drills with one brother in net and the other barreling toward the cage. Other times they’d play “three posts,” where the brothers would call out which post they’d hit. The first person to correctly call out and ping all three posts won.
By the time Staats was 12 or 13, Randy knew his younger brother was on a similar path to him. At that point, Randy had established himself as a standout player at Onondaga Community College and would later continue on to an All-American career at Syracuse University.
Staats’ high school grades didn’t align with Division-I school's requirements, he chose the same route as his brother Randy, cousin Cody Jamieson and other players from Six Nations before them.
“I was going there to feel out options, try and transfer,” Staats said.
Former OCC coach Chuck Wilbur always asked his players what their goals were before starting their career at OCC. He wanted to know where they hoped to be after community college. Many players like Randy and Jamieson told Wilbur of their aspirations to travel four miles down the road to Syracuse University and play in the Carrier Dome.
The younger Staats brother was different.
“Well I don't want to let my mom down and I promised her I'd go to school,” Wilbur remembered Staats saying.
“What do you want to do after school,” Wilbur asked.
“(Go) pro,” Staats responded.
At OCC, Wilbur believes his players receive two educations. There’s the two-year associate's degree of course, but there’s also a degree in life. Upon arrival, Staats was a lacrosse player, one of the better ones Wilbur had seen at that age, but he wasn’t a professional. He wasn’t always on time for meetings. Some offseason days he never showed up to the weight room.
Wilbur believes many players at the community college level need structure. He emphasized that showing up on game day wouldn’t be enough anymore. You’d have to gain your teammate's trust by being there through everything: From classes starting at 9 a.m. through 3 p.m. practice and study hall after. There was more than just lacrosse. If not, there’s always another guy hoping to work his way out of the community college circuit waiting to move up the depth chart.
Staats became a “first guy in, the last guy out,” type player Wilbur said. He dedicated himself to the weight room and begged to put in close games when he was supposed to be nursing an injury. Staats finished as a top-two scorer for the Lazers in both his seasons at OCC while the team won two national titles.
“He definitely had to go through growing pains,” Wilbur said. “By the time he left though, he was a different person and I thought we saw the maturity of just becoming an adult...And learning how to become a pro.”
The excitement in the central New York area grew as Staats entered his second year. Both Syracuse and Albany fans yearned for the community college star to come to play for their team. But parts of Staats maturation was understanding his own goals. He just simply didn’t love school. Attending a four-year university as a student-athlete wasn’t all about playing lacrosse. So he turned to the only option that was all about lacrosse and forewent the national exposure of Division I lacrosse.
“He could've went out of high school and been a First Team All-American he's that talented,” said Jamieson who was an All-American honorable mention nominee himself. “It kind of sucks for the lacrosse world, the NCAA college world, that they didn't get a chance to see this kid but it's going to be pretty cool to watch him play in the PLL against the best field lacrosse players in the world.”
The man who’s risen to the PLL through unconventional means plays the game with a simple style. Wilbur likens Staats to Adrian Peterson, the former Minnesota Vikings running back. Like Peterson, he’s more powerful than he is fast and more simple than he is flashy. Not every goal will be plastered all over social media but he’ll run someone over to reach the cage.
“He was a bull,” Wilbur said. “It's just brute strength and you just use your strength. There were no sidearms, this and that, around the world, it was I'm going to use my strength and my skill to beat you.”
Staats, listed at 6’0 200 lbs, was chubby growing up, his brother jokes. But once the baby fat burned off in high school, his larger build bullied defenders. In the U19 World Championships, he scored the first three Iroquois goals against the United States. The first was a spot-up shot.
After setting a pick, Staats received a pass and fired. He’s done that since too, scoring several goals from farther out in the NLL as well as in the 2018 World Championships. Chaos head coach Andy Towers hasn’t met Staats in person yet, but believes from what he’s seen on film he could be used at either attack or the midfield.
“(Staats is) an unbelievable passer and an unbelievable goal scorer, so to be able to have somebody that's a playmaker and can provide for your team whatever he needs based on the situation, that's a huge shot in the arm for us,” Towers said.
Staats believes his biggest strength is how he can draw double teams and find the open man. Most of that comes from his ability to beat down his defender. Like Jaromir Jagr controlling the puck in the corner, patiently waiting to strike, Staats often ducks his shoulder and uses his behind to separate the defender from his stick.
Less than two minutes into a game against Team USA at the 2018 World Lacrosse Championships, Staats, then 20 years-old, caught the ball in his left hand. He quickly toe-dragged, dangling his stick solely in his right hand as he ducked his shoulder. He barreled through the defender, swiftly brought the stick above his head and twisted in a goal.
That Canadian-style release, known as a twister, serves as a curveball style shot and tricks goalies. It’s a slight touch of deception in an otherwise all-out brute attack from Staats.
“He doesn't care who you are, or who's in front of him, when he's dodging or shooting, he doesn't give a sh*t,” Randy said. “He's going to go through you or find a way to get around you and put the ball away.”
That’s how Staats has always been. He’s straight forward, knows what he wants and finds a way to do it. He’s always wanted to beat the person in front of him and score. He wanted to do it at the pro level. And now, he wants everyone to wake up and watch.