The Building of Chaos: From team ‘potluck’ to PLL Champions
By Josh Schafer | Sep 21, 2021
The Chaos players and coaches all wanted a championship this way. They wanted the Whipsnakes one more time. They wanted to avenge the 2020 PLL Championship loss but also to avenge the overall 1-5 record against the PLL’s top team entering the game. Chaos wanted to prove that this year’s run wasn’t a fluke, that they’d actually been building something this whole time whether the outside world believed them or not.
Chaos head coach Andy Towers said he was glad his team drew the two-time defending champions because he knew what a win would mean. Towers believes his Chaos’ 14-9 win over the Whipsnakes in the PLL Championship legitimized a lacrosse club he’s been shapeshifting for nearly three seasons. In the process, his team might’ve even shifted the paradigm of a young league.
Towers felt like the cards had been stacked against some of the original six teams. With a handful of Albany players and some Canadians mixed in, Chaos lacked an identity at the league’s inception, Towers said. They weren’t like the professional Fighting Irish filling Redwoods roster or the Maryland dream team donning green and red for Jim Stagnitta’s Whipsnakes. The 2019 Whips had 20 Maryland players, with nearly all of them playing some role in Maryland’s string of seven NCAA Tournament Final Four appearances between 2011 and 2018.
Towers argues that the players' prior experience with each other created a locker room hierarchy. The players on those teams knew what role they’d play in the overall machine. They already had some level of team culture.
“We were team potluck,” Towers says of the original Chaos roster.
Chaos needed to create its own culture. So Towers traded two of the most notable players in the game at their respective positions in the first two seasons, gambled on Canadian box players and sat PLL ALL-Stars in the playoffs in the process. But all along, it was about building to win this way against one of those teams that many thought would keep winning until their player’s beards turned white. It was about proving to the PLL community that a team could create a culture out of thin air and win with different faces. It was a statement game Chaos had been waiting three years to make.
“They f***** won,” Towers said after winning the title. “It’s a lesson for everybody.”
Building the boat
Mark Glicini is more of the cerebral type. The owner of his own sports psychology business, and a team captain for Chaos, he likes to use analogies and tell stories to prove his point. The 2021 PLL Champions remind Glicini of his favorite book, The Boys in the Boat. It’s the unlikely story of the 1936 U.S. Olympic Rowing Team which upset the favored Germans to win Gold in Berlin.
No one believed in that team. One could even pontificate that if fan votes existed back then, the U.S. might have received less than 3% of the support. But the boys in that U.S. boat, born from different upbringings united under a common goal in a sport that requires the utmost synchronization, something Glicini believes the 2021 Chaos had.
“I would say if I had to think on the spot of kind of the story of the lyrics to the song that we're writing, I think that it would be individual commitment to a team effort,” Glicini said.
That’s in large part due to Towers and the selections he made while building the Chaos’ boat over the past three seasons. Some of the decisions weren’t easy ones. In the 2020 Championship Series, Towers sat Connor Fields, one of the best attackmen in the PLL’s first season. With Fields out of the lineup, Chaos found a new offensive identity that placed them a quarter away from beating the Whipsnakes in the 2020 championship game.
When assessing the team, Towers and the other Chaos coaches realized their offense needed to closely resemble the offense that won them games in the PLL bubble, the one without one of the world’s best offensive weapons. So Towers traded Fields for midfielder Ian MacKay. The one-for-one trade, granted Chaos a two-way midfielder that totaled nine points and 18 groundballs during the season.
Towers beefed up the offense further, adding attack Chris Cloutier, who scored two goals in the Championship. The addition of Cloutier, MacKay and Chase Fraser to an offensive unit that already included Josh Byrne and Dhane Smith, rounded out a group of offense stars goalie Blaze Riorden calls the “Kardashians of Buffalo.” Few defenses kept up with the group in the playoffs as the Chaos raced to their most goals in a three-game span at any point this year.
The new faces produced when called upon. Kyle Jackson, who played sparingly through portions of the season, tallied six points to lead Chaos past the Archers in the quarterfinals. Entry Draft addition, Max Adler won 10-of-14 faceoffs during one stretch of the Championship and finished the game 50% from the stripe overall. Not a dominant performance, but a well enough timed one to hold back Whipsnakes faceoff specialist Joe Nardella and the best transition offense in the PLL, a unit that plagued Chaos in the 2020 bubble loss.
“I think just adding a core and you know, a little nucleus to our team, helped with the cohesiveness,” Riorden said. “The identity is definitely a little more cohesive (than in 2020) and young.”
To beat the team that couldn’t be topped the year before Chaos needed those new bodies. They played the Championship with just eight starters from the 2020 PLL Championship. With the new players pulling their end, some of the older players had to fix their weight distribution in the boat.
The original Chaos pieces
Before every game, Jack Rowlett thinks about the text that changed the way he approached his role in the Chaos defense. The message came before the 2020 PLL bubble and didn’t need much description.
“You’re too good to be a thug,” Rowlett’s assistant coach at North Carolina David Metzbower texted.
Rowlett knew what his former offensive coordinator had referenced. Chaos needed the Rowlett who’d lock down opposing attackmen, not spend portions of every game in the sin bin. So he refocused himself in the bubble and started forming the playstyle that earned him a nomination for the PLL’s Defensive Player of the Year Award in 2021. He just wasn’t quite ready to be that guy in 2020. He wasn’t big enough. Zed Williams proved it time after time in the championship as he poured in six goals and physically dominated Rowlett.
Rowlett watched that game back several times over. He didn’t often watch the whole game, but always the goals against. He watched a stronger person beat down a weaker opponent. He’d picture those plays all offseason during his crossfit workouts and imagine Williams’ body beating against him when he needed motivation to continue building lower body strength.
Rowlett admits that he spent his offseason focusing on how to stop Williams. He added 15 pounds so he’d be prepared for the collisions. On Sunday, he stuck to Williams on fast breaks, fought to keep with through picks and wasn’t backed down into the crease. Williams, the 2020 PLL Championship MVP, didn’t score a goal in the 2021 championship.
“Just like a wide receiver in the NFL with a quarterback, you see those same matchups year in, year out,” Riorden said. “Jack's been playing a lot of these number one guys now for the last two years. He's starting to get familiar with their tendencies and imposing his will, making it hard for them to be effective.”
Rowlett’s individual focus amplified the team the same way, others individual performances would eventually fit in. The veterans of the Kardashians from Buffalo, Byrne (11 points) and Smith (18 points) helped pace the Chaos offense through the playoffs. Riorden’s consistency in the championship run helped the team play with confidence, Chaos players said. Like a rower looking forward in the boat, the players can’t always see if Riorden is actually making the save. They just trust him. They leave earlier for breakout passes, bursting past opponents for easy clears. Those clean exits would eventually be the unpinning of the Whipsnakes as Chaos ran out the clock on Sunday.
Still, to beat the Whipsnakes, Andy Towers would need to make another move that mystified the outside world. After spending the middle of the summer jockeying with four right-handed players to fill two spots in the midfield, he found his answer on a Thursday night in Albany.
Towers and the coaching staff removed two-time PLL All-Star Jake Froccaro and Eric Scott out of the lineup in practice. Ryan Smith and Wes Berg took their place and Towers couldn’t believe what he saw.
“I've never seen the f****** ball move like that anywhere,” Towers remembers telling his coaching staff. “I mean anywhere. USA tryouts... Anywhere. I haven’t seen the ball move that smoothly and everybody is dangerous.”
Chaos defeated the Archers the next night and narrowly lost to the Redwoods that Sunday, a loss some on the Chaos regarded as a win due to a high level of execution. The truth is Chaos thought it was rolling heading into the playoffs even though no one outside the locker room believed the same.
Chaos had won four of its last six games entering the playoffs. They developed a “why not us” attitude, Glicini said. They screamed at the low percentage of fans that picked them to win each week because a group rallying cry helped bring the team closer.
In the games that followed the offense Towers gawked at continued to excel. At times the ball moved faster than defenses could slide leading to open looks. At other moments, the pieces Towers added through the years flashed a dangerous dodge for a goal. It was a combination no one came close to figuring out as Chaos won by at least three goals in every playoff game.
They yelled “3.2%!” from the podium with a laugh. It’d become more of a gimmick as the playoffs carried on but all locker rooms have gimmicks. After three years, Chaos had finally found theirs.
“You have to build a narrative,” Glicini said. “All 19 guys and coaching staff are all wanting the same thing, which is to get more connected and prepared as a group and display our identity on the weekend. You use anything building that narrative.
“Whatever you have to do, to say: It's us against the world and we're burning everything behind us and we're going.”