Kieran McArdle Underdog
Photo courtesy of Nick Ieradi.

The Underdog: Kieran McArdle’s Journey From 3-Star Recruit to Legend

By Wyatt Miller

Jun 26, 2023

In his senior season at Connetquot High, Kieran McArdle led the team to a playoff matchup versus current Waterdogs teammate Liam Byrnes and juggernaut West Islip. 

Byrnes recalled McArdle scoring three goals using the same move in that game. He would drive with his dominant left hand, fake the shot and then roll inside for a quick goal. The West Islip coaches were going ballistic on the sidelines, screaming “how many times are we going to let him inside roll?” Byrnes said. 

So when McArdle tried it a fourth time, Byrnes was ready. He slid into the lane and knocked McArdle down with a hard shoulder, jarring the ball loose. Byrnes picked up the ground ball and threw an upfield pass, but after about five seconds, McArdle came back with a late slap-check. As a fellow Long Islander, Byrnes respected the reaction.

“I hit him pretty good, so he was mad that I knocked him down,” Byrnes said. “But as a competitor, I can respect him coming through and giving me that check late.” 

McArdle’s relentless dodging single-handedly kept his team in that game. And 15 years later, he still plays with that “Long Island edge,” said Waterdogs head coach Andy Copelan, and he’s still – for some reason – an underdog. 

“There's always people that kind of overshadow him for some reason or another… that’s just kind of the way he is,” said his St. Johns head coach Jason Miller. “And then at the end of the day, you know, he’ll probably outplay most of them.”

McArdle’s anything-to-win attitude and endless motor were born in Suffolk County, home to “the toughest lacrosse players in the world,” Byrnes declared. As a lanky, scarcely scouted recruit, McArdle overcame the odds to emerge as one of the best players in lacrosse for a decade. Yet, he’s never had the same respect or high profile of other stars at his level, and he’s used that shadow advantageously throughout his career. McArdle’s only goal for over 20 years was to win, and he’d never done it at any level prior to last season, when he led the Waterdogs to the title. 

This is how McArdle went from 3-star recruit to lacrosse legend and PLL champion: 

Early Years: A born feeder, taught dodger

The first time St. Johns’ coaching staff saw McArdle play, they had come to watch someone from the other team. Miller doesn’t remember that player’s name, but McArdle remains St. Johns’ all-time leader in basically every offensive statistic. 

It was his sophomore year at Connetquot, and he was a tall, lanky attack who was well short of his current 175-lb frame. But still, he drew the top defender that St. Johns had come to scout, and he dropped five points on him. 

McArdle was not a low-ranked recruit because he lacked talent, said former OC Dan Paccione, but because he didn’t play for a top club team. College recruiting was streamlined through the top clubs, and McArdle didn’t play for the elites like Team 91 or Express, he played for Dublin Deck. 

“It just had to do with timing,” Paccione said. “It was more a result of the recruiting landscape at the time that the stronger kids that were playing for those top programs were getting picked up earlier.”

In high school, McArdle was a naturally gifted feeder with a high IQ, but his dodging ability was limited. Aggressive nonetheless, what McArdle lacked in physical dominance, he made up for with smarts and grit. 

“He was just unselfish, he was tough and he was relentless on the ride,” said Paccione. “Meaning, if that ball got turned over, especially if it was his fault, he was getting it back.”

So going into his junior year, McArdle had scarce Division-I offers. But St. Johns gave him a shot and he “turned the program around,” according to Paccione. 

From the jump, McArdle’s processing speed was leaps and bounds ahead of his teammates’. They put him at the center of an offensive system that was created for Tom Michaelson, Miller said, as he was the only gifted goal-scorer on the team.

“[We did] a lot of big-little stuff, a lot of two-man stuff to try and get mismatches for him,” Miller said. “And then we ran the same offense when Kieran came in and it went in a totally different direction.”

McArdle’s knowledge of the game molded the team to his style, Paccione explained, and he did it without saying a word. In practice, Miller said that he'd bounce passes off guys' helmets if their stick wasn’t in the right place. And if they were in the wrong spot entirely, he’d spot-feed where they needed to be, added Paccione. 

“His ability and what he’s able to do on the field to make the guys around him better is his best leadership quality,” Miller said, and he had that from the minute he stepped onto St. Johns’ campus in 2011.

Every season thereafter, McArdle came back with new weapons in his arsenal. 

“You always give people things to work on during the summer… but he took that to a different level,” Miller said. 

In his sophomore year, he came back with more creative dodges that weren’t in his bag the year prior. Yet, he was still drawing the No. 2 defender because teams thought Kevin Cernuto was the Red Storm’s best downhill dodger, which was no longer true, Miller said. McArdle tore those teams apart using a quick first step and hard-fought finishes.

“That [first step] is one of the areas that really changed for him in college,” Miller said. “He was able to beat really good defensemen and you’re like ‘how did he get a step on these guys?’” 

The next summer, he came back with a deeper range, Miller added, flicking 10, 12-yard shots that he wasn’t even attempting the year prior. And once McArdle got a good right hand, he’d put it all together. 

With the offense revolving around him as a sophomore, McArdle gathered all the tools to be an elite attacker and a triple-threat, Paccione said. He gave me free reign to be himself with the ball in his stick, leading the team in both points and turnovers as a result, and learning from his mishaps as much as his successes.

“I think that really helped put my game to another level,” McArdle said. “[Paccione] saw the good in me before a lot of other people did and really gave me the keys to the offense early on.”

And at the end of that second season, St. John's beat Notre Dame in the BIG EAST semifinals.

Once again, McArdle led an underdog into a postseason brawl. But the day prior, Notre Dame had essentially swept the BIG EAST awards from coach of the year to goalie of the year. That didn’t sit too well with McArdle. 

“Kieran was, without a doubt, planning on winning that game,” Paccione said.

And so he did, contributing seven points in an 8-7 victory, including three goals on just five shots. As McArdle made play after play against one of the top teams in the world, his teammates started to believe that they belonged with the best, said Paccione. And to this day, that unspoken motivation that McArdle provides is what makes him so special.  

Launching his pro career: A student of the game

McArdle arrived in the pro game and skipped the transition period. Not only did he win rookie of the year with the Florida Launch in 2014, but he led the team in goals (34) next to his idol, Casey Powell. 

When McArdle was a kid, he’d often go to the final four. And when he was around 10, McArdle got to see Casey Powell with Syracuse and snapped a picture with one of his two favorite players (the other being his brother, Michael). That picture hung in McArdle’s locker when he first came to the Launch facility, said head coach Stan Ross.

“I don’t know how he [Powell] does it for all the years he has played indoors and outdoors his body has taken a beating over the years,” McArdle said in 2015. “It is just awesome seeing him go out there every game and seeing what he is still accomplishing.” 

Powell was 39 years old and still playing at an elite level when McArdle made that statement. And while McArdle himself is only 31, he’s certainly gotten better with age as an indoor and outdoor star, just like Powell. McArdle soaked up everything he could during those years, surrounded by some of the greatest attackers of all time, including Powell, Lyle Thompson and Steven Brooks.

So, once again, McArdle drew the No. 2 or even No. 3 defensemen for the first few years of his career. But at that point, he was a gifted and intelligent scorer as opposed to a natural feeder. 

He scored 272 points in five seasons with the Launch, tallying over 30 goals in at least 10 appearances each year. He would also lead the team in points for three-straight seasons and make three all-star teams. 

McArdle became one of the most consistent top-tier attackers in professional lacrosse by applying his relentless approach to the game as a student, rather than a leader.

“You could tell that he had the leadership qualities, but when you had Steven Brooks and Casey Powell, it’s hard to step in and take control,” Ross said. “He really fit in, he sat back and listened and learned from those guys.”

Powell used to throw behind-the-backs and around-the-worlds with ease. And then, all of a sudden, Ross said McArdle started to imitate it. So they’d have one of the greatest veterans ever doing outrageous moves opposite a younger attackman who could do the same things. 

But, despite all the starpower, the Launch didn’t win a single postseason game in McArdle’s tenure.

When the PLL took over, McArdle landed with Atlas LC and scored 25 points in 10 games in year one. But when the expansion draft came around that offseason, he was left unprotected.

McArdle was overshadowed by more traditional attackers for the umpteenth time, and he found himself with the newly formed Waterdogs. At that point, he’d immersed himself in the underdog mentality. 

“I wouldn’t say it bothers me, but I use it to my advantage,” McArdle said about being constantly underrated. “Throughout the week when I’m working out or shooting, it’s definitely a chip on your shoulder mentality. I kind of like it that way and that’s how it’s been my whole career, so it’s just something that helps fuel the fire a little bit but not something I think about too often.”

The Waterdogs win it

Last September, McArdle reached the pinnacle. In three playoff games, the Suffolk County product scored 11 points on seven goals, including a fourth-quarter hat trick and game-winner to send the Waterdogs to the championship as the five seed. McArdle led the underdogs into the playoffs yet again, and he finally finished the job.

With just under two minutes remaining, Connor Kelly drew the Whipsnakes’ help defender on the right side before passing to Ethan Walker at X. That’s when McArdle gave his defender the slip in the middle and moved to the spot Kelly had just cleared. McArdle turned Walker’s pass around in one fluid motion and scored just below the crossbar to put the Waterdogs up 11-10, high-stepping in celebration.

McArdle had just one point before the fourth quarter. But when everyone else was tired and beat up, McArdle was still going full speed because that’s all he knows how to do. And the championship game featured more of the same, as McArdle assisted both fourth-quarter goals to help take home the trophy. 

“It’s really hard to put it into words,” McArdle said about finally winning it all. “Definitely an emotion I’ve never experienced before… After nine years of playing professional lacrosse, it was definitely worth the wait.”

Leading the team in points all three seasons, McArdle erupted for an MVP-caliber 2022, scoring 42 points and a league-leading 23 assists. Yet, he’s been overshadowed (as usual) by Michael Sowers, the speedy, risk-averse attacker from Princeton, giving McArdle favorable matchups. And while Sowers’ play style makes him a walking highlight tape, McArdle makes everyone around him better both behind the scenes and on game day. 

That impact has been felt on Team USA as well, where he’s led them in scoring during pool play. If that doesn’t prove he belongs with the best players in the world, nothing will.

With Ryan Brown retired, Copelan named McArdle captain for the first time in his professional career. And playing with three 25 year-old attackers, McArdle is as much a coach as he is a player. But with professionals, McArdle doesn’t need to bounce balls off of helmets – he just leads by example.

“On the offensive end… it’s really Kieran and Copelan grabbing the bull by the horns and saying ‘this is how things have to be done,’” Byrnes said. 

“You just see how he carries himself as a pro and it just makes you think, ‘I want to be like Kieran,’” added Waterdogs teammate Matt Whitcher.

McArdle said he’s even more motivated to win now that he knows what it feels like to be a champion. He got his first taste of victory at 30 years old, and he’s coming back for more until his body won’t let him.

“I’m just crazy competitive and I love to win,” McArdle said. “You pair that with a little bit of a temper and not backing down from any situation or any opponent, it’s just do whatever you can to get the win at all costs for you and your teammates. 

“That’s always been my style of play. Just don’t back down, play as hard as you can, leave it all out there every play and every game.” 

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