Photo courtesy of Nick Ierardi

Waterdogs Culture: Why every free agent returned in 2023

By Wyatt Miller

Jun 13, 2023

In just its third season, Waterdogs Lacrosse Club became champions.

After beating Chaos LC 11-9, purple streaked the field as players cut down the nets and head coach Andy Copelan hoisted the 2022 Championship Trophy on the stage in Philadelphia. Champagne and confetti rained down on the first PLL expansion team to win it all. 

“It’s really hard to put it into words,” said Kieran McArdle before this season. “Definitely an emotion I’ve never experienced before.”

“I’ve never felt that feeling before,” Matt Whitcher repeated. 

After the game, the team went to a private party in Philadelphia with the entire PLL Staff, as well as the friends and family of every player and coach. Whitcher said sharing that moment with everyone his teammates love the most bonded that group for life, and they “carried on into the wee hours of the night,” Whitcher joked. So when the free-agency period started, McArdle said it was a “no-brainer” for everyone.

Both McArdle and Whitcher – along with five other free agents – returned to the team, and the only departures were two retirements. After a lifelong bond was created in Philadelphia last September, Copelan and the team shared the same mindset: This was a championship locker room and there was no reason to change it. 

“Nobody really wanted to go anywhere else,” McArdle said. “It wasn’t even really an option or discussion of if guys were going elsewhere, it was more of Cope being able to fit it into that salary cap and then, at the end of the day, guys being unselfish.”

In his fourth season as head coach, Copelan has solidified a culture of supportive accountability, building trust throughout the team and allowing everyone to play loose, Whitcher said. 

McArdle, Whitcher, Dillon Ward, Charlie Hayes, Charlie Kitchen, Matthew Hossack and Christian Scarpello all returned. Some of those players have 10 years under their belt and others have three. Some played every game last season and others didn’t suit up once. 

All returned because of the team’s culture: No egos, no individuals, just the ‘Dogs. 

“There was nothing to change because this is the exact situation that I want for myself in professional sports,” Whitcher said. “I don’t think there was a second’s hesitation from any of us… It didn’t even require calling up your teammates to stay on board. It wasn’t even necessary because we all had that same feeling about the team.”

Hayes echoed that, saying he never had the urge to look elsewhere to get more playing time after not suiting up at all last season. 

But with Ryan Brown and Steven DeNapoli retiring as well as Kitchen out, the team was still down two captains and key weapons on both sides of the ball. Copelan has encouraged the team to “lead by committee,” following the example set by McArdle, the new captain who “leads by example,” Copelan said.

But the Waterdogs did make one change to the locker room. They signed Jake Carraway, a controversial free agent attacker, to a two-year deal. During the process, Copelan and Carraway had honest conversations about his persistent instigating on Atlas LC and how he could “reinvent himself” by playing the Waterdogs way. 

“You don’t want to be disruptive to your locker room whatsoever, but you don’t want to stand still,” Copelan said. “That was what a lot of our conversations were.” 

Carraway bought in immediately, but he still had to prove himself to the locker room. Copelan had him call veteran players on the team to introduce himself and see if they thought he’d be a good fit. They did, and Carraway has already thrived in an untucked jersey.

Copelan takes the unity of the Waterdogs’ locker room very seriously, especially in a league where everyone is uber-talented.

“The margin between being great and being average in this thing is honestly pretty slim so, just have to keep the focus on being as connected as possible as a team,” Copelan said. “This is never about trying to create a situation with as much talent as possible. It’s creating a situation where everyone is connected.” 

The Waterdogs don’t have the most talent on paper and they weren’t built like a typical championship team. But Hayes explained that not having a lot of “huge names” has actually helped them connect and stay together. 

Of the 16 college or entry draft picks since the team’s creation, 14 remain on the team. All of Copelan’s additions have been carefully vetted to match the team’s needs and fit in the locker room. The one common denominator seems to be that most of them were overlooked at some point in their careers, Hayes explained. And that similarity has been at the core of their identity. 

Starring one of the smallest attackers in the league (Michael Sowers) and the only professional player out of St. John's (McArdle), Copelan built a contender from scratch. 

Three players who were selected in the expansion draft – McArdle, Connor Kelly and Ryan Conrad – were top five scorers last season, three years after their teams left them unprotected. Carraway was written off, Whitcher came from Division-III York and Hayes went to Detroit Mercy. This team is full of underdogs, and they play like it. 

“We got a number of phenomenal players,” Hayes said. “But I think this team does a good job of just having a chip on their shoulder and playing as the underdog. Everyone is playing for the team.”

It wasn’t a given that any of these guys would play professional lacrosse, so Copelan built the identity around the hard work that earned them a shot in the first place, and it came to fruition last September. That’s not a situation that anyone wanted to leave. 

“If I had left, I would have missed that,” Whitcher said about the locker room.

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