Waterdogs defense finds its rhythm at the right time

By Katie McNulty | Sep 2, 2021

All good things take time, and that could not be more true for this Waterdogs defense.

The Waterdogs were the expansion team in the 2020 season, where they finished with an overall record of 1-4. This season, they have completely turned it around and are clicking at the right time. 

Liam Byrnes and Ben Randall are two guys that have been essential to the Waterdogs’ play this season. They are 4-1 since Byrnes has moved down low permanently, and Randall has been the secret weapon to this team. 

“Since we lost Brodie Merrill to the Expansion Draft to the Cannons, I knew Coach Copelan was looking for an organizer,” Byrnes said. “Through training camp, he said we had so many defenders that I could play down low or up top, but that I would be up top mostly to start...We were 2-3 at one point, and that’s when we decided to make the switch for me to go down low. That’s really where I feel the most comfortable.” 

Byrnes said he would label himself as a slider. 

“I’ll cover that one attackman who’s in the middle mostly and an off-ball guy,” he said. “That allows me to be the slide man. I’m in that support role, making sure the guys who are covering the dodger are forcing them the right way. If they do get beat, that’s what I’m there to do.” 

Byrnes leads the league in caused turnovers (20) and is a Dave Pietramala Defensive Player of the Year Finalist. Byrnes won the 2019 MLL Defensive Player of the Year Award.

“He’s very good at anticipating what offenses are doing and understanding where he needs to be at the right time,” Bocklet said. “I think his timing is one of the big reasons why he does lead the league in caused turnovers. He’s able to understand what an offense is trying to do. All of a sudden, he’s out and on your hand with his stick and his body while you’re catching the ball or maybe a moment before it. His defensive IQ is really through the roof in understanding what offenses are trying to do and where he needs to be at the right time and communicating.” 

Byrnes said he would credit his style of play from his box lacrosse experience. Byrnes was one of the players selected to go to Panther City Lacrosse, the new expansion team in the NLL. 

“You have to have eyes in the back of your head and know where the offensive players are and if the dodge goes one way, where the next guy’s going to go in the rotation,” Byrnes said. “Really knowing the offenses and being in passing lanes is how I’ve gotten all those caused turnovers.” 

Randall’s assignments speak for themselves. He’s constantly locking down key attackmen. He has held Josh Byrne to two goals, Rob Pannell and Jeff Teat to one goal, and Zed Williams, Lyle Thompson and Jackson Morrill to zero goals. 

“I attribute that to the team defense we have,” Randall said. "Eli and Liam both help out when I need them and Ward is definitely helping out in the cage.” 

Randall didn’t play in the Waterdogs’ first game of the season, where they lost 13-7 to the Cannons or in an 18-7 loss to the Archers. They are  6-1 with him in the lineup.   

“I just play my game and stick to what I do,” Randall said. “I just prepare how I normally would. I don’t think too much into it.” 

Waterdogs head coach Andy Copelan knew he had to go heavy on the defensive side of things after losing Merrill in the expansion draft, which is why he acquired both Byrnes and Randall in the 2021 Entry Draft. Byrnes was the 4th pick, while Randall was the 20th pick. 

It’s safe to say that it worked out for Copelan. Along with his 20 caused turnovers, Byrnes has recorded 21 ground balls in nine games. Randall has caused 12 turnovers and picked up 11 ground balls in just 17 games. 

Randall has been exceptional all year, but no game was bigger for him than the matchup between him and Teat, where he held an MVP Finalist to one goal. The Waterdogs defeated Atlas 10-9, which gave them the No. 1 seed and a bye week in the first round of the PLL playoffs. 

“Ben has been that top cover guy for us and really helped us out,” said Waterdogs defensive coordinator Matt Bocklet. “He did a great job against Teat and has been doing a great job all season long.” 

Randall and Byrnes are both 6-feet-3-inches, which makes them tough guys to sneak past. Bocklet said their athleticism makes them stand out. 

In the offseason, Copelan brought on Bocklet as an assistant coach. Bocklet is a three-time MLL Champion with the Denver Outlaws. 

“It’s been a ton of fun,” Bocklet said. “It’s a really good group of guys, and we struggled early on in this season just trying to figure out personnel and how we should be playing, and I went into the season with an idea of what we would be doing, and it didn’t really work early on.”

Not only are Bocklet, Byrnes and Randall new to this defense, but so are Eli Gobrecht, Christian Scarpello, Matt Whitcher and Dillon Ward.  They acquired Gobrecht through a trade with the Archers for the 18th pick in the 2021 College Draft. The Archers drafted Jeff Trainor with their pick. They acquired Christian Scarpello in February from the Player Pool. Dillon Ward was arguably their biggest pick-up this offseason though.  

Copelan had explored the trade earlier in the offseason, but he didn’t make it official until an hour before the deadline. Ward was the backup goalie last season for the Chaos, but Ward is too good of a goalie to be a backup, so the Waterdogs acquired Ward in exchange for Wes Berg and a Waterdogs first-round pick in the 2022 College Draft. 

Ward struggled to find his rhythm in the first five games. While they came away with the win in two of those games, he saved less than 50% of the shots he saw, which is rare for Ward.

A 19-7 win over the Cannons on July 9 helped Ward find his footing, where he had a then season-high 63% save percentage. One thing Ward’s changed: He’s flattened his arc.

“Kudos to Coach Copelan in staying true to him and giving him the opportunity,” Bocklet said. “He’s certainly proved how great he is and, more importantly, how calming of a presence he is. He never loses his head, he’s always calm, cool and collective, and I think the defense kind of rallies around that.” 

So what was the turning point for this Waterdogs defense, you may be asking? 

Bocklet said it was the Redwoods game. They were winning 10-5 but ultimately suffered a 19-16 loss. 

“We kind of just went rogue a little bit with our slides and what we’re trying to do,” he said. “It was a tough finish for us…. We weren’t on the same page in any shape or form. We just sat down as a defensive group and really broke down that game and what we were doing wrong. That was probably our turning point. I can’t force an idea on them. It has to be a little more natural in what they want to do. That’s where we made our switches.” 

After the Redwoods game, the Waterdogs reacquired Whitcher, who was at training camp but was released into the Player Pool. So far, they are undefeated with him in the lineup. 

“Matt’s been great,” Bocklet said. “He’s that rare defensive middie. I always say that it’s gotta be the hardest position in lacrosse. It’s kind of like being a cornerback in football. You’re usually a little smaller than the guy you’re covering, and they’re super athletes. Matt, he’s a big kid. He gets out on some of the big middies in this league, and he makes you earn every inch that you’re getting when you’re doing. I think he’s the perfect compliment to DeNapoli and Scarpello, who aren’t as big as he is but scrappy and great players in the middle of the field.”

It may have taken more time than Bocklet would have liked, but this defense is playing their best lacrosse when it matters most. 

“We know we have a good group of guys that are very talented lacrosse players,” Bocklet said. “It was really just trying to figure it out.…. We’re not worried about what people say about us. We just want to be the best version of ourselves. Every time we get an opportunity to be together on the weekend, we’re using every minute we have to figure out what we need to do to be the best team possible.” 

The Waterdogs defense has its biggest test of the season this week when they take on the Whipsnakes on September 5. The winner clinches their spot in the PLL Championship game. 

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