Philadelphia Waterdogs defenseman Liam Byrnes

Waterdogs’ Marquette duo facing familiar uphill battle after 0-3 start

By Wyatt Miller | Jun 26, 2024

Philadelphia Waterdogs defenders Jake Richard and Liam Byrnes made two antithetical first impressions on former Marquette head coach Joe Amplo, but they showcased two distinct similarities

Richard invited Amplo into his home, where his six siblings, his mother and his grandfather were waiting to greet him. Among other things, they spoke of Richard’s older brother, Christopher, who was injured at birth and developed cerebral palsy. The whole family revolved around Christopher, Amplo said, but they spoke about the circumstances with joy and compassion.

“The warmth and love of family just instantly captivated me,” Amplo said. “I got that sense of the type of human being (Jake) was right from that moment, and I remember leaving there and calling my wife and saying, ‘I just found the world’s best human being. We are going to build the program around this kid.’”

A year prior, Amplo met Byrnes at a diner having never seen him play, and they spoke just the two of them. With hair that fell down to his shoulders, very little game film and a quiet but fun disposition, Amplo remembered thinking of Byrnes, “Who is this goofy human being sitting in front of me? I want to go win with him.”

Still, Byrnes and Richard shared two commonalities: Both were unapologetically themselves, and they were fantastic athletes who couldn’t even hold a lacrosse stick correctly but wanted to be great. So they worked, pushing each other forward with their will to succeed and unique brands of leadership. By the end of their tenure at Marquette, they were two of the best defenders in college lacrosse and Big East champions. 

Years later, with the Waterdogs now facing their second 0-3 start in the past three seasons, Richard and Byrnes are in a similar spot. 

They’ve lived through what Amplo called “probably the worst environment imaginable” and came out the other side as champions. The Waterdogs are relying on that genuine veteran presence to right the ship, and nobody does that better than Marquette’s defensive duo, because they’ve done it before on a larger scale.

“(They) set the standard for the types of human beings you need to win,” said Amplo, who now coaches at Navy. “I recruited both of those guys because of the people that they are… and the values they were built on. … But what it further emphasized, and it still does resonate with me, is that you have to bet on people, and those two human beings are the exact type of people that you want in organizations when you’re trying to strive for excellence.”

Amplo built Marquette’s program from the ground up, starting in 2012 when Byrnes arrived with the first recruiting class. By 2016, they were a successful Division I team, and their defensive stars were being primed for the pros. Richard and Byrnes are still in the top six all-time in ground balls, caused turnovers and games played in Marquette history. 

All their lacrosse skills came from Amplo’s teachings over time, but their personalities were immediately the moral compass of the team.

In 2012, Marquette had no games but lifted weights and practiced five days a week. It was such a brutal schedule that nearly half the team quit by the end of it. Yet, Byrnes’ goofy, laid-back demeanor was a magnet for teammates – he was so driven to succeed that others followed his lead. 

Byrnes said the training didn’t get any easier in Year 2. But with games on the horizon and starting spots up for grabs, everyone took things a bit more seriously, and Richard was the north star. He was, and still is, a church-going family man who didn’t like to party, and the rest of the team could certainly be a rowdy bunch

So when people weren’t sure how to act, they looked to Richard because, as Amplo put it, “this dude’s probably going to make the right decision.”

“He never made guys feel bad about their choices,” the coach said, “but certainly the standard was raised for what was right and what was wrong.”

“He was great for what Marquette represented from a Jesuit university standpoint,” Byrnes said. “Service, leadership, being involved in your community – Jake was always one of the guys who stepped up as far as that goes. That’s tough for a young college kid to do; most just want to party and chase girls around.”

They led in different but equally effective ways, and a love to compete was at the root of it. Neither had other Division I offers, and they felt a need to prove that they belonged. When one made a good play, the other wanted to make a better one. Still, they didn’t crack the .500 mark until Year 3.

By the time Richard was a junior, he was leading from the front and became the poster child for hard work and humanity at Marquette. He got to know his teammates on a deeper level than most guys do, Byrnes explained, and would connect with them before sharing his insight or captainly advice. 

“I think people question honestly if it’s genuine,” Amplo said. “I’ve seen people kind of put their antenna up and just be like, can this really be true? Can this guy really just be like this? And it’s true. His authentic self is the standard we all strive to be.”

Meanwhile, Byrnes was easygoing but extremely motivated – he was still the same guy who rocked massive retro Jordans when Richard met him on a recruiting visit. But he believed he could do anything, and his priorities shifted during his time at Marquette. He started realizing how much his actions influenced others and started using that advantageously.

“(Richard) just kind of let his natural self shine through, and for some people that’s easier than others,” Byrnes said. “For myself, it took a while to see what makes a good leader.”

Amplo said the 2016 conference championship will forever be his greatest coaching achievement, even better than leading Team USA to a gold medal at last year's World Lacrosse Championships, because “it’s unlike any other experience (he) could duplicate.”

Four years after Marquette’s Big East title, the Waterdogs’ first season was taking place in the bubble. Richard’s brother, Noah Richard, also went to Marquette and was a member of the Waterdogs’ defense along with Byrnes. So Richard, a member of the Atlas at the time, was constantly hanging around the newest PLL squad. 

The Dogs were building something from the ground up, just like Amplo did at Marquette, and the circumstances were similar in many ways.

“Those guys all had a chip on their shoulder and they were excited to build something together and kind of make something special,” Richard said of the Waterdogs’ inaugural team. “They have that similar, unique gift that those Marquette guys did when I was there, being able to relax and let loose and not always maintain a serious note, but when it comes time to competing and turning the lights on and big moments in the game, everybody’s present.”

Richard loved the Atlas because of their close-knit locker room, so choosing a new team this past offseason wasn't something he took lightly. During the process, he remembered how connected the Waterdogs were from the beginning, how they played with purpose and accepted each other implicitly. That bond only increased over the years, and the similarities to Marquette’s core have grown in turn.

“There’s some parallels,” Byrnes said. “The biggest is just kind of guys figuring each other out and getting that culture together. Get the team identity solved as early as possible, because once you figure who you are, then you can start worrying about the other stuff.”

Richard wanted a similar locker room that radiated togetherness, loyalty and trust. Those are necessities when building a championship team from scratch, and that culture was shared by Amplo and former Waterdogs head coach Andy Copelan from Day 1. That’s why so many Golden Eagles stars ended up in purple at some point in their pro careers.

“It’s not just Liam. BJ Grill, Jake Richard, guys that were part of a new upcoming build, they stayed loyal to Coach Amplo, stayed loyal to Marquette and they wanted to go and see that thing through and that speaks volumes to those guys,” Copelan said last year. “That tells you that those guys are totally wired the right way.”

The Waterdogs are currently in seventh place and would miss the playoffs if the season ended today. But nobody is pressing the panic button because, as Michael Sowers promised after their most recent loss, everyone has faith in the players and coaches around them. 

Richard has been the “translator” for the new staff, head coach Bill Tierney said, because he speaks the language of coaches and players. As the current head coach of his alma mater, Richard’s natural leadership has been a welcome addition. 

All the Marquette alumni went through the wringer to create a winning program in the 2010s. Now in 2024, Richard and Byrnes are a big reason why nobody in the Dogs’ locker room is worried about a slow start.

“We had seen it all, done it all and nothing was going to phase us (at Marquette),” Richard said. “And as we look at this challenge ahead of us being 0-3, it feels the same way. Nobody in the locker room is flinching, and everybody’s eyes are straight ahead, looking at the next challenge, ready to roll.”