Waterdogs season recap: The top moments from a unique year

By Wyatt Miller | Oct 30, 2023

The 2023 Waterdogs were a complete lacrosse team. Every facet of the game was planned for based on the matchup, and executed without hesitation. Yet, with the margin of talent so small, that wasn’t enough to win it all. The Dogs lost out on a repeat by inches, as Brett Dobson tipped Jake Carraway’s two-ball over the crossbar as time expired in the Championship game.

By the season’s end, the Waterdogs’ elite versatility jumped off the stat sheet. They ranked first in defensive efficiency, 32-second defensive efficiency, fast break efficiency, fast break goals, and goals scored off two-man initiations. They ranked second in offensive efficiency, assisted goals and offensive efficiency on 32- and 52-second clocks. Dillon Ward also led the league in save percentage.

This is a team that people love to root for. They’re grounded. They’re hungry. They’re never out of a game. It may seem cliche, but everyone in that locker room has genuine love for each other. That was the first thing head coach Andy Copelan told his team after the game: “I told them I loved them,” he said. That collective culture Copelan’s built should keep most of their potential free agents around, just like last season. 

Despite the heartbreak they endured at Subaru Park in September, this Waterdogs season was full of fun, even unique moments that will impact the league for years to come. The Waterdogs were must-see TV in 2023, especially when the fourth quarter rolled around. Here are the top moments from the Dogs’ dramatic season:

Eli Gobrecht and Connor Kelly save the day

The Waterdogs’ week three matchup with the Atlas had two unforgettable feats: Eli Gobrecht set the standard for a pole to play faceoff, and Connor Kelly went ballistic.

The Waterdogs trailed by seven points against Atlas midway through the second quarter, and Copelan needed to make a change. Prior to the season, he said that he and the coaching staff had discussed the possibility and semantics of sending a pole out for the faceoff. The team’s identity had always been winning with post-clamp chaos, and a personnel change would fully embrace that strategy.

He raised the idea with Eli Gobrecht, who took faceoffs in college and indoor, along with captain Liam Byrnes. The plan was originally for Gobrecht to take “a few faceoffs,” Copelan said, but his success mounted. Gobrecht caused constant turnovers against reigning MVP Trevor Baptiste and the short clock shut down the Atlas. That strategy stuck for the rest of the season.

On offense, Connor Kelly erupted. After only one goal in the first half, Kelly sniped three 2-bombs and another two 1-point scores to finish with nine scoring points. Every shot he wanted, he got, including the game-winner with 10 seconds remaining. It was his second of what would be three game-winning goals for Kelly in 2023.

The Waterdogs came back from a seven-point deficit after implementing a brand new, albeit heavily speculated, change at the stripe. The atmosphere and intensity on the field matched the game’s insane conclusion. Copelan said it “might have been the craziest game I’ve been a part of.”

It was an instant classic in Columbus, OH, and it changed the course of the Waterdogs’ season.

Last-second comeback against Archers

The Archers had already clinched the first seed in the PLL playoffs and the first-round bye that accompanied it. That meant there were no illusions. The final game of the regular season was a championship preview. It was the final test for both squads entering the postseason.

With 49 seconds remaining, the Waterdogs trailed by two. But in classic Dogs fashion, they calmly collected themselves for the next play, and executed the only shot that would keep them alive.

From the bottom left corner, Michael Sowers tossed a skip pass diagonally, above the defense, in a last-stitch effort to find some space from deep. Jack Hannah collected and fired on the right side of the arc. He sent a high bouncer around Matt McMahon, who was closing in on the shot, and it slotted right below the crossbar to tie the game with 27 seconds remaining.

On the faceoff, Zach Currier forced an unthinkable turnover on Mike Sisselberger as he went toward the cage, and suddenly, the tides had turned. The Dogs had a chance to win it. And Kieran McArdle, who has been a clutch performer for his entire Waterdogs tenure, stepped up again. 

Nick Washuta saved Ethan Walker’s straight-ahead runner, but his cradle attempt went awry. Instead of corralling the ball off the save, it was thrown backwards, right to McArdle. He faked high and finished low to win it for the Waterdogs with 4.6 seconds on the clock.

McArdle’s heroic finish perfectly encapsulated the Waterdogs’ magical regular season run.

Sowers and McArdle decimate Whips in round one

Sowers and McArdle combined for 15 points and 11 goals in the Waterdogs’ first-round win over the Whipsnakes. They tied the Whipsnakes’ point total on their own, and scored one less goal than the opposing squad. The two superstars accounted for 73% of the Dogs’ offense in the 15-12 victory.

The slides weren’t coming and the stars weren’t missing. It was as simple as that. Sowers even hit two rare lefty goals and shot at 71% on the day. Yet, the performance wouldn’t have been complete without Sowers’ patented crease dive.

McArdle was dependable as ever, finding holes in the defense and the cage. He created scoring opportunities with elite field placement and zipped it through tight windows all game long to help the Dogs retain their momentum.

This performance displayed the full potential of Sowers and McArdle as possibly the most dynamic attack duo in the PLL.

Subaru Park backs the Waterdogs

After trailing by as much as six in the first half, the Waterdogs clawed back in a back-and-forth third quarter. The Dogs needed a stop, and the crowd lent a hand. A “defense” chant rang through the stadium and helped the Dogs end multiple offensive possessions for the Archers. That continued throughout the second half.

It wasn’t just Michael Sowers fans in the stands. Countless groups of friends and family of different players poured into Subaru Park to watch the Waterdogs attempt to repeat as champions. Just like the team’s production, the wealth was spread, as friends, family and fans provided the Waterdogs with a form of home-field advantage.

That collective, spontaneous support was a reflection of the Waterdogs’ culture.