When the rosters were announced, the Whipsnakes were identified by their strong Maryland alumni base. 20 Terps from Drew Snider (Class of 2012) to Connor Kelly (Class of 2018) gave this club instant chemistry and culture.
It was safe to assume that the Whipsnakes would have a shutdown defense. Offensively, there were question marks (some sillier than others in hindsight). Could former Terrapins acclimate with a 52-second shot clock? Could Matt Rambo -- who had twice as many turnovers as assists in 2018 -- mature into an MVP candidate? How would the non-Terps mesh with this locker room?
For all the unknowns out there, one known mattered: This roster was comprised of coachable players from disciplined programs. Head coach Jim Stagnitta and his assistants, Mike Murphy and Brian Grady, were excited about that prospect.
“I don’t think we have the best players from top to bottom,” said Coach Stagnitta. “We talked about how the best teams win games at this level, not the best players.”
From training camp at IMG Academy to the championship in Philadelphia, that was always the goal: To become the best team.
What do you get when you add Ty Warner, one of the best short-sticks in lacrosse, to a group of hardshells? A downright dominant defense. But not a flashy one.
“We’re not a defense that gets a ton of caused turnovers or takeaway checks or huge hits,” said Michael Ehrhardt. “We are pretty much a boring defense. We get people down low in the shot clock and we get them to either throw the ball away or have a shot clock violation.”
The Whipsnakes caused 6.0 turnovers per game (5th in PLL). They win with their body positioning and with their sticks out. They don’t allow many shots on goal (23.7 per game, 3rd fewest in PLL) and Kyle Bernlohr (55.0%) saves most of the shots they do allow. Down low Matt Dunn, Tim Muller, and Bryce Young are all capable of taking the top matchup – but it’s Dunn who is the vocal leader.
“You could play blindfolded with that guy behind you,” Warner said of Dunn. “There are times I’d be playing down low during the season and he’s telling me when to slide, he’s telling me where to be to help out in two situations.”
This defense doesn’t slide often – even to short-sticks like Warner and Jake Bernhardt – but when they do, their rotations are harmonized. Post-ups and roll-backs are primetime for slides. When an attackman approaches the island and Muller sees an opportunity to go, he goes with authority. Ehrhardt extends to Muller’s man here while Young peels to Ehrhardt’s perfectly in sync.
Some matchups call for no slides. Muller defended Connor Fields without help in two regular season games. I would embed the GIFs from those games again, but there’s not much to see. Those games were full of 20-second dodges to nowhere – exactly what the Whips want. Turning Fields into a scorer rather than a feeder was the plan that defensive coordinator Mike Murphy drew up, and his defense executed it to perfection.
“Coach Murphy watches a ton of film,” said Warner. “He has very elaborate breakdowns of what happened. First, it’ll be keys for the week – a bullet list of five. Then he has these extremely in-depth Excel charts where he goes through every single possession. What we did well, what we didn’t do well. There will be a paragraph for each one. When you see your coach is that dedicated to helping you improve, then you have to reciprocate that same type of energy.”
Defense, gameplanning, and overtime heroics from Ryan Drenner (two overtime goals), Drew Snider (1GWG) and Joe Nardella (4-for-4 on overtime faceoffs, including the Championship) gave the Whipsnakes an edge in the postseason race. There was still work to do. The margin between first- and last-place was minimal.
“We’re sitting there at 3-0, but we’re three goals away from being the Chrome at 0-3,” said Coach Stagnitta.
“Stags was like, ‘People are gonna be chasing after us now,’” recalls Nardella. “We got everybody’s best game that second half of the year and all the results show it.”
While the defense was solidified in June, the Whipsnakes had one question to answer: Which players would step on the field in an ideal Whipsnakes offense? Their attack unit was crowded -- especially with dodge-to-shoot players -- after Drenner’s emergence. So, they dealt Jules Heningburg to the Redwoods on June 17 and started dressing Jay Carlson regularly as an inside finisher.
The midfield was still stepping on each other’s toes. With a shorter field and shot clock, more possessions were ending in transition -- and even the possessions that made it to 6-on-6 sets failed to feature every Whipsnakes offensive midfielder. Mike Chanenchuk, Drew Snider, John Haus, Connor Kelly, and Joe LoCascio combined to shoot 19.7% through the first seven weeks as they shared shifts. Shooters shoot to get hot, but these shooters weren’t getting many looks.
“Channy was getting the pole every game. We were looking for that downhill dodger,” said Coach Stagnitta. Heading into a matchup with Chrome LC in San Jose, Coach Stagnitta decided to shake it up: Bump Kelly down to attack and run attackman Ben Reeves out of the box.
Despite earning 1st Team All-American recognition as a midfielder, Kelly spent the majority of his senior year at Maryland on attack. He’s comfortable down low. The bet by Coach Stagnitta was that having him on the field full-time would (1) give Kelly more opportunities as a playmaker and (2) allow Snider, LoCascio, and Haus to take their dodges deeper.
“Connor is more of a side-to-side dodger and a roll dodger,” said Coach Stagnitta. “We were seeing with a short clock and a smaller field, it’s hard to play like that in the midfield.”
“To be out there as an attackman and to be a part of that transition -- which is probably the biggest part of the game right now -- to be able to get your touches and be in the mix, it’s definitely helpful,” said Kelly.
Everybody benefitted from the move. A shortened bench allowed the Whipsnakes midfielders to find their flow. The same quintet (Chanenchuk, Snider, Haus, Kelly, and LoCascio) that had shot 19.7% on 17.4 shots per game finished the season shooting 28.4% on 23.2 shots per game. Dodges were decisive, downhill, and drawing the defense toward the ball side. Off-ball screens and quick ball reversals led to better shots than that group had been taking through seven weeks.
Kelly stepped up as a playmaker. Eight of his 10 assists came while playing attack. From midfield or from X, Kelly can yank pull passes across his body as well as anyone. This lever feed across the crease with a defender in his gloves is absurd.
Prior to Week 8, the Whipsnakes had only assisted 57.5% of their goals. They were settling for the first shot too often -- and although it had won them games, they knew it wouldn’t win in September. With Kelly on attack, the Whipsnakes assisted 75.0% of their goals over the next three games. Heading into the postseason, this offense was beginning to peak.
Matt Rambo’s 2019 season will be remembered by most for the goals he scored. For his coaches and teammates, his willingness to do what’s best for the team -- even if that means sacrificing his own points -- is what made him the Most Valuable Player.
In the Whipsnakes’ first round matchup with Chaos LC, Rambo was shut off by his defender. Rather than ruin the flow of the offense by trying to force the issue against Defensive Player of the Year Jarrod Neumann, Rambo called for a single invert. His teammates took short-sticks behind the cage while Rambo put Neumann in a hot position. If Neumann wouldn’t leave Rambo, then Rambo’s teammates would go to work 1-on-1.
“He’s open to anything,” said Kelly. “He’s the first one to speak up and say, ‘Let’s get the ball to this guy.’ He wants to play team offense. He’s going to take what’s given to him. That’s why he’s the best player in the world. That’s why I love playing with him. He’s able to beat his matchup, he has awesome vision, but if he’s getting locked off, he’s like, ‘Hey, take the ball.’”
“If we’re gonna have a 5-on-5 above the cage, I’ll sit behind the cage if he’s gonna follow me behind. That’s gonna give us more opportunities,” said Rambo. “Everyone knows the lower the numbers, the easier it is to score. 1-on-1 is easier to score than 6-on-6. If we can have a 5-on-5, it’s going to mess up their slide packages. It’s going to mess up hot guys and double guys. It gives our guys a lot more room to run. Everyone’s so good in this league that if you lock off a guy, it’s a lot harder to stop than a 6-on-6.”
The Whipsnakes dismantled the Chaos, 15-7. Rambo took three shots (his fewest since Week 6). He played inside while his teammates dodged short-sticks. He picked for teammates at X so that the Whipsnakes hunt for 5-on-4 advantages.
Plays like this are why his teammates love playing with him. It’s why Coach Stagnitta loves coaching him. Rambo and Coach Stagnitta have a special relationship. They’ve been together for a few years now. There’s a bit of back-and-forth banter between them at times, but Rambo knows that Coach Stagnitta is always pushing him to be the best player he can be.
“I love the kid. I tell everybody he’s like a son,” said Coach Stagnitta. “I know what he’s capable of doing. I want him to reach his potential, which I think he’s still doing -- which is scary.”
As they awaited the winner of Redwoods-Chaos, the Whipsnakes searched for ways to stay connected during the bye week. It sounds silly since the bye is built in to serve as an advantage for the winner of the No. 1- No. 2 seed game. But it’s true -- the Whipsnakes lost both games off byes during the regular season.
This is a close-knit group. There is a big brother, little brother dynamic among the former Maryland Terrapins. The non-Terps -- Warner, Nardella, Drenner, Reeves, James Barclay, Isaac Paparo, and Joe McCallion -- were welcomed from the start. They bonded over bourré, a card game popular that Drew Snider introduced the team to.
“I guess it’s a big game in the NBA,” said Kelly. “It gets pretty dicey. Matt [Rambo] lost a little chunk.”
Avoiding another post-bye letdown was the key. In September the team had weekly steps competitions on their Garmin 945 Forerunners with Corning Gorilla Glass. (Brett Schmidt, Kelly, and LoCascio won.) They shifted the focus more on themselves than the opponent. And they ignored the bye.
“When we were in the locker room, we weren’t talking about two weeks ago,” said Rambo. “We were saying, ‘This is what we did last week against the Chaos.’ We just pretended that we had no bye week.”
The Redwoods defense presented different problems for the Whipsnakes on paper. They won’t invite 1-on-1 inverts. The Redwoods look to play defense as a 6-on-6 unit. The only time they held slides was when Matt Landis was matched up on Rambo. But after a big-little pick produced a switch, the Redwoods were ready to help.
“Once they switched and the shorty got on [Rambo], they would be on high alert especially up top,” said Kelly. “They started to fill down more. They didn’t really focus on switching matchups up top but they focused on crashing and supporting the middle so they can have a quick slide.”
The Whipsnakes screened the Redwoods’ recoveries to open up shooters. Carlson and Haus had huge “pick assists” as the Whipsnakes won the off-ball 4-on-4 games above the cage. Rambo was dealing as a pick-and-roll operator, feeding Haus, LoCascio, and Kelly for stepdown rockets.
“Connor Kelly -- man, he’s been finishing for me all year,” said Rambo, who never refers to his teammate as simply “Connor” or “Kelly.” He always uses his formal, full name. “I knew right when I passed him the ball that it was automatic.”
Rambo’s passing gave the Whipsnakes an early lead. Coach Stagnitta knew they would need their MVP to become a goal scorer down the stretch. Entering the locker room at halftime, when NBC’s Chantel McCabe asked him what they needed, he told her: More Matt Rambo.
“Every time he touched the ball and went, a really good defense got worried and stopped and watched him,” said Coach Stagnitta.
Down by a point with 30 seconds left, it was time for Rambo to attack the middle of the field like Coach Stagnitta wanted. The Whipsnakes dialed up a flip play that was drawn up in practice the night before by Snider and Coach Stagnitta.
“We had a mumbo going on the backside where Johnny Haus is setting a pick for Channy. They have to make a decision there -- am I going to leave this mumbo and leave Channy at 10 yards with his hands free? Last time we played them, we had run a mumbo and they completely misplayed it,” said Coach Stagnitta. “I thought that was something that they would prepare for probably. And I think they did and they stayed with it.”
The flip turned into a pick so suddenly. There was no time for the defense to talk through it. Normally, the Redwoods would switch that. They were caught off-guard on the ball-side, while the mumbo occupied the weak-side defense. Rambo had a lane to the rim, and he took it.
Rambo isn’t in position to send this game to overtime without Bernlohr’s 16 saves -- most notably fast break stops on Wes Berg and Garrett Epple.
Or without the defense, which was impenetrable in 6-on-6 sets. Ehrhardt ate up space at the top of the arc as Redwoods midfielders popped for throwbacks. Muller smacked dodgers in the mouth when they rolled back. Young, Dunn, and the short-sticks owned their matchups and supported others.
Or without Joe Nardella.
“Nardella, man. He is such a beast on the faceoff,” said Rambo. “And if he doesn’t win the clamp, you better believe that he’s going to be fighting for that groundball and he’s going to come up with it.”
After Nardella won the faceoff, everyone in the building knew where the ball was going. Rambo didn’t wait. He pressed his matchup as teams were substituting. He rejected Snider’s pick and got to his spot for a left-handed shot from the middle of the field.
Cue the Gatorade bath for Coach Stagnitta -- his first as a head coach, something most of his players had not known until after the game. It was the first for most players, too. Several won a Championship at Maryland in 2017 (plus Warner and Reeves won at Yale in 2018), but many more fell short on Memorial Day Weekend.
“To be able to win with these guys – with guys who you sat across from in the locker room crying after losing a National Championship game – seeing all the excitement for these guys who finally won a championship, it meant so much to us,” said Ehrhardt.
Throughout the season, when media members asked what the Whipsnakes needed to do to win, they’d simply respond, “Play Whipsnakes lacrosse.” Every time. “We just need to play Whipsnakes offense and hit singles.”
Three months ago, that sounded cliché to us. It was a way to answer the question without giving away an gameplans. Now, it has meaning. Whipsnakes lacrosse means physical team defense, gritty off-ball screens to open up teammates, and with the game on the line, it means more Matt Rambo.