Boston Cannons defenseman Bryce Young

Why Cannons defense should improve after rough opener without Jack Kielty

By Sarah Griffin | Jun 6, 2024

Growing pains are a part of life. In any facet of life, comfortability and chemistry aren’t developed overnight, and the lacrosse field is no exception. 

After a little over a week together, a new-look Boston Cannons close defense took the field for their first game of the season against the New York Atlas. 

Headlined by the reigning Dave Pietramala Defensive Player of the Year, Garrett Epple, and another new addition in former Maryland Whipsnake Bryce Young, there was one face notably absent. 

It was announced a few days before their season opener the Cannons would be without Jack Kielty for the year after he suffered a ruptured Achilles during training camp. 

“You don’t replace Jack Kielty,” head coach and general manager Brian Holman said. “He is the Cannons.” 

And though Boston cannot replace Kielty’s impact on and off the field, in sports, injuries happen -- you must adapt. 

Alongside Epple and Young, the Cannons returned Jake Pulver, Cade van Raaphorst and Max Wayne from last year’s squad, though Pulver missed the opener with a right abductor injury (and will remain out for the upcoming weekend). That left Boston without two of its cornerstone defensemen from the last three seasons and, suddenly, a starting close defense that had never played together in a game. 

Still, a starting line of Epple, Young and van Raaphorst looks pretty good on paper. So what went wrong in Boston’s season-opening 19-12 loss?

“Defense comes down to chemistry sometimes and learning how to play with each other,” Epple explained. “We’ll certainly get there at some point this year (‘Soon!’ Holman interjected), but it’s the first game.” 

When you rewatch the film of Saturday’s game, sloppiness wasn’t a problem for this veteran group of defensemen. Epple led the team defensively with three caused turnovers and three ground balls, with Young closely behind him with two caused turnovers and three ground balls. Boston as a whole caused six turnovers, with New York only recording one. New York also committed twice as many turnovers as Boston.

Unfortunately for Holman’s club, the Atlas had so many turnovers because they held onto the ball in the offensive end a lot longer than the Cannons did. Boston spent a lot of time on defense in the season opener, leaving very little room for error. While the possession time evened out by the end of the game, the way the Atlas moved the ball on offense led to a lot more touches and a lot more passes for New York compared to Boston. In other words, a lot of work for a Cannons defense still looking to find its footing. 

Rookie Connor Shellenberger fit in seamlessly to the Bulls offense alongside former Virginia teammate Xander Dickson and arguably the top player in the world, Jeff Teat. The three were moving the ball around the Cannons defense as if they were a couple of kids in the backyard. 

For a Boston defense that only began practicing with one another a week before, it was a tall task in its first go, especially without Kielty. Those growing pains of learning how each other plays and forming on-field chemistry seemed to be elevated by his absence. 

Spending his entire professional career with the Cannons, Kielty was always the guiding voice for Boston’s defense on the field – even if it was done in a quiet manner. Now, it’s up to these guys to step up as leaders in Kielty’s absence. 

There’s no question this close defense can be one of the top units in the league. It’s more so a matter of finding its voice and identity. 

Epple’s been around the block in professional lacrosse. He’s the most disruptive defenseman in the league and can outsmart just about anybody on the field. His resume speaks for itself, consistently shutting down the top attackmen in the PLL for the last five years. When he signed with the Cannons, he did so with the intention to win a championship. 

“My sole goal is to do whatever I can in order to be the best teammate on and off the field in order to make that happen,” he told me back in March.

Young already has two PLL championships to his name, having won with the Whipsnakes in 2019 and 2020. 

“He’s been a top-five close D guy since the PLL has been in existence,” defensive coordinator Kyle Hartzell said

He’s physical, fundamental, anticipates plays really well and is exceptional at off-ball spacing. He’s the exact type of off-ball defender Hartzell wanted in the Cannons defensive unit, and he comes with a wealth of championship experience. 

Even with all that talent, developing chemistry takes time. No one could have predicted losing Kielty for the season, but as Holman said, having guys like Epple and Young lightens the load. When you look back to when van Raaphorst joined the Cannons midseason last year, no one sounded the alarms when he picked up only two ground balls compared to his usual three or four. It takes time to gel with new teammates. Boston will get there. 

The Cannons will seek their first win this Saturday night as they head to Charlotte to take on Young’s former team, the Whipsnakes, who are also searching for their first victory. With one game under Boston’s belt, we should see a close defense with more comfortability and chemistry with one another.