Moments ago, the Waterdogs put an exclamation point on what was the greatest summer in the sports history, defeating the Chaos 11-9 in front of a robust crowd at Subaru Park and a national television audience on ABC. As I sat down behind the steering wheel to drive south after the 2022 PLL Championship, that Don Henley classic was begging to be the narrator in my brain.
We watched Connor Kelly score on a pair of leaner shots and goalie Dillon Ward making body saves on the highest arc I’ve ever seen. We were in awe of the hustle, grit, and tenacity that Jake Withers and Max Adler brought to every faceoff. We were treated to a display of power by Chris Cloutier, quickness from Michael Sowers, determination from Jack Rowlett, athleticism from Ryan Conrad, precision from Challen Rogers, hunger from Kieran McArdle, etc.
We saw tensions rise and gloves drop. Whether it was Josh Byrne sniping a corner or Jarrod Neumann stalking prey, these guys are the best at what they do. We witnessed elite passing, shooting, picks, flips, dives, slashes, two-point bombs, and for two-hours on a sunny Sunday under the bridge, every shift was run like it was game seven. Every play mattered. When the confetti landed, it was the expansion Waterdogs, who began the season 0-3, drinking the champagne.
I saw the will of Waterdogs captain Steve DeNapoli. I stood on their bench alongside non-dress players who were heavily invested. Injured midfielder Mikey Schlosser led the group through calisthenics and refused to be a non-factor with positive support. Rookie Jack Hannah found the net on a right-handed drive. Zach Currier was his usual instigator self, staying in personality for the biggest game of the year and backing his words up by playing at a pace nobody can match. Defenders Liam Byrnes, Eli Gobrecht, Ben Randall, Ryland Rees, and Chris Sabia in front of goalie Dillon Ward held an opponent to a single digit.
I watched Ward, control his focus and emotions, not sure I’ve seen a goalie with better composure. I stood next to Waterdogs Head Coach Andy Copelan. He was engaged, sharp, pushing the right buttons, thinking ahead, not getting flustered down 3-0 early. Copelan made all the right moves. He built this roster. He navigated it through the testing 16-week summer. He got to hoist the trophy and smoke the cigar. A day he and his family won’t ever forget.
The pro game is the tip of the lacrosse pyramid. It’s cutting edge, an innovative laboratory. I’ve enjoyed swimming with the sharks this summer. The professional product is the top of the food chain and the game benefits from seeing the expertise of players post college. The PLL is a vital product in the growth and expansion of the sport. It’s about college heroes being able to continue playing in front of crowds on television and impacting the next generation of+ spawning new fans across the world.
It’s eye-catching highlights that go viral on social media, plus fundamentals executed to perfection. Imagine a world without post collegiate contributions from Gary gait, the Powells, Jay Jalbert, Matt Streibel, Pat McCabe, Millon, Nicky Polanco, Matt Danowski, Lyle Thompson, and Paul Rabil? I don’t want to.
The pros push the game forward. It’s always been that way. From the first MLL Championship game in 2001 when Paul Gait scored seven goals on a bum wheel to Michael Sowers’ MVP performance with a sore hamstring. From Kevin Lowe’s overtime winner at Villanova in 2003 to Ethan Walker’s game clincher on Sunday. We’ve seen Sal, Cat, Doc, Queener, and were treated to another goalie duel between Blaze and Dillon Ward. Who could forget the 2005 Bayhawks and their tour-de-force during that summer with Gary Gait, Mikey Powell, and Tom Marechek. We are still waiting for a pro team to match their dominance, but for the time being we get to see something amazing every weekend.
On the virtues of the PLL the sport inches forward. What’s changed? The professional and aggressive vision of PLL leadership, the improved packaging of events both in person and on television, and the increased visibility of highlights on social media, that’s what changed. The PLL and lacrosse as a whole has never been in a better position. We’ve won the clamp, now rake it to space, scoop it, and run.
For me, this summer was about healing and finding normalcy after the death of my brother Wes in mid-May. He watched all the big games and would text me a funny observation, serious commentary, or a question afterwards.
To work with my friends at ESPN, to be entrenched in the action, to interact with fans across the country, the PLL was my medicine game. When you cross the chalk line, let the game be your oasis. I’m the luckiest guy in the sport, able to lean on people like Carc, Cotter, Kettering, Dana, Anish, and Katie.
Our producer Todd Jones deserves a game ball for making these shows a reality while managing a small herd. Director Brett cut beautiful visuals. It takes a village, and we have that with an ESPN management team of Burke, Ericka, Dan, JK and Ed. All massive supporters.
Thank you Ryan Boyle for bringing our TV team up to speed on the ways of the PLL, always the team player. Thank you Alter, Drew, Chantel, and Marsh for a fresh perspective and boatloads of professionalism.
Most of all, I have to thank the PLL players who shared their expertise and passion, they set the tone by fighting for every blade of grass on the field. For playing hard, every single week for every second. It’s the players that move the needle, their stories, insane skill, and play. I tip my cap to the PLL coaches (Bates, Towers, Sudan, Rubeor, Copelan, Stagnitta, St. Laurent and Quirk) who were all accommodating, offering access and discovery, always open, honest and genuine.
Thank you to Paul, Mike, Seth, Rachel, RJ and Mark. The PLL leadership team along with the energetic squad of young staffers and interns who brought the juice every week. Surround yourself with high standards, that’s where you want to be, and great things can be achieved. These are hungry like-minded people, whose commitment to lacrosse, the fans, and the product on the field is undeniable. I have enormous gratitude for referee Matt Palumb and his crew. The guys in the yellow shirts kept the peace and kept the action pulsating.
Twenty plus years ago when pro lacrosse debuted, I felt like there weren’t many of us pulling on the rope. Now, we’ve got an army.
The final whistle has sounded ending the historically significant summer of 2022. It was a three-month time span that featured Athletes Unlimited, a Junior World Championship in Ireland, the debut of Sixes in the World Games, a USA victory in the Women’s World Championships, and nearly 50 PLL games played coast-to-coast, many on national television.
We turn the page towards 2023 while running on a line flanked by momentum and growth. We will keep pushing. The next goal matters most.
So, as I drive home, there’s no text from my brother. Just a song I never loved.