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"I'm Willing to Die to Win a Championship" COVID-19 Impact on Professional Lacrosse

“I’m Willing to Die to Win a Championship” COVID-19 Impact on Professional Lacrosse

*This story was updated at 1:08PM EDT on 7/18/2020 to reflect the PLL dressing all 22 players per game. Previously, this stated that 18 players would dress out of the 22 player active roster.

 

The theme behind nearly everything in 2020 since March has been how COVID-19 is affecting one thing or another. In one way or another, it has impacted everyone.

Unarguably, some more than others.

In the lacrosse world, we know some of the obvious things. Shortened and canceled seasons. Programs folding. An explosion in online coaching opportunities. It’s all commonplace now. Once the big decisions were out of the way, and the professional leagues announced their new formats, a new set of challenges were placed on the leagues and everyone in them.

The PLL came to the decision much quicker given that their format of touring from city to city. During a pandemic, the planning and logistics of pulling it off became a problem too large to even fathom. So as options were considered, they settled on holding a single tournament. Once Utah was decided on, they could determine the exact dates and timing of their Championship Series and really plan in detail.

But for the MLL, they had been holding out hope of using their home markets to their advantage. With fewer locations and existing relationships being leveraged, the goal was to still have some semblance of a season with home games and only six states/cities to worry about. But, given that three of the markets (New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania) were among the hardest hit by the virus at the beginning of the pandemic, those would prove to be the toughest places to hold any sort of event.

Eventually the MLL announced their season would be similar to the PLL’s, where all teams would come to one location in Annapolis. That’s pretty tough for a league preparing to roll out two new teams, the Connecticut Hammerheads and Philadelphia Barrage, and having a home base to build on is a big deal.

What impacts do these decisions by both leagues have on the actual lacrosse about to be played?

The best place to start is actually on the field. Each league is approaching personnel very differently. The PLL is allowing each team to bring 22 players to camp, and all are able to dress for each game. The MLL, by contrast, is allowing 25, also with all being permitted to play.

For reference, both entities dressed 20 players per game last year. The 2018 World Championships had a 23-man travel roster. The lineup alone is an interesting dynamic for the coaches to navigate as injuries and positive COVID test loom over everyone.

In the MLL, if everything goes perfectly, they have a full 25% larger roster at their disposal.

So, what’s the flipside of this?

Overall, it means there will likely fewer lacrosse jobs for players, but the jobs that are there are stable. Even with slightly expanded MLL rosters, they are still featuring less player in a season than before. 159 players dressed for the PLL in the 2019 regular season compared to the 154 planned for this summer. For the MLL, their rosters are typically more fluid as they tryout rookies, have trades, and deal with injuries.

While you cannot predict exactly how many would have played, using the 2018 stats as a guide, teams average just over 32 players dressed over the nine teams that year. That included 30 players who dressed in a single game, which is something you won’t see in 2020.

From a player perspective, the change from an entire season being boiled down to a single week or two of games means things will be different. From my personal perspective, I view something like this as a grueling marathon of games that you need to wade through. For a player like Zach Currier of the PLL’s Waterdogs LC, that’s just lacrosse.

“Going with the Canadian model, a lot of us play in (Major Series Lacrosse) and Senior A level,” Currier explained. “In those leagues, you have two to three games per week all season, and then the playoff series where you need to complete up to seven games in ten days. The regular season could be shorter than the playoff season. So we’re used to playing a lot of games in a short period of time.”

On top of that, a few players like Currier, and in the past John Grant Jr. among others, would play their weekday games in Canada and then play a professional field game or two on the weekend.

The other team dynamic was how to prepare for the season the best way possible. Historically, players would often self-organize training sessions and games regionally on a regular basis. For example, players living in in New York City, Boston, Baltimore and other metro areas could meet regularly, before or after the workday, for live reps, competitive drills, or other skills training. While there was some of that as different regions allowed, it was reduced at a minimum in terms of how many times players could arrange sessions like these. Many areas saw goals stashed away once seasons were cancelled with tracks and fields locked up, while others saw very little change around them all spring and summer.

PLL goalie John Galloway feels all this distance has actually allowed him to really connect with a Chrome LC team that has been otherwise undergoing a rebuilding process. In a typical year, there’s always the kind of awkward arrival at training camp when everyone is finally in the same spot. There are usually no rookies yet, since they’re still playing in college, and the team is trying to find itself in an inherently incomplete way.

According to Galloway things have been different this year.

“This is the first pro team I have been a part of that has done Zoom calls and chats and have it be this consistent,” Galloway explained.

“It has had a hand in helping build some companionship already.”

These are the things usually invisible to fans that will make day one of team activities smother and allow everything to run more efficiently once they are in person.

Another aspect the shortened season impacts is player training. It’s no secret that to be a professional lacrosse player, you need to be in phenomenal physical shape. Everyone is some combination of bigger, faster, stronger, or quicker. There’s a real challenge in planning for the grind of a straight week of games through training on your own. Recovery and rehab are no different. There’s no time to nurse an injury or hope it improves before the next game.

For Max Adler of the MLL’s Denver Outlaws, being in the best shape is the only way he knows how to approach things. The face-off position itself is notoriously rough on the body. Wrists, arms, knees, and all the muscle and ligaments connecting them need to being working at their best every time. The moment you lose a move or an exit from your arsenal, the opposition gains another advantage.

Over a game and over a season, those can turn into make-it-take-it opportunities. What was Adler’s solution? Turn to his coaching.

“I have a great strength and conditioning coach, James Prendergast, who designs all of my strength and conditioning,” Adler shared. “So when gyms closed, he was able to come up with something to do at home. When the season was shortened, he was able to change all of conditioning around to be prepared for it.”

The final twist in all of this comes down to the risk athletes are taking in competing over these next few weeks. Travel to the venues increases the risk of everyone being exposed to a virus that they will have been able to avoid as part of their regular routine.

Individuals in both leagues will have roommates, but all of the teams are isolated from each other in all off-field situations.

While looking at other leagues and programs, positive test cases are popping up regularly. So the question must be asked: is it worth it? Are all the risks being taken for a shortened season – in most cases less total money will be earned – worth putting an asterisk for a shortened-season next to each champion?

In Adler’s case, he could not have responded to both of these questions more bluntly.

“I am willing to die to win a championship.”

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