If there’s one thing that face-off athletes can expect, it’s change. For Max Adler and Casey Dowd, the first wrench in the preparation plan was thrown by the COVID-19 shutdown completely taking away their opportunities to be immersed in lacrosse.
The second major turn was the reshaping of the MLL season from a summer-long campaign into an eight day all-out sprint. Major League Lacrosse landed on a condensed, quarantine style mini season like many professional entities around North America. The decision to pack an entire season’s worth of action into about a week’s time was a bell heard loud and clear by the guys taking face-offs.
Professional face-off athletes’ bodies are bruised, beaten and barely hanging on as they wobble off the turf toward the nearest ice bath after the final horn. It can take nearly a full week’s worth of recovery to feel at their best for the next weekend’s matchup, and this summer they can have fewer than 24 hours to recharge for another round. The way the face-off men and the coaching staff approach the battle of the X has to adapt, but that starts with the athletes themselves.
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For the Denver Outlaws, the story would be no different. Now fully comfortable with Max Adler in the driver’s seat, the organization still couldn’t be foolish to think their ironman is impervious to the grueling physical challenge imposed by the season. Too often in the MLL do teams only dress one face-off man, and if things aren’t working for whatever reason, they will move a long stick midfielder to the position to cause havoc for the opposing player. That won’t be the approach the Outlaws take.
“The plan is for me to go 100 percent, like I always do every single face-off,” Adler said confidently. “Casey Dowd, who we just picked up, is a very athletic face-off guy and has a lot of MLL experience. I’m fully confident in having him if I need a breather. I think we’re both the two most fit, best in-shape guys in the league. Our plan is to go 100 percent and really go after every single ground ball to wear down the other face-off guy.”
Max Adler experienced his breakout year in 2019, earning his first MLL All-Star selection by winning a league-best 58.3 percent of 439 attempts, even setting the league’s single-game record with an astounding 23 of 24 wins. Competing in only three games in 2017 as a rookie out of NCAA Division II Bentley College, Adler still managed a 55.4 percent win average on 83 attempts. He managed to go 57.9 percent on 227 face-offs the following season, taking the starting job in Week 9, while missing a major chunk of the season due to the 2018 World Championships. Adler earned the opportunity to represent Israel as practically the lone face-off man when the country played host to the sport’s largest international event. Taking all but 10 of Israel’s 142 face-offs, Adler would secure possession on 62 percent of his attempts. He would return from Israel to immediately help drive the Outlaws to hoisting the Steinfeld Trophy.
It would be the 2018 World Champions that Adler will draw back to the most to prepare for the upcoming season.
“I have that Israel experience under my belt,” Adler reflected. “I think I took pretty much every single face-off, so I definitely know what it feels like to do it. The difference being, as Team Israel, we weren’t playing the best teams to start.
“I was just on a Zoom call with John Grant Jr., who has played for Team Canada, and he’s like, ‘Every game is going to be USA versus Canada,'” Adler added. “There’s so much parity in the league and the margin of error is so slim that every game’s going to be against really good teams. Whomever I’m facing-off against is now one of the best face-off guys in the world.”
Although they have never taken a draw against one another in the MLL, Adler and Dowd are only joining forces for the first time in 2020 after Dowd was added to the Outlaws lineup from free agency right before rosters were due.
Dowd jokes that he’s worn just about every jersey in Major League Lacrosse, now with his sixth team after five seasons. The journeyman’s story with the pro league is deeper than his 2015 selection by Rochester from the un-drafted pool. Although he wouldn’t see the field until the 2017 season, Dowd had been on the sidelines since the league’s beginning. Casey’s father, Charlie Dowd, was driving force in the founding of the MLL as an owner and operator of the Bridgeport Barrage in 2001 until the team relocated to Philadelphia in 2004. The Barrage were disbanded in 2008, but will make their return in the league’s 20th season, with Dowd to face his father’s creation on July 19.
“I get paid to go play (lacrosse) and run around on the field all day,” Dowd shared. “Which is like the coolest thing in the world. I think the other thing too is playing in this league has been so cool for me since my dad help start all of this.
“There are only a handful of guys that are playing pro. At the end of the day, I’m one of 12 kids that made it all the way. Twelve people that can call themselves the best face-off guys in the world.”
The MLL wasn’t even on Adler’s radar until the end of his career at NCAA DII Bentley College. He didn’t pick up a stick until late in high school and leveraged his background as a wrestler to outwork his opponents on the line. There is no off-switch for Adler. When he is on the lacrosse field he can only give 100 percent. Whether or not a face-off man can be perfect, Adler intends to find out.
Dowd, on the other hand, has been around the game since he was little, absolutely enthralled by the lifestyle. His dedication to the sport would lead him to a Division I offer from Siena College where he would become an all-time Saints great. A four-year starter, Dowd captured the school records for face-offs attempted (1,420) and wins (775), as well as ground balls (472). His spirit is entwined with the sport, and where it leads, he is glad to follow. He was given the advice to “stay where his feet are” by a former coach, meaning to enjoy where he is and what he’s doing in the moment, something Dowd has applied to every leg of his journey.
It’s the balance of similarities and differences that make Adler and Dowd a lethal combination for the type of event on the horizon. Both men identify as extremely competitive and claim to be in the best shape of their lives. The two came together about three months ago as the college lacrosse season was cut short and Dowd, an assistant coach at Colby College in Maine, returned home to Connecticut to face the shutdowns. Adler, an employee of ESPN, was only a half hour’s drive away and the opportunity to take live reps with another seasoned veteran was a match made in quarantine heaven. Practicing safe social distancing on their own, the pair felt confident working together to get ready for whatever was to come in the summer.
“We’d been training basically three months straight, and it just kinda worked out perfectly,” Dowd said of his work with Adler. “Every single day, having the ability to kind of bounce ideas back and forth off of each other has been pretty cool. It’s cool that I don’t have to worry about going against best clamper. Now I get to work with the best clamper.”
Where they separate is attitude. Adler is laser focused on the sidelines, almost unapproachable and locked in on preparing for the next whistle. Dowd is calm, cool and in the moment, enjoying the game and the art of lacrosse. Adler wants a clean win and push down field. Dowd doesn’t mind getting bested on the first move; what he likes to win is the scrap. While Adler leans on the ability to spring off the whistle, Dowd leverages a thicker frame to lean on his opponent.
The two agree their small differences compliment a response to the variety of scenarios they can face in Annapolis. Their joint focus on physical fitness will make up for the rest. While COVID-19 has set back countless athletes and their training regimens, the situation only seemed to boost the conditioning process for Adler and Dowd. They both appreciate how their paths have crossed over the past few months and grateful for the opportunity to strap it up for one more summer.
While neither Max Adler nor Casey Dowd are household names in the lacrosse community, the lack of recognition doesn’t put a chip on either’s shoulder. In fact, it’s the opposite. Dowd is thankful to help grow a league his dad invested in 20 years ago, and Adler just wants to prove the people right who gave him chances.
When we won in 2018, to share that moment with Tony Steaman, Jon Cohen, all my teammates and everyone that believed in me along the way,” Adler thought back on. “That felt so much better than just playing pro.”
“I want to focus on the people that really believe in me. That’s what really drives me. Waking up at 5:00 AM every single day to lift and make the different sacrifices we all make is not to prove people wrong. It’s for my teammates. So we have another shot at winning a championship.