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Popeye in the PLL

Shame on the Utah Archers for not doing their homework. They showed up thinking they had the personnel to account for rookie attack-man Brennan O’Neill. When the sh*t hit the fan during the fourth quarter avalanche, they made no adjustments. Didn’t they watch Maryland frustrate big #42 in the 2024 NCAA quarterfinals with quick double teams? Did they plug in any one of six Duke losses from last spring?

In the wake, O’Neill grabbed the weekend headlines and announced himself as a star in the pro league

In case you missed it, the Denver Outlaws, behind Brennan O’Neill stormed back after being down 14-7 in the second half to defeat the 2023 PLL Champion Utah Archers on Friday night in Charlotte. 

The #1 draft choice dominated the fourth quarter. He alone outscored Utah 7-3 in the 4th Quarter & OT. The rookie scored five goals (6 points) in 7:16 during the 4th quarter.

O’Neil enters the summer of 2024 very much under the microscope of the lacrosse world. It feels as if he’s playing with a chip on his shoulder, trying to move past Duke’s forgettable six loss 2024 season that ended up short of Championship weekend. He was the centerpiece of one of the most underachieving teams in NCAA history.  

Now he gets a new beginning. 

Up in Albany for week 1 of the PLL, O’Neill’s impact was muted. With an injury to Logan Wisnauskas last weekend, coach Tim Soudan started the St Anthony’s LI product at his natural left-handed attack position. After Friday nights destruction and demonstration – O’Neill should never leave the field again. 

Touches by Half:

1st Half: 17

2nd Half & OT: 27

O’Neill by Quarter Shooting:

1st Q: 0/2

2nd Q: 1/2 

3rd Q: 0/3 (1 assist)

4th Q & OT: 6/8 (7 points including 2-point goal) 

Game: 9 points, 0 Turnovers 

O’Neill is world class when it comes to dodging and shooting the lacrosse ball into the net. He’s at his best when he is the exclamation point at the end of a sentence. He can beat his man and score a goal. It’s the simplest trait and the most valuable asset for a player. 

What happened on Friday night may be news, but it is not new news. He’s been doing this since eighth grade – proven on the HS, college, international and now PLL stages. 

Let’s nitpick. His arsenal is a bit asymmetrical – his dodging and scoring greatly outweigh the rest of his tool box. He’s already an All-World and All-PLL goal scorer. That goal scoring skill is more of a commodity in the PLL than college because pro teams can easily acquire players who fit the other job assignments.

His role is to hit home runs. His job is to throw touchdown passes. O’Neil can do that. 

The PLL is a player’s league. That bodes well for #42. NCAA lacrosse is much more orchestrated. by coaches. Keep in mind – that’s a general style observation more than a comparison of coaching brain power. The pro game lends itself to less on-the-field control by coaches. The pro game is much faster, has a quicker shot clock, a 2-point arc and face-off enhancements – all meant to energize and caffeinate the college tempo. The pro rules have been finessed by former players while the college rules are written by coaches and referees. 

Don’t get bogged down by what O’Neill can’t do. Who cares if he isn’t a tenacious rider? Does it really matter if he isn’t an elite ground ball player? In college he tended to float outward when off the ball, hovering in a non-threatening perimeter position. Can he cut more effectively? Yes. He also has to stay healthy in a league of monsters who are going to try to discourage him. 

O’Neill ran a little hot and cold depending on the quality of looks he received, especially early in a game at Duke. Opponents learned not to trash talk him. Not to bagger him. Don’t poke the bear. These feel like minor issues for a player that wears a Superman cape under his jersey. 

What else can he contribute?

He can pass. He will have to handle the double teams he’s going to be seeing on a weekly basis. He has to get the ball out of his stick faster when doubled. O’Neil can be more involved in the pick game, playing interior crease offense and playing more actively off-ball. In college he was rarely involved in two-man games. It didn’t look like Duke wanted him setting picks. Even harder to imagine is that his teammate Dyson Williams, from Canada, graduated without ever being in a two-man game. Regardless, O’Neill’s role and impact can have greater magnitude now that he’s been set free of a collegiate offensive system that diminished his production. He can bury the two-pointer and score in transition from the wing. 

While he may not yet command a leadership role in the huddle, his play on the field will speak for itself. His playmaking will be inspiring and a shot of confidence for his teammates. His on-the-field feedback, knowledge and understanding of offensive lacrosse is outstanding. He’s seen junk defensive looks designed to muzzle his impact. He’s kept his cool against teams trying to rough him up. 

Brennan, the 2023 Tewaaraton winner, will be one of the top players in the PLL for a decade. On a yearly basis, he will be in the upper echelon of goals and point producers. He will draw fans through the turnstiles and get them to watch on their phones. 

Let’s hope he doesn’t lose his love of the game. He loves to be out shooting on a goal or working against the wall or lifting weights. That’s his happy place. 

I’m not sure he’s comfortable becoming the face of the league. He has no choice. He must embrace the attention while finding a way to continue to achieve and improve. He cannot let this adulation and responsibility steal his joy. I saw it diminish the Powell brothers in the early days of the MLL. They were seemingly torn in a million pieces trying to promote the league, their events and products. Mikey Powell in particular was widely popular because of his style of play, image and charisma. He was not a willing conspirator. And in fact, the pressure drove him away from the sport. 

Social media now makes promotion less hands on. The PLL promotion machine has a superstar they can market to the masses. That’s a good thing. 

Friday was Validation. 

It was Confirmation of what we already knew. 

And a Celebration for lacrosse fans and a league looking for a new star.