The PLL Championship Series awaits us at the end of the week, and it couldn’t be coming at a better time.
As we go through the almost-daily changes of life during quarantine, the PLL is soon to bring us back to a sense of normalcy: a way to help fill that enormous void left by a non-existent high school and unfinished college season.
Once the dust settled around the inaugural Premier Lacrosse League season last summer, it was Redwoods LC bearing the disappointment of the ultimate letdown: losing in the championship game. Coach Nat St. Laurent’s group finished the regular season at an even 5-5 record, actually negative on the goal count, scoring two fewer than the 116 registered against them. He rallied his troops from a mid-season skid for the final playoff stretch and breezed by the Chaos and Archers for a shot at hoisting the first trophy.
In what became an instant classic, the Redwoods went a full 60 minutes with the Whipsnakes, but it wouldn’t be enough time to settle things. The Whips took a 5-2 lead going into the half and steered the ship until the final frame. Storming back, the ‘Woods went on a 4-1 run to take the lead with only minutes left. It was MVP Matt Rambo hammering in the game-tying effort with 21 seconds left to force overtime. With the upper hand for most of the game, legendary face-off man Greg Gurenlian couldn’t secure the final possession and the Whipsnakes made the best of their given chance, 12-11, only 28 seconds in.
Instead of breaking down who the Redwoods gained, who they lost, the usual information that, while useful, lacks substance, it’s more insightful to look through the players’ eyes.
St. Laurent has crafted his team based on the workhorse type athlete. A blue collar type coach himself, the U.S. Army Reserve veteran sees the guys who do the little things right and aren’t afraid of answering the bell for their teams. No two Redwoods exemplify this more than the extremely talented, often under-appreciated Pat Harbeson (UVA ’14) and Nick Ossello (Notre Dame ’15).
Harbeson is an electric two-way midfielder, ground ball hound, and if you dare him to shoot in transition he can make you pay for it, hitting three of nine attempts last season. Ossello, known for mixing it up physically with opponents, backs up his toughness with world-class defensive and ground-ball abilities. A pair of team-first guys, Harbeson and Ossello will give everything to help the ‘Woods, and rumor has it they’re both more than willing to take a face-off, if needed.
For guys who might not be household names, the energy of the crowd and excitement of young lacrosse players provides fuel for Harbeson and Ossello. Harbeson knows that what the games will be missing in live atmosphere, they’ll make up for in global reach.
“I think what I’ll miss most is the fan interaction,” Harberson pondered. “But, what’s exciting is just how much lacrosse will be broadcast in such a short time. It’s going to be an incredible amount of concentrated exposure for the sport on a great platform.”
A concentrated amount of lacrosse to say the least. In 2019, players stretched the entire campaign across 13 weekends, plus an All-Star Game break. This year, an entire season is getting packed into an 11-day span, with each team facing a minimum of four games in the eight day round-robin stage. They will have barely a week on the ground in Utah to prepare together as a team, although training camps have been taking place in the meantime. To an outsider, this seems unfathomable and too much competition for a shortened window. For the athletes, it’s like being a kid again.
“As lacrosse players, we’ve all spent our childhoods playing summer tournaments,” Ossello shared. “What I’m excited for is the chance to spend three weeks with my teammates, something that would never happen in a traditional year.”
For a group that really meshed over the course of the season and turned adversity into a powerful playoff run, the Redwoods maintained a majority of their core players from last year. One major exception is the loss of future Hall of Famer Greg Gurenlian, not only at the face-off stripe but as a leader and sage in the locker room.
“Greg is one of the top three most genuine players I’ve ever been around,” Harbeson explained. “His presence in the locker room will be missed as much as his abilities on the field”
When asked who he was most intrigued to see added to the roster, Harbeson unsurprisingly mentioned three names; Greg Puskuldjian, Peyton Smith, and Myles Jones.
Puskuldjian and Smith are immediately coming in to attempt to fill the void Gurenlian leaves in the face-off unit. Puskuldjian has been tested before in professional lacrosse, helping to win a championship in 2017. Still green and fresh out of Marist, Smith was an all-time great for the Red Foxes and finished his career as the top draw man in the MAAC. Filling Gurenlian’s shoes with not one, but two face-off athletes shows that even the staff is aware that their success will play a major factor in the overall outcome of the team this year.
The addition of the electrifying and larger-than-life Myles Jones gives the Redwoods, as Harbeson put it, “a dominant midfielder who has the ability to breakdown a defense and makes things happen.” The size, speed and IQ of Jones forces defenses to pay attention to him at all times and react quicker. The attention he draws along with the ability to make plays is something the team needed a little more of last season.
Ossello echoed Harbeson’s excitement for the new players but added that the addition of defender Finn Sullivan will also be one to watch.
“You can’t replace a guy like Matt Landis,” Ossello explained. “But, Finn will do an excellent job helping fill that spot. I’m very excited to have him join us and to be teammates again.”
With a shortened pre-season and a condensed schedule, teams will have to gel extremely quickly to find success in the PLL Championship Series. Coach St. Laurent’s style is suited for such a task. Ossello credits St. Laurent as being a tireless worker who enforces the idea of blocking outside noise to focus only on the team and their attitude.
Harbeson was quick to describe his boss as a “players’ coach.” The players view St. Laurent as someone with high standards, a man who cares to listen to his players, but isn’t afraid to bark when needed.
“Coach Nat is constantly preaching togetherness, the team first,” Harbeson ensured. “Our team is built around the idea of being selfless.”
Redwoods LC 2020 Schedule
All Times Eastern