When the Whipsnakes hoisted the trophy above their heads after Matt Rambo buried the game-winner in overtime just 28 seconds in, people took a cop out to explain the result.
This is a Maryland alumni team. Of course they won, they had it easy.
That is too easy of an assessment of what the Whipsnakes LC accomplished in the inaugural PLL season. Taking a real look at the roster, very few of the players ever played together in a Terrapins uniform, and there’s a whole set of players brought in that had enthusiasm for breaking into the clique. Inside the Maryland alumni base, there were players spanning across eras from rookie Matt Rambo to Class of 2011’s Brett Schmidt.
Egos also were stretched from the hot young talent making noise in the college game to grinders who didn’t earn their recognition in pro lacrosse until years into their careers. At some point, the group was able to come together and create a new identity away from their university roots. The team became the Whipsnakes first, then became champions.
While the team cracked open 2019 with a 3-0 start, all three of the first wins came through overtime. Come playoffs, the Whipsnakes were 6-4 and stormed into the playoffs with a powerful showing against the Chaos, 16-7, to earn a spot in the title game. Then the team came full circle, sitting tied with its opponent after 60 minutes.
Trailing to the Redwoods at the end of regulation, Matt Rambo kept all hope alive with 21 seconds on the clock to force extra minutes. It was the young Maryland star cementing his name into lacrosse history with the finalizer just 28 seconds in.
As the Whipsnakes stormed the field, smiles stretched from ear-to-ear has players grabbed one another in embrace. The shared experience was reflective of the winners of a NCAA Championship, a band of brothers who had fought through adversity and reached the pinnacle of their sport. Their expressions didn’t read of those who expected the result. It was of a group that earned the moment.
“We didn’t show up and have this great chemistry,” Coach Jim Stagnitta shared about his team. “These guys come from different areas. They certainly had the same type of allegiance and commitment, but still they’re some of the best players in the world in their positions. Drew Snider never played with Matt Rambo and John Haus never played with (Connor) Kelly. They were recruited by, and in some cases, played for different coaches.
“When people say that (they’re all Maryland players), they really minimize what these guys accomplished and did. When you come from a background like that, there’s this expectation that everything falls into place, and it wasn’t the case at all.”
The coach went on to double-down on his stance that the Whipsnakes might have had even more of an uphill battle to earn the title based on complicated backgrounds.
“In fact, the things that they had to overcome,” Stagnitta continued. “The selflessness and what they did was develop a strong culture and a real commitment to embracing roles and doing what they need do to win a championship. We had made some mistakes and failed at times.
“We went through some things that teams go through with personalities. Every time we faced something like that, the guys came together, and they got better from it and they learned from the mistakes and they continued to become more unselfish as the year went on.”
Like any great team, the Whipsnakes were not without their challenges. The thought that the name on the front of their college jersey being the fundamental reason this group won it all doesn’t look deep enough at the deck of cards Stagnitta was playing with.
“The older guys were hard on the younger guys, and the younger guys were used to being the focal point,” Stagnitta explained.
“Ty Warner was was not in a hurry, nor was Ben Reeves, to play with a bunch of Maryland guys. There were some really big parts of our team that integrated and that really goes to speak not just towards the quality of the program, or the fact they came from Maryland, but you know, the people themselves.”
They’ve been working for weeks straight to plan and hit the ground running on integrating the new pieces of the puzzle, because there’s plenty of those, too. The Whipsnakes had to work in Ryan Drenner, Ben Reeves, Joe Nardella and Ty Warner as the season went along. With the gaps left by the Drenner and Reeves departure in the PLL Expansion Draft, Stagnitta is chomping at the bit to get to tryout Dylan Maltz and Zed Williams on the offense.
We can’t be too naive to believe that there isn’t some sort of Maryland advantage the team built off. The real boost wasn’t to the high-powered offense but the silent but deadly defensive group.
The backline of Tim Muller, Matt Dunn and Bryce Young all stood in front of goaltender Kyle Bernlohr for a few years together in College Park. The same style of defense they were recruited for and further instilled in them at Maryland is reflected on their style today.
“How we were developed at Maryland under Coach Tillman, it’s not a flashy way of defense,” Bernlohr stated. “We don’t throw unnecessary checks. We don’t slide unnecessary slides. We never go over the head. All these little things that we do is all about positioning angle and defensive unit chemistry. We don’t play a flashy brand, but we get it done.”
While the group has some similar threads that run through the defensive DNA, Stagnitta finds the differences among the pack makes it inseparable.
“There was chemistry there,” Stagnitted explained. “That’s why we kept every single one of those guys. Down at that end, the chemistry, the ability to communicate, the diverse skillset, the ability to play together. No question they got better as the season went on.”
The ability to do their jobs and trust that the man behind them can too is a major part of how a group without flashy takeaway skills can lockdown an entire group of six all-world players at any given time. The calm energy of Bernlohr between the irons flows through his groups and like cogs in a machine, the unit adapts and reacts as one has the ability to exploit, or another is in need of assistance, and it creates a poise for the entire roster to build off.
“The most valuable piece about that is the fact that we know each other so well and how each other plays,” Bernlohr continued. “You know when Dunn’s body language says you need a slide to him, you know when Timmy Mueller is on the island when he needs help or not.
“All these little things, it’s more so that we just know each other so well, it’s just so valuable to keep everybody.”
Inside the huddle, there isn’t an unconducted orchestra of voices getting a word in. The Whipsnakes know their roles, and that can change at varying points in the game. What doesn’t change is there’s one voice talking, leading the charge and capturing the full confidence and attention of his teammates.
The coaches are grateful to have a lineup of players who could make team bigger than self and iron out the details of whose turn it is to lead and when. By listening to the troops on the front lines, Stagnitta’s staff can adapt and plant key pieces of information in different players throughout the game. When the time comes to be challenged late in a contest, the players have already been conditioned on how to adapt to anything thrown at them.
If that means going into overtime of the PLL Championship Game, there’s no time to ask questions. Just time to catch a breath and go win a lacrosse game.
“They know when to talk and they know when we just gotta get down to business and in one voice is all we need,” Stagnitta said. “We have really good reason and understanding, but that didn’t start to happen in training camp, and it didn’t start at game one. It’s something that the older guys helped the younger guys with.”
Veterans like goalie Kyle Bernhardt have played for Coach Stagnitta and his no-frills brand of lacrosse. When you’ve seen it work, it’s easier to lead your team into new territory.
The confidence Stagnitta has in his group couldn’t be more clear to the players, and it comes out in the roster selection for the near-two week quarantined event in Utah. With only one face-off man on the roster, Stagnitta has faith that PLL Face-off Man of the Year finalist Joe Nardella is not only fully capable of understanding the grueling marathon ahead but has the stamina to keep up.
That’s not to say the Whipsnakes don’t have a backup plan should Nardella not be available for an upcoming draw. Stagnitta has another veteran in his back pocket who can pull from prior experience to contest the fight at the midline.
“Even a guy like Joe McCallion, it was honestly our guys that brought it up to me instead of getting a second face soft man,” Stagnitta went on. “Joe McCallion, who I coached at Penn, was a great high school and early college face-off guy. He can face off, he’s a scrapper. He can pick up a ground ball.
“He hadn’t worked at it in a while,” Stagnitta continued. “He’s worked at it now for two months with Joe and our guys. I don’t just have a guy who can go in and take face-offs legitimately, but I have a guy who has been a midfielder at a very high level at the professional league, for five years now. That gives us some depth.”
After the Whipsnakes 2020 debut on Saturday, they get three days off before the real stretch of their schedule. During this time, Stagnitta is essentially given three more days of camp to make adjust, tie off loose ends and really prepare for their opponents while they’re busy beating each other up. The defending champs can use the rest period to come out of the gate blazing against teams that are already dipping into their reserves.
While bodies will be rejuvenated, no pro lacrosse player is going to give up an opportunity for more minutes. It’s up to the coaching staff to start to limit players as their entire roster has to be accounted for and challenging scenarios balanced with tough calls. Stagnitta has studied his personnel thoroughly to be ready for chess match.
“We have to take care of Michael Earhart and make sure he stays fresh and healthy in the middle of the field,” he said. “Brett Schmidt is the Maryland guy who goes over the head and wants to run all over the field and do crazy stuff. But he’s a veteran who gives us great flexibility at both the pole and close.
“Timmy Mueller is the foundation of our defense. People don’t know that, but it’s not to be expected. He is the communicator. He’s the guy that no one recognizes how important he is to everything we do. There was not as much stress on them, particularly when you have Nards. If he stays healthy, you know you’re always going to be in it at the X. We have a ton of depth at the midfield, which I think we’re kind of built for this.
“Take Zed (Williams). Zed can play attack or midfield. He has at a very high level. (Max) Tuttle has played attack in college and midfield.
“There’s Brad Smith. Everybody forgot him. It made it a little bit easier to take the sting away when we had to lose some of those guys, because nobody even thought about Brad Smith and Brad Smith was a little bit of what we needed: a 6-foot-3 downhill dodger who played attack in his senior year at Duke at a high level.
“If you know lacrosse, you know, Jon Haus is one of the best all-around lacrosse players in the world. People don’t know that, and he’s a world-team player or recognize it because he’s such a great team guy. He’s had no responsibilities, he’s in great shape, he’s committed and ready to go.
“I think a lot of diverse skill sets are here. Then you throw someone like T.J. Comizio in this, and I feel pretty good that we can play, if we have to, 20-something guys.”
The general couldn’t be more prepared to lead into the 11-day battle with the hopes of coming out victorious once more. Stagnitta has had months to prepare during the COVID-19 induced lockdowns across the country from the comfort of his home on the Jersey Shore. Although having the initial PLL Championship on your resume is nice, something about the win left a bad taste in the coach’s mouth.
To Stagnitta, what a group of 20-something adults were able to achieve together over the course of a few summer months is something to shout from the mountain tops. He’s confident that the Maryland Terrapins did not win the first Premier Lacrosse League title, the Whipsnakes did.
“I think it does them a disservice,” Stagnitta enforced. “It was like more as much of a real season and as close to real seasons I’ve had since being a college coach. The challenges and the things that we worked through, and the growth and the development of them and the ability to come together and really kind of play their best lacrosse at the end of the year.”
Coach Stagnitta expects the narrative to be no different heading into the bubble. Even with a college phenom like Matt Rambo taking over the lacrosse world with two of the biggest goals of the league’s history and the MVP title to show for it, Stagnitta enforced that the focus on the Whipsnakes and not personal accolades remains constant.
“You we’ve been watching film, and Matt Rambo called me yesterday,” Stagnitta said. “He said, ‘Watching this film, Coach, has been great.’ It’s only like a half hour of clips. He’s like, ‘What I recognize is how many people I miss that were open, that I just needed to make that one more pass.’
“Now, this is the MVP of the league, who everybody would assume is just funny and gregarious. He is, but he’s the first one that will, when asked, ‘Don’t you hate it when people shut you off?’ come to a huddle and tell me, ‘Coach, it’s okay for us to play five-on-five, because more people are open and I’ll just stand back there.’
“That’s what makes for championship teams,” the coach explained.
“I don’t give a **** what team is in front of us. That’s our mindset.”
Tomorrow. NBC. 4pm ET 👑 pic.twitter.com/bBH28yqpBX
— Whipsnakes Lacrosse Club (@PLLWhipsnakes) July 24, 2020
Whipsnakes LC 2020 Schedule
All Times Eastern
- Game 1: Saturday 7/25 vs Redwoods 4:00 p.m. NBC
- Game 2: Thursday 7/30 vs Atlas 7:00 p.m. NBC Sports Network
- Game 3: Friday 7/31 vs Chaos 9:30 p.m. NBC Sports Network
- Game 4: Sunday 8/2 vs Chaos 12:00 p.m. NBC Sports Network
- Elimination Round: Tuesday 8/4