“You know, at some point someone’s got to say, this is why Timmy Muller gets protected. Right?” Coach Jim Stagnitta wondered about his trusted defenseman.
Coach Stagnitta saw his fair share of criticism directed toward the Whipsnakes leadership in the offseason. While facing the inevitable loss of players due to an expansion draft, Stagnitta and staff were tasked with protecting only 11 of the 29 available bodies on the roster.
For a team that finished second in the PLL in total goals (128), first overall in goal differential (+12), and produced the league’s MVP in attackman Matt Rambo, it seemed like the easy recipe for success was to protect the offense and run it back in 2020. Yet, when the PLL revealed the protected lists on January 13, Rambo’s name was the only attackman listed as safe from becoming a Waterdog. At the bottom of the list, the names of four former Maryland long sticks and a goaltender would make the cut.
Keeping a goaltender that finished at 55 percent is an agreeable bet. Why save Matt Dunn, Michael Ehrhardt, Bryce Young and Tim Muller to lose proven guns Drew Snider, Ryan Drenner, Connor Kelly, Jeremy Sieverts and more?
The trio of Dunn, Young and Muller never crack the caused turnovers lists or produce staggering numbers in any individual category. At the end of group play in the 2020 PLL Championship Series, the Whipsnakes are dead last in the league for caused turnovers (19) and the starting backline only combined for five of them. Out of the team’s 150 ground balls, Dunn, Young and Muller only grabbed 16 off the turf. They rarely, if ever, go over-the-head or gamble on a rusty gate. If you’re looking to highlights for answers, you’re in the wrong place. If your nose is in the stat sheet, let me direct you to a column they stand alone in: Scores Against Average (SAA).
Through the four games they’ve played so far, the Whipsnakes lead the PLL in SAA at an average of 8.3 per game. The group is allowing two fewer goals per game than the closest team, and the whole rest of the league is within fractions of each other. While the defensive unit is running the show, they recognize they get way less love in the public conversation than other lesser performing groups.
“We don’t play a flashy brand, but we get it done,” goaltender Kyle Bernlohr ensured. “Our defensemen aren’t on the highlight reels of throwing crazy checks. Ultimately, those crazy checks get you in more trouble than they do good. Look at a guy like Timmy Muller. Timmy was the Division I Defenseman of the Year and a college national champion. Then he followed it up with a PLL championship two years later. So, he’s the most underrated player.”
While the positive work by the defensive core can go fairly unrecognized by media and fanbase, Matt Dunn is used to quietly showing up for work everyday with his team. The praise inside the locker room comes from the confidence they have in one another and the track records they’ve developed. Admiration can often go unspoken among the Whipsnakes, but when provoked to shed light on the team’s success, the name Tim Muller often rose to the surface.
“We think there’s definitely guys on our team that are under appreciated by the media,” Dunn shared. “It’s almost good for us that way. We like that. You got guys like Tim Muller, whose name’s kind of gotten out there a little more. He kind of flies under the radar.
“In reality, as a senior in college he won the Schmeisser Award as the best defenseman, won MVP of the NCAA tournament when (Maryland) won the National Championship. So it’s funny, you can go out with that kind of college career, and then people were up in arms that we protected a Tim Muller, and it’s like he doesn’t get credit.”
National Championship Most Outstanding Player or not, Muller jerseys still aren’t for sale on the PLL website. His name has yet to trend on lacrosse Twitter. Even when mic’d up through the week, communication was kept focused and directed to aiding his teammates, not creating distractions or dropping one-liners. While the public may miss Muller’s contributions to the Whipsnakes’ winning ways, his teammates and staff have his full respect.
“I think the guys on the team will tell you he is one of the most important pieces to our success.” Stagnitta reflected. “There are reasons that every one of those guys was protected and, sometimes, I feel like it becomes my responsibility a little bit to protect them in that regard. Because people need to understand why, instead of just questioning them, you know, like who is Timmy Muller?
“He’s a Schmeisser Award winner. He’s pretty damn good. First team, All-American.”
There’s no doubt Muller was impactful in his college days. His time in College Park was where Dunn, Bernlohr and Young learned to play comfortably with him in the first place. Fitting between the 2016 class with Bernlohr and 2018’s Dunn and Young was Muller, getting three years to build a relationship with each of his current teammates. But when results are everything in pro lacrosse, what is it about a guy with only one caused turnover, six ground balls and an assist to command this much respect by his peers?
Muller can take on the toughest attackmen and stick to his assignment like glue. With his crosse always handcuffing the hands of his opponent, Muller prowls with a sixth sense for his teammates. When help is needed, he’s there a half step ahead of time, but never firing too soon. When Muller is on an island, his help comes to force a double, not to save him. If he’s marking a man in front of the goal, they can’t move without a Muller shadow. He doesn’t lead the PLL in takeaways simply because no one dodges on him. A role player to the core, he can leave the excitement to the offensive guys. Muller is a master of his craft back home.
“He goes unnoticed, because he doesn’t go scoring goals and taking (the ball) down all the way,” Dunn added. “But if you watch him play defense, that guy is such an integral part of our unit. Muller would add value, instant value, to any team he’s on.”
Over the first three of four group play games, the Whipsnakes held their opponents under double-digits each game. No player scored more than two goals individually against them this season, and Muller was right in the middle of keeping the inside clean.
Bernlohr was quick to drive the point home that as good as Tim Muller makes the Whipsnakes, the Whipsnakes only remain dominant if everyone does their part. For him, that means managing the shot load he faces by limiting the options of the opposition. As they continue their streak of dominance, Bernlohr couldn’t ask any more of his unit.
“(Muller) is underrated as well as Bryce Young and Matt Dunn,” Berlohr insisted. “Those are guys that on (highlight) clips you don’t see. You don’t see the fancy checks and the crazy plays, but they do just keep offenses away from the cage and give me the shots that I want to see.
“In my opinion, they’re the three best defensemen in the world. So to have those guys in front of me is incredible.”
Whipsnakes in Playoffs
The Whipsnakes went 4-0 in group play to earn the No. 1 seed in the elimination bracket. The top spot gave them a first round bye and opportunity to rest for three whole days until the semifinals on Thursday evening.
They will face the winner of No. 4 Redwoods and No. 5 Waterdogs on August 6, with the time to be announced.