CHARLOTTE - The second of two contests Friday night featured a battle of the unbeatens as the seemingly rejuvenated Redwoods took on the defending champion Waterdogs. Similar to last season, the ‘Dogs gave Matt DeLuca the start despite Dillon Ward returning in his first week back from the NLL finals. Ward got a chance to get his feet under him and man the I-Pad from the sideline to help the defense and coaches break down film in real time. For the Redwoods, the rookie from Syracuse, Cole Kirst, saw his first game action in absence of an injured Charlie Bertrand. The second-round pick took full advantage, notching two goals and an assist in his debut. The game would become a game of runs and showed what makes the PLL so entertaining. The Waterdogs opened with an impressive six unanswered goals in the first eight minutes of play. However, the Redwoods would go on to match it with a six goal run of their own to tie the game at six a piece. A big factor of that run was an impressive showing from Redwood’s keeper Jack Kelly. Kelly bounced back after giving up the first six goals of the game to finish with 19 saves in the win. The Waterdogs had two chances in the final minute and a half of the game but were ultimately unable to finish their looks and the Redwoods escaped with another one goal victory, 10-9.
This game started out much quicker than the first matchup of the night. Michael Sowers got the scoring going with a diving goal just 16 seconds into the contest. Immediately after, Ryland Rees picked up the ground ball off the faceoff and took it right down Tryon St to put the Waterdogs up 2-0 in the opening 30 seconds of the game. The goals would continue to come as the ‘Dogs saw six straight goals to start the game behind four early points from Michael Sowers. After the 6th goal, Coach Nat St. Laurent called a time out with hopes of getting group settled.
“We were a little of control there early, we just needed to regroup and start chipping away," said St Laurent. Coming out of the timeout, the run was halted with a minute and a half left in the quarter off a deep one from John Sexton to close out the frame 6-1, Waterdogs.
The second quarter was almost an exact flip of the first. The Redwoods built their momentum off the Sexton goal to close the first to start their own run of five straight. Rob Pannell was the main initiator leading the team with three points in the first half. Twice he willed his way to get above GLE, scoring two goals and adding an assist during the run. A pleasant surprise for Redwoods fans was Kirst. In his first professional appearance, the rookie from Syracuse notched his first professional point midway through the second with an assist coming from X to feed the crafty Canadian Wes Berg.
Defensively, the Redwoods decided to switch the Sowers matchup from Cohen to Epple in the second and saw success, holding the Waterdogs scoreless for the quarter. Head Coach Andy Copelan was asked after the game what they thought happened offensively during the ‘Woods run. He tipped his cap to Kelly, adding “We got blanked in the second quarter but honestly, we thought that it was more of a Jack Kelly thing than an us thing.” After a half of play, the Waterdogs still held a slim lead of 6-5.
After a bit of a scoring drought, Kirst got the Redwoods back on the board with three and a half minutes remaining in the third. This time for his first career PLL goal when he came off a roll dodge and stuck a righty rocket five-hole to stretch the ‘Woods run and tie the game at six. That run would be stopped about a minute later after a pretty skip pass from Ethan Walker freed up a righty time and room shot from Connor Kelly, and well you can guess what happened next. You guessed it, 7-6 Waterdogs.
The first two goals of the 4th quarter saw Walker and Jake Carraway burry goals to give the Waterdogs a 9-8 lead. The ‘Woods answered right back with two goals of their own to retake the lead with 5 minutes remaining on the clock. The first was yet another crafty inside finish by Ryder Garnsey followed by a lefty goal off a rocker step from Pannell. With three minutes left and the Redwoods up one goal, Kelly made the save of the game right on the doorstep against Sowers. The Waterdogs were able to regain possession with just over a minute left but were offsides, resulting in a turnover. Luckily, the Waterdogs were able to squeeze out one more attempt after DeLuca made a clutch save. With no timeouts, the Waterdogs pushed the ball up field with 20 seconds remaining. As time ran down, Sowers got his hands free but was unable to put the shot on cage and the Redwoods escaped with a win after starting the game down six goals.
Both Copelan and Sowers were visibly frustrated postgame. Copelan noted he like his play defensively but finished off by saying “We’ve got some things to think about, I certainly don’t like starting the first two games under 10 goals, so we’ve got to figure that out.”
For the Redwoods, this win will pay dividends later in the season. Last year they were unable to close out some of those tight games and this could set the precedent going forward. St. Laurent said after the game “I’ve been preaching to the guys that in this league you’ve got to keep at it. It has to be jab after jab after jab in a heavyweight fight.” At 2-0, this team seems more confident than ever, particularly Epple. He went on to say, “Starting in training camp we knew this is a completely different team from last year and I don’t think the rest of the league thinks that yet.”
Keep an eye out on both these teams next week in Columbus and as the season progresses. After dropping to 1-1, the Waterdogs will look to clean up things offensively and rebound in a Friday night bout against a highly skilled Atlas team on ESPN+ at 6:00pm EST.
As for the Redwoods, they’ll look to remain undefeated with a heavy weight matchup against the Whipsnakes on Saturday at 7:00pm EST, also on ESPN+.