The Archers took home the hardware, the Waterdogs were within a few inches of repeating, and the 2023 PLL season has come to a close. In sports, every season is unique. New players are drafted, players retire, free agency occurs, there’s plenty of things to point to as to why no two seasons are alike. And as much as I like to try and be data driven and do analysis that way, the vibes are different every season. There’s just something else, some teams just have it, some teams spend the year looking for it. It’s some cocktail of confidence, attitude, luck, and magic that gets kicked up a notch by hard work and preparation. It’s not quantifiable but it’s certainly there.
With 2023 now written in stone, this is what I’d say were the top 10 stories of the PLL season.
To paraphrase a quote for another sport, how can you not get emotional about lacrosse? There is not a soul out there who thought the Cannons would be a contender this year. Not one. Don’t say you did, you didn’t. And if you think you did you were just being contrarian. They were the worst team in the league, they lost Lyle Thompson. If you were to sit down and look at data, metrics, measurables, you’d probably arrive at the conclusion that this team didn’t look like they’d be very good again. A new Head Coach and GM in Brian Holman, and what proved to be a pair of outstanding assistants in Jim Mitchell and Mikey Thompson, turned all that on its head. Without the measurables. Because what they focused on are things that you can’t quantify. Add guys who are winners to the roster. How do you measure, “he’s just a winner”? You don’t. You don’t have a stat for trust, belief, effort, and when it comes down to it, just downright love of lacrosse. That’s what the Cannons put on tape every weekend this season. A 19 man roster that looked like they just loved being out there together. Jeff Trainor, after the quarterfinals, said this team just takes the field and plays together for 48 minutes, and when it’s over, they look at the scoreboard to see if they won or lost. You could sense that as a viewer. They signed one of the biggest free agents available in Marcus Holman. They grabbed Ethan Rall from post college draft waivers. On this team, they’re both superstars, because that’s how the Cannons do things. Adam Ghitelman steps aside so Colin Kirst can take the starting role, and then helps coach Kirst to a Goalie of the Year finalist caliber season. They had a dozen stories just like those, and they turned the extraordinary into the commonplace. It was one of the more magical seasons I remember watching in pro lacrosse.
The faceoff upheaval
When the change was announced that shot clocks following faceoff wins would have 20 seconds cut off of them, the read that everyone made was basically the same. With a 32 second shot clock the impact of the faceoff specialist is being reduced following a season where a specialist won the MVP. The reasoning behind the change was to speed up play, pointing to teams being too slow to sub after faceoff wins and get their offensive personnel on. It’s hard to imagine that anyone - not the league, not fans, not media, not players, not anyone - would have expected what we ultimately got. In Week 3, the Waterdogs made the move to Eli Gobrecht facing off against Trevor Baptiste, running what became called the Faceoff Prevent. I wrote about the tactic and the thinking behind it. While I thought it would be a one and done thing, the Waterdogs stuck with it the rest of the season, never again dressing a faceoff specialist. The Cannons would follow suit, dropping the faceoff specialist spot from their 19 man and using Ethan Rall instead. The Chrome would make Connor Farrell, an All Star specialist, a healthy scratch in back to back weeks to try the prevent as well. On top of that, play in games was impacted in ways that were counter to what the rule change had in mind. On violations, players would occasionally wait until the last possible second to pick the ball up and start play, giving their team time to sub personnel with the shot clock stopped. Faceoff wins would be popped backwards toward wings, who would be slow to pick the ball up, again preserving as much shot clock as possible. The prevent became the story of the game in several outings, particularly when the Cannons and Waterdogs met in Baltimore and neither team dressed a faceoff man. To my knowledge, this is the first time this has happened in field lacrosse history. While the title game saw the Archers use Mike Sisselberer and an efficient 32 second offense against the prevent, it very easily could have gone the other as Zach Currier was above 50% facing off for the Waterdogs. Pointing to the Archers and saying that yes, faceoffs are still fine, is unfair, because nobody else is the Archers. Sisselberger handled prevent better than anyone all year, and the Archers personnel is built to play quickly in short clocks. The other seven teams spent the year trying to do what the Archers did, but nobody could. The league will have to decide if they want to revert the rule, adjust it in some way, or keep it as is this offseason. Whichever path they take will signal the league’s stance on the importance of the faceoff spot and the level of impact they want faceoff players to have on the game.
Archers on the run
Archers and their remade roster were a story coming into the year. Will Manny, Marcus Holman, Adam Ghitelman gone to retirement, while Scott Ratliff and Dominique Alexander retired. The signing of Mac O’Keefe, reuniting him with Grant Ament, was the marquee move, but what the Archers really did this season was build a midfield unit that can bury people with pace. It really became apparent just what they were trying to do in the draft. In the 2nd round, they took Connor Maher as the top SSDM in the draft. The scout for Maher put him a step behind other SSDMs in the draft when it came to coverage, but he was by far the top prospect in transition and with offensive skills. That pick, along with signing Challen Rogers and playing Tre Leclaire at SSDM late last year, made it clear what the Archers WEREN’T going to be doing. They weren’t going to be subbing. They’ll go from settled defense to transition offense and send nobody to the box at all. After they sub, they might bring their pole off, and that’s it. This is coupled with Brett Dobson taking over the starting role, who gets the ball out off a save as quickly and aggressively as anyone in lacrosse. Dobson created more goals than any netminder in the PLL. The blistering pace with which the Archers attacked started from their defensive end with a Tony Resch scheme built on a combination of trusting SSDMs in matchups, while also switching aggressively, to disrupt offensive flow, and then turning that disruption into offense. The Archers offense was versatile and fun to watch, but I’d consider their rope unit to be one of the big stories of the year for this team.
Whipsnakes join the rest of the pack
The Whips, over the first four years of the PLL, have always felt out in front of everyone else. Year one, they win the title. Year two, they win the title in the bubble in dominant fashion, looking light years better than everyone else. Year three, they lose in the championship to the Chaos. Year four, they lose in the semifinals to eventual champion Waterdogs after finishing the regular season with a 9-1 record. They’re style of “hit singles” has delivered every step of the way. They beat you by making the right play, over and over again, for 48 minutes. On offense it doesn't crank out a ton of highlights, it just puts the ball in the net and hits the defense with death by a thousand cuts. On defense, it’s well organized, winning matchups, forcing precision offensive play to generate looks that Kyle Bernlohr can save. This year, it was more of all that, but just not with consistency. They’d turn in some lapses in performance that opened the door for opponents, and they’d get punished. Injuries were brutal for this team early in the year. Their top four offensive dodgers - Matt Rambo, Zed Williams, Brad Smith, and Tucker Dordevic - didn’t play a game together until after the All Star break. Kyle Bernlohr missed several weeks with an elbow injury. Michael Ehrhardt missed time with injury, and played hurt for the entire summer. Top defender Matt Dunn missed two games. It added up to a sub .500 season, and the Whips will pick third in the upcoming draft. It’s uncharted territory for this team. On top of that, they face the aging of stars like Michael Ehrhardt and Mike Chanenchuk. The Whipsnakes offseason will be unlike any of the previous years, and it’s impossible to tell what direction they’ll go in. Because even they probably aren’t totally sure yet.
Asher Nolting making the leap
I wrote about Nolting’s remarkable elevation this year when he was named an MVP finalist. But it’s worth reiterating. The “sophomore slump” is consistent across pro sports. After an explosive rookie year, stars sometimes regress or underperform in year two. Nolting was solid year one, playing on an offense that probably asked way too much of him in year one. In year two, Nolting played with an offense that shared the ball, but asked him to be the primary initiator. The preparation each week was clear in Nolting’s game, and you didn’t have to look any further than the way he dodged for it to be obvious. If he knew he was matched up with a defender who would be on an island, he dodged to score. His physicality reached a different level, he fought harder for leverage to get to his spot and get to a place where he could score. If the defense was going to be sliding or sending doubles to him, his head was up immediately to move the ball quickly. It sounds so simple, but the way Nolting rapidly diagnosed what scheme the defense was in, and what they’d do next, at a pro level, allowed him to become one of the most dangerous attackman in the league this year. Once maligned for being turnover prone, Nolting has gone from being a sledgehammer to a surgeon. He’s no longer just brute force, he’s a guided missile. A bull in a china shop, but he only breaks that one specific plate he was after.
Every team seemed to have their own name for their first year players, be it pups or rookies or whatever else. But if you were a regular PLL viewer this summer, you know just how much the first year players, or just first year full time starters, grabbed their role and ran with it. To see just how good the youth is, consider:
Brett Dobson - Champ game MVP, Goalie of the Year finalist, 1st year starter and 2nd year pro
Ethan Rall - LSM of the Year finalist, undrafted rookie
Colin Kirst - Goalie of the Year finalist, 1st year starter, 2nd year pro
Asher Nolting - MVP Finalist, Attackman of the Year finalist, 2nd in league in points, 2nd year pro
Mike Sisselberger - Faceoff Athlete of the Year finalist, rookie.
Cole Kirst - Teammate of the Year winner, Redwoods leading scorer at Midfield, rookie
And that’s a sampling of the award nominees. To say nothing of the great first rookie seasons of Tucker Dordevic (rookie of the year), Gavin Adler, Brian Minicus, Matt Campbell, and Brendan Krebs. Having a foundation of strong young talent in the league is critical. Yes, they lost to the vets at the All Star game. I don’t think you need me to tell you there’s no worthwhile conclusions to be drawn from an All Star Game outcome. The conclusion you can draw is that there are top 3-4 players at each position in the game, multiple in some cases, that are in their first two years as pros.
The Atlas struggles on defense
The reason this a major story is that the Atlas had the 1st and 3rd picks in the draft, used both on defenseman, and promptly looked terrible on defense. Particularly in transition and in unsettled situations. I wrote a bit about what happened with them already, so no need to fully rehash it. But now, the Atlas are interesting because they have a clear problem to solve. It’s on defense. But they just drafted Gavin Adler and Brett Makar. Payton Rezanka hasn’t played for them yet. They cut some very capable defenders who caught on with other clubs and had success, specifically Cade Van Raaphorst with the Cannons, and Max Wayne who the Atlas let leave in free agency. Atlas fans are not going to tolerate another year like the one they just had. This team was a title pick for some, and a reasonable one given their personnel. Their underachievement will have fans pounding the table for coaching changes more than anything, because of how good the Atlas looked and the solid young core that was in place when new HC/GM Mike Pressler took over this year. Really, the story of the Atlas was the adjustment for a rookie Head Coach in the PLL. The pro field game is not like college, it’s not like international, it’s not like anything, and on top of that, Pressler had to navigate a 32 second shot clock that drastically reduced the impact of one of his best players. It was no easy landscape. There were roster moves made that didn’t make things any easier. Every week as moves got made and results stayed the same, Atlas fans grew more and more frustrated. Quick turnarounds are possible in the PLL, and Ben Rubeor pulled one off with this team in the past. So fans know what’s possible, and that’s what they expect.
The Chrome struggle on offense
I’ll own it, in preseason I was very high on Chrome. I thought they had the pieces to contend. Some of that may have been skewed by the Championship Series; it’s hard to look at what their personnel did there and not see a bright offensive future. They’re physical, they’re skilled, they’re fast, it all looked great. Sam Handley, at once time considered a lock for the first overall pick in the draft fell to them at four, only bolstering that size and athleticism in the midfield. But the Chrome, like the Whips this year, taught fans an important lesson. Games aren’t played on paper, and on the field, if you can’t be consistent, you can’t win. If you have a quarter with three great offensive possessions where the ball moves and you execute you well, but between each of those possessions is a bad turnover, failed clear, penalty, or some other negative play, you’ll lose. Every time. That’s what Chrome showed on offense this year. They’d put together a quality possession that ended in a great shot. Then they’d commit a turnover, throw the ball away, make a poor decision, or have some other lapse. And that’s all it takes for teams to start snowballing against you. The offensive talent has some foundational pieces to it in players like Logan Wisnauskas and Sam Handley. No doubt they miss Brendan Nichtern. But as the Atlas try to solve problems on defense, the Chrome offense will need a facelift. Brennan O’Neill awaits at the top of the draft board.
Tom Schreiber, MVP/Legend
Schreiber is the first name that comes out of many players' mouths when you ask who the best player in the world is. Across formats, styles, positions, the entirety of lacrosse, Schreiber gets plenty of number one votes. 2023 surely converted a few more fans to the Schreiber camp. In 2023, Schreiber won the MVP for the third time, two from the MLL days and now one in the PLL, making him the only player to accomplish this in the pro field game. He has never been outside the top 10 in points in the PLL. Schreiber is a standout because he does all this from the midfield. From the college game onward, awards tend to tilt towards attackmen. The Tewaaraton is routinely awarded to productive attackmen more than others. More than half the MLL MVP winners were attackmen. The PLL has departed a bit from this, as a goalie and a faceoff specialist won the award, but both of those were just the second ever at the positions to accomplish that. The only other midfielder to win multiple MVPs in the pro field game is Paul Rabil, who did it twice. Schreiber has entered a tier of one. Three time MVP, gold medal winner, and he’ll soon join a Toronto Rock team with title aspirations in the NLL. His 2023 season will put his name, if it wasn’t there for you already, firmly in the conversation for the best midfielder to ever pick up a stick.
Markets making their case
Looming over the entire season is the announcement that has PLL fans waiting with baited breath. Next season, the PLL will have all eight clubs assigned to a home market. This was known going into this season. The 2023 season was a way for fans to vote, with their wallets and otherwise, for their home market. If you want a team in your town, buy those tickets, show up to games, buy the merch, be active and engaged, get the community involved. I tried to be as engaged as possible with my home market, Connecticut, hoping to have made the case (thereby reducing my travel a great deal) to have a local team. Every week, players and coaches were asked about the market they were in, and they always spoke glowingly about where they were. It’s tough to get a real bead on where the PLL will go, but all season, every stop, the discourse was “this would be a great place for a team.” The way the PLL connected with communities at large in markets, through interactions with everyone from youth players to local business and government, served as a bit of a preview of what the future holds. But all season long, anyone with a keyboard was launching takes about what eight markets should hold each of the eight clubs, why they go there, the various affiliations that make it all make sense. The announcement comes in November, so the story goes on for at least another month.
And now, it’s time for the offseason. As just covered, the home markets come in November. The Championship Series returns in February, and will feature the PLL Champion plus three teams who are new to the event. And then, of course, free agency. All of this is surrounded by the NLL and college seasons, which have symbiotic (I think?) relationships with the PLL.
Next year will be unique, and will have a host of stories that aren’t like these to tell. Until next summer, PLL.