Week 9 of the Premier Lacrosse League schedule opened with Redwoods and Cannons squaring off, two teams battling for their playoff lives.
While the Redwoods scored first and held onto that lead for over 30 minutes, the Cannons fought back in the third quarter. A goal by All-Star Lyle Thompson – his fourth of the game – with 8:21 remaining briefly tied the game at 12 before three unanswered goals from the Red-woods finally finished off the Cannons.
Sean Quirk said it was apparent in the locker room the loss had hit the players hard.
“It was like they lost the championship game,” he said. “They were just beaten down. They wanted it so bad. They played hard, and that’s just the attitude of the team. They’re gritty. They don’t stop battling.”
The Cannons had just dropped their seventh consecutive game, leaving them still with only one win on the season and in last place in the standings.
The following weekend wasn’t any kinder. Even after the Chaos, the team they are chasing for a playoff spot, lost, the Cannons lost to the Chrome 11-9. That loss – the team’s eighth in a row – was their fourth by two or fewer goals.
“When it’s not going your way, it’s tough to stop,” Cannons goalie Nick Marrocco said. “It’s definitely very frustrating to see everybody put in all the effort and sacrifice through the week, and when it doesn’t turn into wins, it’s tough. It’s a physically taxing game, but it’s also, men-tally, it can be tough when things aren’t going your way. We have talented players at each po-sition. We’re finding ways to step up and deliver at certain points in the game, but it’s closing it out and figuring out what we need to do to put in a full team effort.”
Not only have most of the games been close, but many individuals on the team are playing to their potential.
The team had four players selected to the All-Star Game: Lyle Thompson, Asher Nolting, Ryan Drenner and Jake Pulver. Through Week 10, Thompson leads the league in points (39) and one-point goals (24). Nolting was 17th in points (21, fourth-best among rookies), and Drenner was tied for ninth in one-point goals (16). Pulver was fourth in caused turnovers (11).
They’ve also gotten solid contributions from defensive midfielder Zach Goodrich, faceoff specialist Stephen Kelly (50 percent, 58 ground balls) and Marrocco, whose 123 saves are sec-ond-most in the league.
While the results may be wearing on the team, the faith in each other doesn’t seem to be wavering.
“The losses are frustrating, but I don’t think we’re frustrated in the group we have,” Goodrich said. “I think we’re trying to build. We’re trying to keep being a better team and keep battling for each other.”
“It was like they lost the championship game. They were just beaten down. They wanted it so bad.”
The Cannons were in a similar situation in 2021, on the brink of missing the playoffs with two wins going into the final game against the Chrome, who also only had two wins. The victor of the final game would secure the final spot in the playoffs; that team would not be the Chrome, coached by Tim Soudan.
He remembers how difficult it was to navigate the end of the season.
“It’s stressful, because everybody’s competitors and when you just don’t have enough,” Soudan said. “You’ve proven that you can’t win those close games, and you’re coming close, and it’s just, you’re just lacking that much, you know, it is a frustrating situation.”
The Chrome fought an uphill battle right from the beginning in 2021. The team’s first-round draft pick, JT Giles-Harris (third overall), never made it to training camp because of an injury and Randy Staats, a highly anticipated addition from the player entry draft, suffered a season-ending injury during training camp. All-Star attackman Jordan Wolf suffered a season-ending injury during the first game of the season and veteran defenseman Jesse Bernhardt played in only three games all season – the first two and the final game – because of an injury.
As the losses mounted, Soudan said he really focused on building relationships with a lot of the new players on the team — players like Colin Heacock, Dylan Molloy, Justin Anderson, and Kevin Rogers — so that they hopefully could be counted on to be team leaders in 2022 and beyond.
“You just try to keep it positive, and I think that’s what the guys appreciated,” he said. “We competed the entire year to the point where you just try to create that culture and character. We were there right until the end.”
Focusing on relationships was one thing Zach Currier said the Waterdogs players focused on during the team’s one-win 2020 season.
Being an expansion team made up of a mixture of players from teams around the league can be a hard enough environment in which to create chemistry. Doing so during a shortened bubble season with four games in two weeks made it even more difficult.
“I didn’t really know how to play with Connor Kelly or Kieran McArdle and guys like that,” he said. “It was not much time at all it felt like we spent half of that in our hotel rooms quarantining.”
Despite the struggles each of those teams faced at the bottom of the standings and on long losing streaks, there is a small lifeline offered by the PLL in the form of a large playoff picture. Since the team expanded to eight teams, seven make the playoffs; in the 2020 Championship Series, all seven teams were invited to play in the playoffs.
Those formats have left all teams with something to play for at the end of the regular season, and with even the slightest of opportunities, something special can still happen, shown by the 2020 Chaos, who lost all four group play games before surprising the league and winning its elimination and semifinal games to secure a trip to the PLL championship game.
“At the end of the day, we’re all doing it because we love to compete and be a part of a team and effort to be a part of a championship,” Marrocco said. “When you have that little bit of hope that things could turn around, and you can make the playoffs, you have to give one percent more. You have to leave everything on the field.”
“One game gets you in [the playoffs], and then, once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen,” Currier said. “In reality, you have to go out there and win one game, and if you break that down to each individual, you just have to win one matchup, whether it’s the faceoff guy or defenseman winning his matchup with an attackman or a shooter trying to win his matchup against the other goalie. When you’re in those tight games, it’s all about winning the tight matchups and doing whatever you can to help your team out. With the talent in this league, anybody can win any matchup on any day depending on how the ball is going that day.”