Brick By Brick: How Andy Copelan Took Risks to Build the Waterdogs


Andy Copelan turned a tough first year in 2020 into a championship game appearance in 2022.

Andy Copelan wasn’t handed a fully constructed, tailored roster in 2019 like many of his Premier Lacrosse League peers. The Waterdogs head coach instead had to forge his group brick by brick.

It didn’t happen overnight, even if it feels like it, as the Waterdogs prep for their first championship game appearance in just the club’s third year of existence. That quick rise washes away a frustrating first season during which the team went 1-3 in group play before ducking out in the first round, and a sophomore campaign that saw a surprise march to the one seed squandered with another one-and-done postseason appearance.

But each roadblock prepared a group that was once overlooked for last week’s semifinal upset of the top-seeded Whipsnakes. Now, the Waterdogs are set to square off with the defending champion Chaos on Sunday at 3 p.m. at Subaru Park in Chester, Pa., for the opportunity to become the first expansion team to win a title in league history.

“I’m forever indebted to Mike and Paul [Rabil],” Copelan said. “Building a professional team from inception is one of the most awesome responsibilities that I’ve been given, and it’s one that I’ve taken awfully seriously. We just kind of knew what we wanted to be in terms of philosophy, style and approach. We were able to be somewhat targeted in some of the guys that we were able to grab.”

With a blueprint in mind, Copelan has rarely missed on personnel decisions, as the Waterdogs have incrementally improved over the years.

The club’s journey began in earnest in February 2020 when Copelan stood alongside Paul Burmeister on the NBC Sports set and picked 18 players who were left unprotected by their former clubs. The PLL leaned into the idea that those selected were unwanted, a ragtag bunch fitting of the league’s “Every game is a revenge game” moniker.

But the expansion draft certainly wasn’t absent of talent. Key contributors to this year’s squad were among the first players in franchise history, including Kieran McArdle, Connor Kelly, Steve DeNapoli and Ryan Conrad.

Copelan stressed versatility with his selections, as well as an ability to be strong between the arcs. He found his poster boy for that mindset, and a foundational building block, when he drafted Zach Currier first overall in the subsequent entry draft.

“There were some other good guys available in that entry draft for sure, but I just knew in my core that if Zach made the decision to come over that he was going to be the guy that we had to go with,” Copelan said.

A good start, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit a month later, and players and coaches alike were left wondering if they’d even get that appetizing opportunity for payback. The PLL’s bubbled season in Utah meant they would, but the format worked against an expansion unit. A season lasting just over two weeks left little time for teammates who had never played together to gel. It resulted in an inaugural season to forget.

“They were just an awesome group,” Copelan said. “While our record wasn’t what we had hoped it would be, when you get the locker room right, it kind of helps make those difficult times a little bit easier.”

Still, Copelan had to be honest with himself. There were areas the Waterdogs needed to improve. Those early results inspired him to truly embrace his new role as a general manager, and in doing so, he orchestrated an offseason that set the Waterdogs on a course to be a championship contender.

The no-brainer came in the collegiate draft, when Copelan landed the new point guard of his offense in Michael Sowers. The real leg work was constructing a trio of trades and executing an entry draft strategy that remade the defense instantly.

Copelan began by adding a proven offensive weapon, and perhaps the best shooter in the world, when he swapped the 11th pick in the 2021 draft for Ryan Brown. After a down bubble season with the Atlas which saw Brown notch only six goals in five games, he returned to form with 21 points in his first year with Waterdogs.

Next, Copelan turned to the back end, landing defenseman Eli Gobrecht in a draft day trade before finding his man in the cage. After sitting behind Blaze Riorden in his first PLL season, All-World goalie Dillon Ward was given his chance to shine when the Waterdogs sent Wes Berg and a first rounder to the Chaos.

“We made three aggressive trades,” Copelan said. “And all three of those certainly helped us flip the script from Year 1 to Year 2.”

The defensive transformation was completed with help of the PLL’s merger with Major League Lacrosse. Few did better in the 2021 entry draft than Copelan, who selected a future Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Liam Byrnes in the first round and a top cover man in Ben Randall in the third. Mikie Schlosser in the second added to an already strong midfield.

“Honestly, in the first round, we were between Byrnes and Schlosser, believe it or not,” Copelan said. “We ended up going with Byrnes, and then all of a sudden, we saw Schlosser fall to us in the second. Benny Randall was a third-round pick and is our current No. 1 defenseman. That may be the steal of the draft. That couldn’t have worked out any better.”

The Waterdogs leapt to the top of the table last season, even as Sowers dealt with injuries most of the summer, and earned a bye into the semifinals. The Whipsnakes upset them 14-10, but a new bar and mentality was set.

“I have a ton of respect for them,” Whipsnakes coach Jim Stagnitta said. “They play really hard. They play together, and they never give up. They fight for every ground ball. They fight for every inch of the field.”

Last week, the Waterdogs weren’t willing to let history repeat itself, even facing a myriad of injuries and a two-goal deficit in the closing minutes. Short-stick midfielder Matt Witcher surprised everyone with a risky outside shot that went past Whips goalie Kyle Bernlohr for the equalizer, and McArdle notched a fourth-quarter hat trick in the comeback win.

“That’s just Waterdogs right there,” McArdle said. “You’ve seen it a few times throughout the year where we’re down, guys getting injured, and we just find a way.”

After knocking off a goliath, no one is overlooking the Waterdogs anymore.

“You’ve got to feel confident when you’re heading into a championship game,” Ward said. “The Whipsnakes have been in every single championship game since the league has started, so they know how to win these games. We knew it was going to take a lot for us to come out victorious. We just kept it simple. We stuck to our gameplan.”

With just one game remaining, there’s only one thing left to do.

“To have a chance at this thing and to feel as the head coach of the Waterdogs that we’ve done a modest job of making incremental progress year-over-year, that’s a good feeling,” Copelan said. “Now the objective is to really try to close the loop on this.”


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