McArdle, Sowers Lead Undermanned Waterdogs Past Whipsnakes in PLL Semis

COURTESY OF PLL


Waterdogs LC had been through plenty of adversity during the 2022 PLL season.
 
Andy Copelan’s crew endured a three-game losing streak to start the summer, followed by several injuries that forced them to play with 15 players in a victory over Chrome LC in Fairfield, Conn. on July 24 — the same game where Waterdogs lost Ryan Brown to a concussion and Michael Sowers to a heat-related issue. 

Despite the valleys, Waterdogs pushed its way to a PLL playoff berth and a 19-14 victory over Atlas LC in the first round, punching a ticket to Sunday’s semifinal final in Washington, D.C.

Audi Field was perhaps the sight of Waterdogs’ most adversity in a season full of it. Michael Sowers aggravated a hamstring injury in the first quarter that forced him to limp throughout the battle with top-seeded Whipsnakes LC.  Mikey Schlosser went down in the first quarter with a lower-extremity injury that forced him out of the game. Steve DeNapoli left the game briefly with cramps. The deck was stacked against a team fighting for its first shot at a PLL title.

Somehow, Waterdogs LC found a way — just as they’ve done throughout the 2022 season.

“That’s just Waterdogs,” McArdle said. “If you go back to Fairfield, it was almost the same thing. If you go through those experiences during the season, when playoffs come, you remain calm and your leaders step up and you stick together as a unit and you grind it out.”

In a battle that featured no lead greater than two goals, an undermanned Waterdogs LC team found themselves trailing by a pair late in the fourth quarter. Kieran McArdle, the league’s leader in assists, scored two of Waterdogs' final three goals, including the eventual game-winner with just over a minute remaining to seal an 11-10 victory over Whipsnakes.

Just three seasons old, Waterdogs LC is headed to its first PLL Championship game, dethroning the two-time champions in the process.

“The other seven coaches and teams have been trying to catch the Whipsnakes,” Copelan said. “We’ve had a lot of adversity all year round. You learn from all of those experiences, both good and bad. We had some confidence when the game was tight late. If anybody ever doubted this locker room, you watch us compete and how hard we play and make sacrifices for each other, I’m not sure I’ve been around a group that plays as hard as this one does.”

Waterdogs LC was the only team to take down Whipsnakes during the regular season, winning by the same margin on July 2 in Minneapolis, Minn. Sowers had his team thinking of a repeat performance on Sunday, scoring twice in the first quarter and adding another in the second for a first-half hat trick. He used an inside roll to pick up his first and came from the left side of the crease for a diving finish to keep pace with Whipsnakes early.

The victory in July gave Waterdogs plenty of confidence as it competed early in its first-ever PLL semifinal.

“I don’t know if much was working for most of the game,” McArdle joked. “But Mikey [Sowers] can break down anyone. That second goal where he cut back was like NFL running back stuff. We won a bunch of one-goal games, especially the one against the best team in the league, so it created a lot of confidence.”







Sowers’ injury took away some of his explosive ability, and Schlosser returned to the field on crutches, but Waterdogs continued to keep up with a high-powered Whipsnakes offense. Matt Rambo was held scoreless in the first half, and Waterdogs forced the rest of the Whipsnakes shooter into low-percentage opportunities. Jake Bernhardt and Zedd Williams scored late in the first half to give Whipsnakes the 6-4 lead and momentum heading into the break.

Zach Currier halted that momentum just seconds out of halftime, taking a Jake Withers faceoff win and running through the middle of the Whipsnakes' defense to cut the deficit to one goal. Rambo scored twice in the second half, but Ethan Walker and McArdle helped keep the fifth-seeded Waterdogs in the game.

The fourth quarter became a back-and-forth affair that included turnovers, faceoff scrums and a comeback that saved the Waterdogs’ season. Williams and Brad Smith back goalie Dillon Ward to give Whipsnakes the 10-8 lead just over halfway through the final frame.

Then, the Waterdogs got to work — flipping the script on the Whipsnakes. Connor Kelly, the league’s leader in two-point shooting, found McArdle on a skip pass that brought Waterdogs within a goal with 6:51 left.

Less than two minutes later, just after DeNapoli went down with cramps, Matt Whitcher rushed down field in transition, dodging past Smith and firing home the equalizer with 3:34 left. The short-stick d-middie out of York has impressed Copelan all season.

“He’s been unbelievable,” Copelan said. “Matt felt like he had enough space to attack that matchup. He has the stones to do it. It was the fourth quarter of a semifinal playoff game. Even had Bernlohr saved it or it had not gone in, I give him a lot of credit for having that much confidence.”

After Williams shot wide on the ensuing Whipsnakes possession, Sowers found McArdle for the game-winning score with 1:40 left. Just as he did against Whipsnakes back in July, McArdle finished with three goals — all in the fourth quarter.

“He’d be the first one to tell you he probably had too many turnovers,” Copelan said. “But boy when the game is on the line, he has the ability to get it done for you.”

 A chaotic final minute included multiple turnovers and one final possession for Whipsnakes, but the two-time champions could find a quality opportunity.

Instead of the 9-1 Whipsnakes heading to their fourth consecutive championship appearance, fans will see a battle-tested Waterdogs team up against the winner of Atlas and Archers. It’s a team that reminds Whipsnakes coach Jim Stagnitta of his squad that took home the league’s first two titles.

“I love the way their guys handle themselves,” Stagnitta said. “They’re true professionals. They play really hard, they play together and they never give up. They fight for every ground ball no matter where it is on the field, and that’s been our M.O.”

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