Self Made: Waterdogs Defeat Chaos for PLL Championship


PLL CEO Mike Rabil presents Waterdogs coach Andy Copelan with the championship trophy at Subaru Park.

CHESTER, Pa. — The Waterdogs partied for more than an hour before they emerged for the press conference following their 11-9 win over the Chaos in the Premier Lacrosse League championship game Sunday at Subaru Park outside Philadelphia.

Dillon Ward noticed just one seat on the stage as Kieran McArdle stepped away from the microphone. That would not do.

“Everyone’s going up,” Ward said, a Michelob Ultra in hand.

He grabbed an unused chair from behind a row of reporters, hoisted it over his head and planted it on the platform in front of the cameras. His teammates followed suit as they took the stage in unison and nestled together on each side of coach Andy Copelan.

A gesture befitting the PLL’s first self-made champion.

“It’s become a family,” team captain Steve DeNapoli said.

When the league hired Copelan to run its first expansion team in 2020, it also presented the Waterdogs coach with an opportunity none of the PLL’s original six coaches had. He could build a team from scratch, the old-fashioned way. Not preordained.

“We wanted to surround ourselves with winners,” Copelan said. “I love our locker room. When you get the locker room right, you feel like everything else tends to fall in place.”

DeNapoli was one of the building blocks. As were McArdle, Ryan Conrad and Connor Kelly — all of whom Copelan selected in the expansion draft. Then came Zach Currier, the incomparable two-way midfielder and ground ball machine that fit perfectly Copelan’s vision of a team that possessed an edge between the arcs.

But there may be no bigger winner than Ward, the two-time All-World goalie who this year cemented his place in lacrosse history, becoming the first player at his position to lead his team to pro indoor and outdoor championships in the same year.

Three months ago, Ward was the MVP of the National Lacrosse League finals, setting a league championship record with 55 saves in the Colorado Mammoth’s clinching win over the Buffalo Bandits.

Ward made 13 saves Sunday, none bigger than when he dropped to his knees twice to deny Chaos shooters Dhane Smith and Josh Byrne — both of whom also play for the Bandits — on consecutive possessions 16 seconds apart with just over a minute remaining.

The Waterdogs trailed 4-1 late in the first quarter, as Chaos goalie Blaze Riorden made eight saves in the first 11 minutes. But the large, lively crowd that largely favored the Waterdogs came to life when Philadelphia area native Michael Sowers scored on a leaping putback with 25.4 seconds left.

Sowers’ goal ignited a four-goal run that carried into the second quarter. McArdle gave the Waterdogs their first lead when he got topside on Chaos defenseman Jarrod Neumann and hit Riorden with a shot that trickled in to make it 5-4 at the 6:42 mark, but Byrne evened the score less than two minutes later.

It was tied at 5 at halftime. Then came another four-goal flurry, with the Waterdogs midfield doing much of the damage despite missing Mikie Schlosser due to injury. Conrad scored twice from up top and Jack Hannah hit a near-pipe blast dodging across the arc, punctuating a run that put the Waterdogs ahead 9-5 with 6:16 left in the third quarter.

The Chaos refused to go quietly, however. A minute later, Riorden made a save and then quickly fed long-stick midfielder Matt Rees going the other way. Rees, who had the extra point taken off a 2-point goal in the first quarter after review, left nothing to chance. He unleashed a howitzer from a few feet beyond the arc and beat Ward to pull the Chaos back within two. Then Kyle Jackson scored to make it 9-8 going into the fourth quarter.

But the Chaos turned the ball over on four of their first five possessions in the fourth quarter and McArdle picked up a pair of fourth-quarter assists on goals by Ethan Walker and Connor Kelly to keep the Waterdogs ahead.

The Chaos also committed two penalties in the fourth quarter, notably a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty charged to Chase Fraser after he threw a punch at Waterdogs defenseman Chris Sabia following Sabia’s hard body check on Byrne in front of the goal. Sabia received one minute for his role in the ensuing fracas. The hit was not penalized.

“I don’t think I’ve ever coached a game where every call was spot-on perfect,” Chaos coach Andy Towers said. “I credit Chase Fraser for stepping up and supporting his teammate. Do I think Byrnsey got fouled? Sure I do.”

The Waterdogs did not attempt a shot during their one-minute man-up, settling instead for a shot clock violation and then leaning on Ward to seal the game late.

The Chaos put just 20 of 38 shots on goal and converted on nine of them.

“Dillon Ward is an incredible goalie, a great person and a good friend. But Dillon Ward didn’t beat us today. It’s that simple,” Byrnes said. “We beat ourselves. We were settling for good shots and not great shots. That’s part of our Canadian culture, getting dunks and not settling for those nine- or 10-yard shots.”

The Waterdogs were more efficient and balanced on offense. McArdle, a nine-year pro lacrosse veteran who had never won a championship at any level, led the way with four points on two goals and two assists. Conrad had a hat trick. Sowers, limited to a degree by an injury he sustained in the semifinals last week, and Kelly added two goals apiece.

Sowers was named the PLL championship MVP, much to the delight of his hometown crowd.

“You come out of Duke and there’s a lot of cameras in your face. He just handles it well. He keeps his poise. He keeps his calm,” McArdle said. “Some of the plays he makes, I wish I could move like that. Mikey is going to be a successful pro for a long time. I’m lucky enough to be his line mate.”

“He’s one of the best lacrosse players in the world, no doubt about it,” Copelan said of Sowers as the press conference neared its end. “He knew his limitations today, kept it simple and produced. This kid has a huge professional future.”

Ward quickly grabbed the mic from Copelan. “And he’s paying our bar tab tonight,” he quipped.

Party on, Waterdogs.

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