The Rise of the Waterdogs

PHOTOS COURTESY OF PREMIER LACROSSE LEAGUE / DESIGN BY HEATHER HUGHES


This article appears in the November edition of USA Lacrosse Magazine. Join our momentum.

As he stood in the Waterdogs locker room at Subaru Park in Chester, Pennsylvania, Steven DeNapoli made a confession of sorts to his teammates.

Fresh off winning his first Premier Lacrosse League championship and drenched with champagne, the team’s lone captain passionately explained how he had almost retired before each of the last four seasons.

“And I kept coming back,” DeNapoli said in a postgame speech full of colorful language. “Because I wanted to win it with you guys.”

DeNapoli’s woes began in 2018, when the veteran defensive midfielder faced heartbreak after making the U.S. national team for the world championship in Netanya, Israel. Two weeks before heading overseas, he tore his ACL while with Major League Lacrosse’s New York Lizards, forcing him to miss the entire tournament. The U.S. team won gold, but DeNapoli says it didn’t feel like he truly earned his medal. He wasn’t over there fighting with his teammates.

After recovering, DeNapoli had something to prove to himself. He didn’t want to go out on a low note, and a new upstart league piqued his interest. He suited up for the Atlas in 2019, one final go-around to show there was something left in the tank.

“I had kind of told myself, ‘Hey, I did it,’” DeNapoli said. “I came back, had this goal for myself that I wanted to achieve, to continue to play at a high level even after an injury. I was leaning toward retirement, and then a couple weeks after that Coach [Andy] Copelan called me up.”

Copelan sought the right mix of players to jumpstart the PLL’s first expansion club. DeNapoli was flattered by Copelan’s assessment of his play and bought in to the vision. The retirement question loomed, but he  kept coming back to the same answer. This Waterdogs were too special to walk away from.

“The locker room that we built — the culture, the community, the camaraderie, the friendships, the relationships that we made throughout the 2020 and 2021 seasons — just makes you keep wanting to come back,” DeNapoli said. “You’re addicted to the competitiveness. You’re addicted to competing with that group of guys.”

When the PLL hired Copelan in 2020, it presented him with an opportunity none of the original six coaches had. He could build a team from scratch, the old-fashioned way. Not preordained.

“He had a blank slate,” said attackman Kieran McArdle, taken with the seventh pick in the initial expansion draft. “He definitely did his research and leaned on some of us. He asked the right questions, figured out who was going to be a good locker room guy and a selfless guy.”

Copelan was intentional with who he brought to the Waterdogs from the beginning. “We wanted to surround ourselves with winners,” he said. “I love our locker room. When you get the locker room right, 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.

Copelan brought a strong resume from the college ranks to the PLL, but understood he was a novice when it came to professional lacrosse. He trusted veterans like DeNapoli, McArdle and Kelly to advise him on who would be a good fit.

That goodwill didn’t result in wins right away. The Waterdogs' debut season was shortened to a two-week bubble amid the coronavirus pandemic. But even with just one win in five attempts, Kelly was optimistic. Having come from the 2019 PLL champion Whipsnakes, he saw the makings of a title-caliber team.

“There was a core that first year, a core group of guys that Coach Cope set straight for what this team was going to be,” said Kelly, who has known Copelan longer than anyone in the league. The two first met when Kelly was a youth player in Connecticut. "Even in that first year together, there was still a sense of confidence.”

Players continued to voice their opinions in the ensuing offseason, which saw the likes of Michael Sowers, Dillon Ward, Ryan Brown, Liam Byrnes, Ben Randall and Eli Gobrecht join the fold.

There may be no bigger winner than Ward, the two-time All-World goalie who became the first player at his position to lead his team to pro indoor and outdoor championships in the same year.

In June, 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.

Ninety-two days later, he made 13 saves in the PLL championship game, 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.

“Ward is a champion,” McArdle said. “He wins at every level.”

With more time together and an influx of talent, the results started to flip. Close defeats in 2020 turned into gritty victories in the following two campaigns. For Kelly and McArdle, no game embodied that change of fortune better than Week 7 of this season in Fairfield. The Waterdogs entered the final two minutes down a goal, but Kelly answered with an equalizer with 35 seconds remaining before notching the game winner in overtime.

The players’ connection with one another helped the Waterdogs handle adversity at a unique level. It didn’t matter that they started the season 0-3, or that they closed the regular season on a two-game skid. The group barely had enough offensive players to field a unit due to injuries at the end of their semifinal matchup with the Whipsnakes and still pulled through. And an early 3-0 deficit to Chaos in the title game was far from insurmountable.

After a bit of a nervous start to the final and a few stellar saves by Chaos goalie Blaze Riorden, the Waterdogs settled down. They eventually worked their way to a tie four minutes into the second quarter, then took the lead for good with a four-goal run to start the second half.

Once the Chaos failed on a final desperation 2-point attempt, the celebration began.

“Our locker room is unbelievable,” Copelan said. “They got what they deserved today.”

That season-closing speech from DeNapoli was years in the making, stirring up enough emotion that he had to try his hardest to hold back tears. This group already held a special place in his heart, but now they were all joined together forever as champions. That’s especially meaningful to veterans like McArdle, who waited years to finally lift a trophy at the pro level.

“Your teammates will be lifelong friends,” McArdle said. “After you go through a special moment like a championship, there’s just that extra bond, that extra connection that you guys share.”

Now, they don’t just share a bond. They share rings.

“The word that I keep using is genuine,” DeNapoli said. “The ability of the guys to just be able to connect and click, only seeing each other once a week for only three months out of the year, and to genuinely care about what each other is doing with their lives, how our personal lives are going, I think directly translates to the cohesiveness you see on the field.

"I’ll remember this team for as long as I live just because of how truly passionate we are for one another.”

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