second round.

“I wish they had an old picture of me and used that,” Byrnes said.

"> Waterdogs' Liam Byrnes a Cut Above | USA Lacrosse Magazine


Waterdogs' Liam Byrnes a Cut Above

The last competition Liam Byrnes came up short in wasn’t a Premier Lacrosse League game. It was the “Flolympics.” In a tournament on the Waterdogs’ social media accounts, fans voted on whose hairdo, or flow, they deemed superior. Ryland Rees edged Byrnes for a spot in the second round.

“I wish they had an old picture of me and used that,” Byrnes said.

Though eventual winner Mikie Schlosser seemed like an obvious choice, the locks Byrnes sported for more than 10 years might have made him a trendy upset pick. That was until Aug. 30, 2018, when he showed up to the Trophy Room Barbershop in the Kirkwood neighborhood of Atlanta on a whim.

“We’re gonna cut it pretty short,” Byrnes told the barber, named Rolando.

“So a couple inches?” he replied.

“No, like take it all the way off,” Byrnes said. “We’re gonna even shave the sides.”

“Listen, man, I’m pretty easy going,” he continued, sensing Rolando’s hesitation to attack the length of brown hair that extended down Byrnes’ back almost to his waist and gave him the appearance of a classic rocker. “Just do your best. I’m sure you’ll do a great job.”



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“He’s a pretty dynamic athlete and big guy who’s comfortable up top and down low at close.”

— Matt Bocklet

This is not a Samson-esque tale. Byrnes, the PLL leader in caused turnovers and a finalist for the league’s Dave Pietramala Defensive Player of the Year award, has inspired confidence wherever he’s gone in lacrosse regardless of his hairstyle. Selected fourth overall in the 2021 PLL entry draft, his move from starting long-stick midfielder to close defense this summer has coincided with the Waterdogs’ emergence as a title contender.

Following a first-round bye, the top-seeded Waterdogs will face the two-time reigning PLL champion Whipsnakes in the semifinals Sunday (1:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports) at Subaru Park in Chester, Pa. The Waterdogs haven’t lost since July 3, when they fell 19-16 to the Redwoods at Hofstra — a 15-minute drive from Byrnes’ hometown of West Islip, N.Y.

In the four games (all wins) since Byrnes has started at close defense, the Waterdogs have allowed an average of 7 goals. In their first four games, they surrendered 49 goals, or 12.25 per game.

“He’s a pretty dynamic athlete and big guy who’s comfortable up top and down low at close, but where he’s really excelled is his defensive IQ and anticipation,” Waterdogs defensive coordinator Matt Bocklet said. “He does a great job of anticipating a play and being right on his man's hands or the body after a rotation or a slide and I think that's why he's caused so many turnovers.”

Most of Byrnes’s 20 caused turnovers this summer have occurred not from stretching out and dislodging the ball from his man, but instead putting himself in passing lanes and then picking off feeds like an NFL safety. Usually tasked with covering the opponents’ off-ball attackman, he’s also in charge of making sure the unit stays organized by communicating the Waterdogs’ slides and rotations.

“We’ve done such a good job winning our 1-v-1 matchups, it’s been pretty easy,” Byrnes said of his role as a help defender.

During the second half of the season, Ben Randall has shut down opponents’ top dodging threat with startling efficiency. Eli Gobrecht has helped tie everything together and stuck with some of the league’s shiftiest players. Matt Whitcher has offered another reliable option at threat in transition at short-stick defensive midfield. And after struggling early, Dillon Ward has returned to his All-World form, posting at least a 60-percent save percentage in the last four games, including a 17-save (65.3 percent) performance against the Atlas to lock up the No. 1 seed in the regular season finale.

All of them, like Byrnes, were on other teams last summer either in the PLL or Major League Lacrosse. The new look is emblematic of PLL Coach of the Year finalist Andy Copelan’s overhaul of his second-year expansion squad. “Waterdogs Win the Offseason,” read the title of an article on the PLL’s website.

The path for the league’s second-most efficient defense was less straightforward.

“I have no idea how I'm going to be able to put this together,” Bocklet thought when he first joined Copelan’s staff after the entry draft. A three-time MLL champion with the Denver Outlaws and their all-time leader in ground balls, Bocklet served as the team’s president in 2020 before the merger with the PLL.

Like most things, it took some time to find a flow defensively and the right combination of players. The Waterdogs traded for Gobrecht, who Bocklet played with and coached on the Outlaws, during the college draft. By Week 2, Randall was on the active roster. Copelan, Bocklet noted, was the one who suggested Byrnes’ move down low to fill the role Brodie Merrill held for them last summer. 

Growing up on Long Island, Byrnes idolized another defensive legend. “For anyone reading this, if you don’t know who Ken Clausen is, go look up his highlights,” he said. “He was the best defender I have ever seen.”

Clausen, the only three-time first-team All-American in Virginia men’s lacrosse history, stood out because of his play, but also the flowing hair under the back of his orange and blue helmet. Byrnes wanted to be so much like Clausen, who’s now the defensive coordinator of the Atlas, he decided to grow his hair out too after his freshman year at West Islip. A self-described “late-bloomer” at the historic program that won the 2010 New York Class A state championship, Byrnes said he didn’t play meaningful minutes on varsity until the second half of his junior season. By that time, during the era of early recruiting, more than a handful of his classmates had been committed to top NCAA Division I programs for well over a year.

Byrnes planned to go to Division III Connecticut College, but knew he was good enough to play D-I. He just needed a chance. Joe Amplo gave it to him less than a week after he left Hofstra to start the program at Marquette.

“There’s no way I could have ever foreseen that happening,” Byrnes said.


Byrnes said luck has played a role in almost every stage of his lacrosse life. His youth coaches like Tom Federico, Brendan Schneck and Anthony Perettine had incredible playing resumes and knowledge. They weren’t obsessed with how many games they won and let kids gravitate to whatever position they wanted to play. Longtime West Islip defensive coordinator Bill Turri stressed having good stick skills, knocking down passes and pushing the ball in transition.

Byrnes started to learn how offenses thought under their tutelage. “It just helps you as a defender be in the right spot,” he said.

Now a coach at Centennial High School and with Thunder LB3 Lacrosse in Atlanta, Byrnes keeps drills as free flowing as possible so players can have fun and become adept handling a variety of situations. The program mourned the sudden death of Syracuse legend John Zulberti early this summer.

“He's got to be one of the most underrated players of all time,” said Byrnes, who wasn’t aware of the legend of “Z” until he moved to Atlanta in 2017. “For as good as he was, he was the most humble, down-to-earth guy. He was all about just being there for the kids, which is why they loved him.”

It was Perettine, Byrnes’ former coaches and a Hofstra alum who first put him on Amplo’s radar. That led to a career of firsts playing for Marquette.

A two-time captain and the Golden Eagles’ all-time leader in ground balls and turnovers, Byrnes’ collegiate career culminated in the program’s first Big East title and NCAA tournament appearance. He was named Big East Defensive Player of the Year and was the first Marquette player drafted in MLL history when the Florida Launch selected him with the 21st overall pick in the 2016 draft.

Byrnes kept the long hair going in the pros. He embraced the look and wasn’t too concerned with what people thought. The Florida humidity was another matter. He got it cut after his first season playing for the Atlanta Blaze. A little more than year later, Byrnes was named MLL Defensive Player of the Year after he helped the Blaze to their first playoff appearance and led the league in caused turnovers.

During the awards ceremony at Union Station in Denver, Clausen, also donning a more streamlined cut than his college days, presented him with the trophy.

“You’re the guy I looked up to in high school and the reason I grew my hair out in the first place,” Byrnes told Clause in the “full circle” moment.

They got a couple beers afterwards.

If all goes to plan and with a little luck later this month, Byrnes will have another occasion to celebrate and some hardware to bring back to the Trophy Room.

He should be due for a trim by then.