Whipsnakes LC Defense Stands Out By Not Standing Out

When Kyle Bernlohr looks out at the Whipsnakes defense from his spot in the crease, he likes what he sees. 

“We like embracing the fact when you go look for Whipsnakes defensive highlights, you’re not going to see the crazy kayak checks,” Bernlohr said. “What you will find are smart double teams. You’ll see great timing of slides. You’ll find great short-stick play, and you’ll just find smart lacrosse plays that really when it comes down to it are all that matters.”

In a league that spawned the Bomb Squad and promotes its players’ personalities as well as their highlights, the defense for the reigning PLL champion Whipsnakes stands out by not standing out. They pride themselves on the fundamentals. They call their style of defense “boring” or say they’re “one of the least interesting dudes in the sport.” They’d rather chide each other in their group chat than chirp you on Twitter. 

All of that feeds into their “we” is greater than “me” mentality. Their brand is the team.

“This might be the best defensive unit in the history of pro lacrosse,” Kyle Devitte and Chris Rosenthall noted earlier this summer for Inside Lacrosse

“We don’t want this to feel like an exclusive Maryland thing. We want this to feel like the Whipsnakes Lacrosse Club.” — Kyle Bernlohr

The core of the unit comes from College Park, which Bernlohr said provided a built-in chemistry that’s “incomparable” to other teams. But last May during training camp at IMG Academy, captains Michael Ehrhardt, Jake Bernhardt and the rest of the former Terrapins made it a priority to welcome those who didn’t wear red and white in college.

“We knew that, right away, we couldn’t keep talking about Maryland and how we are all Terps,” Bernlohr said. “We knew in our heads that is not a very inclusive way to get the new guys on board with us. We don’t want this to feel like an exclusive Maryland thing. We want this to feel like the Whipsnakes Lacrosse Club.”

When Tyler Warner saw the PLL rosters announced back in March 2019, his reaction was less than enthusiastic. 

“I was not hyped to play with all the Maryland guys,” he said. 

The former first-team All-Ivy selection who Whipsnakes head coach Jim Stagnitta called the best shut-down short-stick defensive midfielder in the game didn’t forget how Maryland knocked Yale out of the NCAA tournament when he was a freshman. He also remembered the trash talk Bryce Young and Tim Muller used to lob his way. But the more he got to know the former Terps and play with them, the more their culture and style of play reminded him of the Eli’s tough and hard-nosed defense.  

“I didn’t think I would end up liking them as much as I did,” Warner admitted. 

The feeling is mutual. 

“He fits in so perfectly with what we were doing,” Whipsnakes All-Star defenseman Matt Dunn said of Warner. 

The Whipsnakes consider Warner and Bernhardt like long poles because they rarely get run by. That confidence offers defensive coordinator Mike Murphy flexibility in how he schemes for different offenses. Add in T.J. Comizio, who Stagnitta picked up through the entry draft, and as Murphy put it, the rich get richer. 

Where some teams have designated assignments regardless of the opponent, the Whipsnakes’ close defense is more fluid. Murphy called them a gameday defense. Dunn, Muller and Young can match up equally well against a variety of attackmen. 

While Muller was tasked with guarding Connor Fields of Chaos LC in Week 1 at Gillette Stadium last year (the Whipsnakes won in overtime), Muller and Dunn split the assignment in later matchups to present the MVP finalist with different looks. 

“It’s a balance of carrying that personal swagger with you that you can cover anyone, but focusing more on what’s best for the team and the unit,” said Dunn, adding the defense “truly” doesn’t chase individual accolades. “Guys are willing to do whatever they can because they trust and like each other and know everyone has bought into that same mindset.” 

After Murphy got tabbed by Stagnitta to lead the Whipsnakes defense, his first calls were to former Maryland coordinators Kevin Warne and Kevin Conry. He knew he had some of the greatest lacrosse players from the past decade on his team, but he wondered, “How do you make something that’s already really good even better?” 

The son of a former Marine Corps Colonel did so by following the standards he asks of all his players. Accountable. Committed. Loyal. He checked his ego at the door. He didn’t try to impose his system from 22 years of college coaching, most recently as the head coach at Colgate, before he took over at The Hill School in Pottstown, Pa., in 2018. He listened. The content was mostly same, but the presentation differed slightly. Instead of “One Behind” his teams used to call out during slides, they kept “Utah” from the Maryland contingent. 

“As a coach you can’t go in and say, ‘We have to do it my way,’” Murphy explained. 

“What you see is what you get with Coach Murph,” Bernlohr said. “He is super passionate with what he does and is a great coach of the pro guys. He knows how much this whole experience means to us. He appreciates the effort that we give, and we appreciate how much he asks of us.” 

On Sundays last summer, Murphy would spend hours breaking down every possession from the previous game in thorough detail. He’d share the entire analysis with the Whipsnakes D in an Excel spreadsheet.

“It gave us the ability to understand people’s tendencies game in and game out, and it was a way for me to reach all the guys,” said Murphy, who’s passion and enthusiasm for both the sport and the Whipsnakes ring through even over the phone. “It’s a labor of love.”

But besides the X’s and O’s, Murphy believes the Whipsnakes’ success last season stemmed from their camaraderie.

“Everybody sees what we do on the field, but it’s about the relationships off the field,” he said.


The team compiled video shout outs to celebrate Murphy’s children’s birthdays this spring. On a recent Zoom call, all the Whipsnakes signed off by saying bye to Henry — Brett Schmidt’s newborn son. 

The group has such a close sense of each other that Murphy feels like he’s coached them for 20 years. 

He thinks their togetherness reached a turning point after the Whipsnakes lost to the last-place Chrome 20-16 in Week 8. Instead of pointing fingers and casting the blame on someone else, they looked inward and asked questions like, “What can I do to help us be a better team?” The next week, they were fired up and it showed. They topped the Redwoods 17-4 in Hamilton, Ontario, in one of the most dominant performances of the season. 

The Whipsnakes looked on pace to deliver another similar outcome in the league championship game. They led 9-2 in the third quarter before a diving goal by Jack Near triggered a Redwoods comeback. League MVP Matt Rambo’s late-game heroics lifted the Whipsnakes to the inaugural championship win. 

“There’s a bit of sour taste in our mouth that we didn’t play our best for 48 minutes,” Murphy said. “There was a lull in there for about 15-20 minutes where we looked like the Bad News Bears.”

Bernlohr made 16 saves and stopped 65 percent of the shots he saw in the championship. Still, he said he feels sick when he watches the replay of the second half despite knowing the outcome. They felt they had peaked as a unit during that first half. 

“We’re all perfectionists and would have loved to win that game by a much greater margin,” Bernlohr said. 

Despite their winning ways and perhaps because of their style, the Whipsnakes acknowledge a perceived lack of attention, though you probably won’t see them voice those opinions on social media. 

“It was a little bit of a running joke,” Ehrhardt, the 2019 PLL long-stick midfielder of the year and 2018 World Championship MVP, said. “We felt like we got overshadowed most of the season. We’re not the sexiest or prettiest of defenses, and it’s not like we’re making crazy forced turnovers or ground balls. We’re pretty fundamental. That’s just the way we were taught to play defense. All we care about is letting in less goals than the other team.”

While the Whipsnakes ranked fourth in caused turnovers in 2019, per PLL Stats, they tied for second with the Redwoods in Scores Against Average (11.6). 

But like any good defense, the Whipsnakes understand the importance of a short memory. The championship was brought up during their first Zoom call this year.

“Fellas, it’s not about us defending anything,” Murphy recalled Stagnitta telling the team. “It’s about us being the best version of ourselves game in and game out.” 

They haven’t mentioned the championship formally as a group since.

“We don’t act like it didn’t happen, but we’re pretty good at shedding the past and moving onto what’s in front of us,” Dunn said. 

Besides, the Whipsnakes, who will kick off Championship Series group play against the Redwoods this Saturday, are not the same team as last year. By protecting all of the defensive starters, that left openings on the other side of the ball. Waterdogs head coach Andy Copelan picked up former Whipsnakes Drew Snider, Ben Reeves, Connor Kelly and Ryan Drenner in the expansion draft — the most players taken from any team. 

The offense assembled around Rambo will look much different over the next two weeks. 

The defense should remain its consistent and cohesive self.

“I can’t wait to go out there with them again,” Bernlohr said. “I couldn’t pick seven or eight better guys to take the field with. I wouldn’t trade them for anybody.”

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