Playing for Love: The Commitment of MLL Players

Playing for Love: The Commitment of MLL Players

One of the questions I always get from others coaches, friends and fans is, “What’s it like to coach in Major League Lacrosse?” Entering my sixth year in the league and having worked with three franchises, I have an appreciation and respect for the players that you can only develop through working closely with them over time.

I clearly remember my first conversation with Denver Outlaws General Manager Tony Seaman when he approached me to consider coaching the Outlaws. Having coached in college lacrosse for the previous 25 years, my perception of MLL and what coaching looked like at that level was probably not unlike that of the general public.

I told Tony (my college coach at Penn and the person who gave me my first college coaching job) that I was a coach, I would not be good or content at simply running a box and managing egos. If I was going to accept the position, I was going to coach, implement a system and give players accountability. The ability to create a strong culture and a positive team dynamic was important to me. He said that he expected no less from me and his expectations would mirror mine. This would also be the first experience for Tony in MLL, and I believe neither of us truly knew what we would experience.

I flew into Denver with Tony to meet with the team brass as well as our support staff. Denver is owned by the Broncos and is considered the gold standard in MLL when it comes to organizational structure. Mac Freeman is the COO of the Broncos and oversees Edge Sports Marketing, which manages the Outlaws. He is a former Hampden-Sydney College lacrosse player and just a great guy. His excitement about the Outlaws and commitment to the players and their experience was, and is, second to none. I was impressed with the professionalism and commitment from everyone in the organization from the top down.

Our first priority as GM and coach was to talk the cornerstone of the team, defenseman Lee Zink, out of retirement.

At the time, Lee was regarded as one of the premier defenders in MLL, a perennial all-star who worked in the energy industry by day, was a grad student at night and in the process of remodeling a house in Denver with his wife.

Except for some attempts to recruit him to Rutgers when he was in high school, I didn’t really know Lee until Tony and I sat down with him at dinner that night.

In our conversation, he made it clear he was busy and couldn’t commit to traveling to all the away games, so he did not feel it was fair to the team for him to take a roster spot. When we pushed for what would prompt him to return, we also gained insight into what was truly important to him from a team standpoint.

He wanted to be coached, for the team to have a purpose and direction. He wanted what he experienced in college — a true team and commitment to achieving at the highest level. He was asking if we were up to doing that. He challenged us! This was my first insight into what the MLL truly meant to the players.

Long story short, despite our agreement to allow Lee not to attend certain road games, he never missed a game over my two years with the team. He was the MLL Defensive Player of the Year in 2013 and went on to play for the 2014 U.S. team while remodeling a house, going to grad school and working his full-time job. While unique in his combination of talent, humility and leadership, his desire to compete and sacrifice to be part of a true team is commonplace in MLL.

Jim Stagnitta
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Credibility and loyalty are important to the players. If you prepare, give them accountability and operate in the best interest of the team, they will respond in kind.

Denver was my first MLL experience, and I didn’t know if it was a culture they had developed as a premier, well-supported franchise, or if it was the norm throughout the league. In Denver, veteran players sacrificed time and bodies to compete for a team and call themselves professional athletes for two hours a week.

Former Johns Hopkins All-American goalie, national champion and U.S. team goalie Jesse Schwartzman never missed a Friday night practice in Denver, flying from his job in Baltimore to take 100-mph shots from some of the best players in the world at what would be 10 p.m. Eastern time.  He was driven not only to play, but also to bring a championship back to Denver.

Brendan Mundorf, another U.S. team player and one of the MLL’s all-time leading scorers, played through injuries that eventually led to foot and shoulder surgeries. He played with reckless abandon every practice and every minute of every game, always in pain. He never took a minute off.

Anthony Kelly is a faceoff legend that I was fortunate enough to coach in Denver during his final dominant seasons. He is a natural leader with charisma and had a commitment to the craft of faceoff that was second to none. He was the first of the true practitioners, a bear of a man and a gifted athlete. He also was a throwback in that he could handle the ball and create offense from the X. He loved to create offense, but was not so keen on running back to play defense. You can only imagine the wear and tear he put on his body over the years, which was only rivaled by the time he put in to prepare his body each week for the battle he was going to fight in the middle of the field.  He was a mentor to the young players and another example of the commitment that I have come to admire and respect from MLL players.

In my two seasons with the Outlaws, we reached the finals in 2012 and the semifinals in 2013 after going undefeated in the regular season that year. While successful, these seasons fell short of the player expectations. For our team, the disappointment and pain of not winning an MLL championship was as intense as the end of any college season or career.

Each of these seasons ended with a commitment to return prepared and focused on winning an MLL championship, which Denver did in 2014 and 2016.

“He played with reckless abandon every practice and every minute of every game, always in pain. He never took a minute off.” — former Denver coach Jim Stagnitta on Brendan Mundorf
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Each season also ends with the realization that this could be your last year in the league and final opportunity to play the game at the highest level. The reality for the MLL player is that it’s not a job — the money is truly minimal — but a desire to simply play a game they love.

Each year, MLL veterans face an influx of younger talent from the college ranks as well as changes in their job or family status. The fact that they give up every weekend of their summer after working 40-60 hour weeks is challenging enough before you factor in family dynamics and normal life changes.

Longevity in the MLL is not easy to accomplish under even the best of circumstances.

I returned to college coaching following the 2013 season, though I did serve as an assistant with the Florida Launch in the summer of 2014.

I have found the best players in the world to be both coachable and eager to learn, as evidenced by the opportunity to coach Casey Powell in my one season with the Launch.

In a late-season game that had playoff ramifications, we were tied with minutes left and in a timeout. Casey, in the twilight of his career, was still a great player and a pleasure to coach. He came into the huddle and said, “OK Coach Stags, what do you got for us?” He set the tone for a young team, and I had their undivided attention. We ran the play exactly as drawn up, Casey scored the goal and complimented me on a great job. As a coach, the ability to make in-game adjustments or draw up plays we had not practiced, and have them executed, is what makes coaching at this level so much fun. These guys are coachable, unselfish and smart.

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Prior to the 2016 MLL season, I was fortunate to have an old friend, Mike Cerino, offer me his position as the head coach of the Charlotte Hounds as he was transitioning into the role of GM.

It was striking to me how the league and player dynamics changed in the short time I was away. The number of players in the league who work in lacrosse has increased significantly.

On the Hounds team alone, 19 of our top 25 players work in the lacrosse industry as college and high school coaches or club/camp owners.  More players across the league now regularly have sticks in their hands and the resources to train regularly. The opportunity for sponsorship and for players to market their individual brands has impacted the league. This has certainly improved the level and consistency of play, but still poses its challenges.

As I noted, we have a number of college coaches on the Hounds. Last season, John Haus was an assistant at Furman University, which meant he coached Saturday afternoons prior to our MLL night games. He jumped into his car or hurried to an airport to make our games, often running onto the field as we lined up for the anthem. John was an MLL all-star last year and went on to earn a spot on this summer’s U.S. team. John, now an assistant coach at Penn State, is a consummate professional, and a damn good player.

Coming to Charlotte also reunited me with Kevin Crowley. He plays in the NLL for the New England Blackwolves and also for the Canadian national team. Kevin is a lacrosse junkie and a character. I truly enjoy and respect Kevin. He has the same impact on our team as Lee Zink did in Denver. His approach is different, more vocal with mixture of sarcasm, humor and humility that I truly appreciate.

But when I was with Florida, we traded Kevin. When I came to Charlotte, he was my first call, and honestly I wasn’t sure how my arrival would sit with him. He was honest about where he was as a player during his time in Florida and how he recommitted to being the best player he could be and told me I would get the best version of Kevin Crowley. As only Kevin can, he got in a few friendly shots.

Over the past two seasons he has joined the Hounds immediately after competing in the NLL playoffs. He showed up last year after a grueling indoor season banged up and battered only to help a 0-3 team fight back into playoff contention.

The takeaway here is that MLL players are men, adults who play a game. I treat them like adults and consider their input and insights, which is both valuable and developmental for me as a coach and leader.

We held our first training camp for the 2018 season a couple of weekends ago. Kevin Crowley (NLL), Mike Chanenchuk (Sacred Heart), John Haus (Penn State), John Crawley (Notre Dame) and Jake Richard (Marquette) could not attend due to their lacrosse obligations. But each and every one of them reached out to me individually to hear about camp.

In short, MLL players care and sacrifice.

They are true professionals who go above and beyond to play. Whether they are coaches or work on Wall Street, they have a burning desire to compete, learn and succeed. The most difficult aspect of my job comes after camp, when I have to decide who makes up our roster of 25, and each week that I have to tell six guys they will not dress for the game. This is because I know how important MLL and our team are to these players.

My time in MLL has provided me a unique perspective on the players and the league. I believe it is the best, fastest and most exciting lacrosse being played today. Beyond talent, I have the utmost respect for the drive, commitment and quality of the players in MLL. It’s been an incredible coaching experience, and I look forward to the 2018 season with my guys.

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Players juggle work, family and school commitments to play the game they love.
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Jesse Schwartzman, Anthony Kelly and Lee Zink went through countless sacrifices in their MLL careers, eventually brining a championship to Denver in 2014.
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John Haus, a one of the top midfielders in the sport and a Team USA midfielder, often has to scramble to get from his college coaching job to MLL playing venues in the early part of the season.