October 07, 2021

#029: Chaos – 2021 PLL Champions – Andy Towers

Written by Fran Racioppi

On August 11, the Chaos were given a 3.2% chance of winning the Premier Lacrosse League. They were the sixth seed going into the playoffs and were given no respect. Today, they are the 2021 PLL champions.

Head Coach Andy Towers joins host Fran Racioppi on the first follow-up episode of The Jedburgh Podcast proving that his goal to peak at the right time was achievable.

Coach Towers explains how he focused the team to play the same style of game, how he valued chemistry over raw talent in personnel decisions, the resiliency the team showed after starting the season 0-3, and how the best players prepared relentlessly for precision execution.

Listen to the podcast here:

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On August 11th, the Chaos we’re given a 3.2% chance of winning the Premier Lacrosse League. They were the sixth seed going into the playoffs and were given no respect. Today, they’re the 2021 PLL Champions. Head Coach, Andy Towers joins me in the first follow-up episode of the show. Andy and I spoke right before the start of the playoffs about what his team needed to do to make a run. His keys to building a championship team and what it takes to be an elite coach in any sport. We follow up that conversation in a discussion proving that his goal to peak at the right time was achievable.

Coach Towers explains how he focused the team to play the same style of game and how he valued chemistry over raw talent and personnel decisions. The resiliency the team showed after starting the season, 0 and 3, how the best players prepared relentlessly for precision execution. Andy himself is a member of the United States Lacrosse Connecticut Hall of Fame, The Brown University Sports Hall of Fame, World Champion, multiple time All-American, All-Ivy in All-New England and The Ivy League Player of The Year. He was the 2019 Coach of The Year in the PLL’s inaugural season. His team lost in the finals in 2020. Now he and the Chaos are the PLL Champions.

Coach, welcome back to the show.

Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be back.

You are the first repeat guest, I have to tell you. That means a few things. One, we’ve lasted long enough to be able to have repeat guest and people like what we’re talking about.

I’m humbled to be back on the show again. Certainly, feel the pressure of being the first to repeat guest. Thank you for having me.

You earned it. When we were here last time, we did the episode right before the start of the playoffs. The whole point was to get you in here, talk about the season at that point then let’s set the conditions for the playoffs. Talk about all the things that have to be done. When you sat here, you had just clenched, you were in the sixth seed. Right after that, the public came and said that you had a 3.2% chance to win the championship. You sit here because you are the PLL Champion, you and the Chaos.

We certainly took that 3.2% narrative and had fun with it. The only opinions that matter are the opinions of the people in your locker room and on your staff. Even though we perpetually used that narrative over the course of the playoffs, there were zero self-doubts coming out of our locker room. We used the 3.2% like a little bit of a prop to put some pressure on everybody but us.

The fact is that whether everybody thought we were going to win or no one thought we were going to win, the only opinions that mattered to us are the guys that come to practice, wear the uniform, the guys that are in the locker room and the people on the staff. That’s all that matters. We didn’t have any self-doubt.

The best part about this was that the two teams that you beat in the quarter-finals and the semis, the Archers and the Atlas were combined had 50% of the vote.

Those were probably the two scariest teams offensively over the course of the summer. As fans when they watch the PLL play, they see such incredible offensive talent in that league. It’s hard to not get captivated by that. Our offense was phenomenal as well. It came together and became the most dangerous that it was certainly in the playoffs. Our defense did not get enough credit. You could argue that our defense was the strongest part of our team.

In the end, balance in all areas is tough to beat and something you strive for as a coach. I felt that ultimately, we had a great balance from placing the goal, through our team defense, adds our face soft guy in our wing play, through the offensive end, that balance and a true genuine belief in each other, that we were on a mission, helped us get to where we want it to be.

You told me the only goal that you had was to win the championship. You’ve achieved that goal. You built this team with a certain identity. On all offense, you needed this box-style lacrosse. It had to be a fast-paced of play. Everybody had to play the same way. On defense, as you brought and I do agree with you, they were severely underrated. I watched every game. You would call that group, a group of ass speeders. I would argue that they went out and absolutely did that.

There’s no question that was an identity that they as individuals bring to the table. Part of putting a team together is having an idea of how you want to play. Some of the characteristics that you want to take on as characteristics of the culture of your team. The best way to do that is to select players that have those characteristics as people.

Certainly, it starts with Ryan Curtis, our Defensive Coordinator. As a player, there was no one tougher. There was no bigger ass beater in the sport than Ryan Curtis. He played at the University of Virginia, National Defenseman of the Year. Won a National Championship there as a player. Went on and played professional into lacrosse and the Major League Lacrosse, where he was the Defensive Player of the Year in that league as well.

Played on the US National Team. This is a guy that 100% should be in the National Hall of Fame. Our defense played with that edge that Ryan Curtis played with when he was a player and the edge that he coaches with. They say that you take on the characteristics of your coaches. Our defense took on those characteristics that Ryan exemplified as a player and as a competitor. It was great to see.

I want to ask more about that. Your team is a bit different than the other teams. It certainly has come out a lot more since you guys won and it’s been in the press. You had what everybody is calling now a potluck team. Meaning that a lot of the other teams were comprised of guys who played together in different organizations. The Whipsnakes team that you beat was mostly Maryland guys. Congratulations on beating these guys on their home turf in DC, which is awesome.

You had this potluck team, you got guys from Canada, from Albany, what they’ve turned themselves, the Kardashians of Albany. You had to build this culture of really this disparate group of folks who all played differently. This is something that is critical, especially, if you look at college athletics. I work with Boston University and the Boston University Men’s Rowing Team. You have all these elite athletes coming from overseas in New Zealand, Australia, Germany and they’ve thrown on national teams, they’re coming into one organization.

The challenge of the coach is to get all these guys to row together. That’s what you face. I’m wondering when you bring this group together and you start thinking about, “We have to build an identity, we have to build a culture.” It almost doesn’t matter as much what you do, as long as you’re all doing the same thing and playing the same way. When you looked at the team and building that mindset, how did you approach it?

It’s a great question and a great conversation. Perhaps, the greatest challenge that every coach has. Finding that commonality that binding element that creates a better group than they are a group of individuals. A little background on the league, when the league first announced the six teams, it seemed like each of the respective teams had a binding element to them with the most prevalent one being, having gone to school together.

A lot of the players on the Whipsnakes went to the University of Maryland. A lot of the players on the Redwoods went to Notre Dame. A lot of the players on the Chrome went to Duke. A lot of players on the original Atlas team were the older version of the US World Team players. Each team had its inherent identity. Our team had some guys that went to Albany but the rest of the locker room was individual players. Our challenge the first year was trying to manage a lack of connection that was perhaps already in place at some of these teams where a large number of players went to school together.

We were very conscious of the fact that the first year or so, maybe that’s an advantage in the short-term, as time goes on and our players get to know each other as people, as teammates and as competitors, that inherent advantage will become diluted. That’s the case. I’m not saying that in the way that those teams with an existing connection going into that first season, lost their connection. I don’t think that’s the case. I think our team gained its connection.

Each year, you try to go out and you try to win the championship. That was our goal the first summer, last summer in the bubble and this summer. You’re looking for the right combinations of people. It’s a sport where the teams that are the most connected are the teams that have the greatest chance of becoming the best teams. Part of our struggle that first summer was we had many great players as all the locker rooms did but we had some guys that played different styles. All were great people. We had to figure out who are we on the offensive end, what’s going to be our style of play.

We had on the offense end a few more American players than we did Canadian box-styled players. We alternated between two different types of schemes to fit the strengths of each respective group of players. We did well. We finished the regular season as the number one seed in the tournament. We were 7 and 3. On the defensive end, we rode the success.

Everybody wants to win. But not everybody wants to win regardless of their role in the game. Click To Tweet

Blaze Riorden was a stud. We also had Brodie Merrill who is one the best players in the history of the sport. On the defensive end with three young, good defensive players in Jarrod Neumann, Johnny Surdick and Jack Rowlett. We rolled the strength of our face-off guy, Tommy Kelly, who was a stud. We peaked at the wrong time, we peaked in the middle of the summer.

We took some teams by surprise in the way that we played. It was when this group is in, we’re playing this style and when that group’s in, we’re playing another type of style. That kept teams off balance a little bit but those ultimately teams adjusted to what we were doing and beat us when it mattered most. We go out of the bubble and we had made a few off-season trades.

We move some guys that were awesome people and awesome players. We started to settle in on what we thought was going to be a better fit for what we’re doing. Defensively, we didn’t change very much. We ended up losing Johnny Surdick on a last-minute decision by the general who wouldn’t allow him to come out to the bubble and play. That certainly affected the dynamic on the defensive end.

We were able to continue to ride the great play of players wherein the best players on the planet. We struggled in the bubble during the round-robin portion of the faceoff X. We improved during the playoffs. We had a tougher time in that area. On the offensive end, we picked up a few more Canadian box players. We were still in that offensive hybrid, where when we rolled out our American line of midfielders, we played a little bit more of a rescripted type offense. When we rolled out our box-styled players, we played a little free-flowing, allow a little more creativity there.

That dynamic along with a couple of personnel changes allowed us to play our best in the playoffs last summer in the bubble but it wasn’t quite enough to win the whole thing. We ended up losing to the Whipsnakes. They won their second championship in a row. We credit Jim Stagnitta, his staff and those players. They’re a phenomenal team. We had a chance to win. We were up 6, 2. We were up 6, 3. Still, we’re ten minutes away or one quarter away from winning the whole thing in the bubble after going 0 and 4 in the round-robin play.

That accentuates how a team that is connected can become very dangerous quickly. We just didn’t quite have enough to get over the hump. We made a few more off-season changes coming into this season. Over the course of the season, due to visa issues for the Canadian players that we had, due to some injuries seemingly all on the offensive end, we started the season 0 and 3.

Over the course of the season, we knew we would be getting players back. Even though we started 0 and 3, we couldn’t stick schematically to what we had planned to do when we were at training camp. We simply didn’t have the bodies, the personnel available to run those respective schemes. We were literally starting over offensively each game.

Game 1, game 2, game 3 and game 4 was the first game where we had enough personnel to settle in schematically and we did that. We win game 4 and game 5. We lose game six out in Minnesota, we have some injuries. Out in Colorado, game seven, we were in the home stretch of figuring out, who are we going to be offensive. We settled in on a particular style of offense that fit the strengths of the personnel on our roster. That ended up being 7 Canadians, 1 American who has a ton of box background, Mac O’Keefe stud.

We started to see improvements on the offensive end. We were able to connect that with what we thought was a finished product on the defensive end. An improving product in the middle of the field at the face-off X. The best player in the world in the goal. Ultimately, we were able to peak at the right time. Prove that chemistry is the number one most important factor as it relates to trying to win the PLL Championship in this league. Even if it might not be the greatest resumes on a player-to-player basis, we really prioritized chemistry over talent so to speak. Even though the difference in the talent is a sliver, depending upon how you quantify that.

There’s a couple of things that are important here. Number one, you said that you replaced all of the I on the team with we. There’s an important point in this and the decisions that you had to make as the coach and that you had to replace through the course of the season five All-Stars.

That is correct or we had 5 are 4 league All-Stars that weren’t playing. A few guys didn’t play due to the COVID, some guys weren’t available simply because of Canada’s policy on returning to Canada. We had some guys that we didn’t dress because we had found chemistry with another group. We had some guys since the inception of the league in 2019 that got traded away, that we’re a great people, great teammates.

We wanted to create a group that we’re all playing a similar and more of a ball movement style. We had to make some tough decisions. At the time, people looked at those decisions and thought, “These guys don’t know what they’re doing, they’re clueless.” Everybody’s entitled to their opinion but we knew where we wanted to be. We knew how we wanted to play, whether each move was the right one or not, we certainly had conviction in what we were doing can verbally defend every decision that we were making.

 

It didn’t necessarily mean we were making the right decision. In hindsight, having won the championship, you can’t argue with the fact that we accomplished what we set out to do. A huge component of what we were trying to accomplish was an ego-less selfless locker room. We were able to accomplish that. I truly believe that was our greatest weapon as a team. That was the reason that we were able to be successful during the playoffs and accomplish our goal.

I want to ask you about responsibility versus accountability. This topic comes up in athletics. It comes up in leadership. It comes up in corporations and in life, in anything that you do. I define responsibility as knowing your role, knowing your job. It’s the fact that you know what is being asked of you within the organization. What are you within that organization supposed to do? Where do you sit in it? What am I supposed to do?

There’s accountability. Accountability is, “Do I accept my role? Do I accept what happens in my task, in my job? Good, bad, indifferent.” At any point in there, I’m wholly accountable and accepting of those results. Everything I do is going to have a result, positive or negative. The two things combined, accountability and responsibility, create ownership.

Ownership is something empowering subordinate leaders, empowering players to take ownership of their decisions, take ownership of their actions. When you combine these things and you operate with true ownership in any organization, you’ve created value. You have the highest chance of success. When you look at the team and you look at where you went from the first game. In the first game, you lost to the Whipsnakes 13 to 7 but you end the season and you pound them. Talk to me a little bit about that concept of ownership. How the team rallied around that? How they stepped up through the season? When it was time to go, it was about execution through the playoffs.

It’s an interesting thing for people to discuss that are in a team environment. No matter what that team environment is whether it’s sports, the military, business, whatever it may be. Responsibility and accountability, they’re so close. I think about those two terms. Responsibility is you taking ownership for the group’s success. Accountability is accepting your role within that respective plan. I don’t know if that’s accurate or not but that’s the way that I look at it.

Responsibility is for the group and accountability is for yourself. Those things are critical for us. I felt that over the course of the season, we ended up with a locker room of guys that all prioritized their responsibility for the team’s success and we’re accountable to the group and to themselves. Regardless of what their role was and how that was defined. That’s the trickiest part because everybody wants to win. Not everybody wants to win regardless of what their role is on game day. You find out who is truly authentically committed to the team’s success when you take them out of the lineup.

I’ll give you two positive examples. Tanner Cook was in the lineup, a rookie midfielder that we drafted. We took him out of the lineup after he plays his best game in the quarter-finals against the Archers. He has 1 goal, 2 assists and a great win. He couldn’t be a better locker room guy. He couldn’t be a better team guy, the best. He’s a lefty, we have two other lefties. We’re only dressing 2 out of the 3. Due to the fact that he played midfield, one of the guys that we were looking at could play attack and midfield.

A guy that was returning to the lineup, Chris Cloutier was coming back as an attackman. Cookie ended up being the odd guy out. The guy that we decided we had to sit him for the semi-final game versus the Atlas, just on the chance that Chris Cloutier, the attackman coming back into the lineup, God forbid that he gets hurt again. He was coming off an injury. If he gets hurt being able to take KJ and put them down on attack, softens that blow significantly based on the way that KJ played against the Archers in the quarter-finals. Cookie’s response to that decision was, “Whatever helps the team succeed, coach. I’m on board 100%.”

As a coach, when you get that response from a player coming out of the lineup, it documents that the culture has reached the highest point. Everybody wants to be in the lineup. In this league, if you’re not in a lineup, you don’t get paid. Not only is he not playing but he’s also not getting paid. It’s a big deal but that’s his response. A rookie who had played great for us and only done everything that we asked him to do.

The other side of that was KJ, Kyle Jackson. He’s a guy that played the first five games of the summer for us at midfield, played great, played within the scheme, did what we asked him to do. We didn’t dress him out in Colorado in game seven because we were putting another guy in to get a look at him who hadn’t played yet.

This is a guy who was taken out of the lineup after he’d played five great games for us. In order to get the conviction that we were going to put the right lineup or the most dangerous connected lineup on the field for the playoffs, we had to get a look at another guy. What was KJ’s response? “I’m 100% behind this decision, coach. Whatever you think is going to give us the best chance to win. I’m all for.”

That’s when you find out about people. It’s easy to be a team first when you’re in the lineup. You find out who’s authentically team first when you take them out of the lineup. They embraced with a broader lens the decision and are able to look past a perceived slight or something that’s not what they want individually. Those are the type of people that we’re going to try to fill our locker room with forever.

It’s hard because when you’re looking at people in a college draft, in the players’ pool or trade situations, it’s tough to identify that intangible accurately. You’re not taking them out of the lineup yet. It’s somewhat of a dice roll that you are taking on when you make an addition to your team because you haven’t crossed that bridge yet. Everybody is going to tell you that they’re that guy. Everybody is going to say, “I just want to win.”

Maintaining an ego-less and selfless locker room is the greatest secret weapon of any winning team. Click To Tweet

You really find out when you take somebody out of the lineup and they’re not getting what they want individually, they don’t get caught up in that at all because they’re able to see with a broader lens that the decision is not personal. It’s what we think is for the best interest of the team reaching its goals. It doesn’t mean that we’re right when we make those decisions. That’s what I would say to that Fran.

Those things are important especially in the early life cycle of this team in this organization. You have a chance to set a foundational culture that’s going to permeate within the organization forever. If you look at an organization like the New England Patriots, how many times has Bill Belichick sat down a player, who the week before was the star of the game?

You saw it with running backs all the time. The guy goes out, he has a 100-yard game and the next week he’s not in the lineup. It’s about the match-ups. It’s about the play. The guy will come back a week or two later, he’ll have another 100-yard game. That’s how you create a legacy and a dynasty. The culture of the organization is what matters above everything else.

I want to ask about the semifinal game against the Atlas. This propelled, at least in terms of the attitude of the team, it solidified a lot of the attitude that you saw with this team. You can refute me, certainly. I was only watching it on TV. You were actually there. In my mind, you go up 4-1 in this game. You then give up seven straight in the second quarter. In the second half, you outscore them 10-1 with a 7-0 run in just the third.

This team that you’re playing in the Atlas is the number one seed. They’re the number one shooting team in the PLL. I’m interested in the swings in this game and how you, as the Coach, as the Leader of this organization, kept that team focused. It would have been so easy to immediately think back to last year’s final and say, “Here it is, again. We just don’t have it.”

The fact that that team rallied, came back, stopped the bleeding, what happened in the locker room at halftime? I have to tell you before I let you answer this. You did a quick interview before you went in at halftime. My daughter looked at me and she said, “He’s going to beat their ass.” You came back out and just dominated.

Definitely, a great thing for us in hindsight, after the game was over and we had won. In that we jumped out to 4-1 lead, they were the number two seed. The Waterdogs got the one seed. They were a very, very dangerous team and playing with a ton of confidence. We were also playing with a ton of confidence. We had a great defensive game plan that Coach Curtis put together. Obviously, we were able to neutralize what was the league’s most successful face-off guy? Trevor Baptiste did a great job. His plays were phenomenal.

For us, it was understanding how we needed to play. Everything in our locker room is a conversation. My job is to say what needs to be said to the group publicly and to individuals privately. For us, in that situation going 4-1, we could’ve been up like 7-1 or 8-2 in the first quarter. We missed some shots, some last pass situations in transition and it was 4-1, we were happy to be up but credit the Atlas, their coaches, their players.

They came back and they went on a run. They went on a run, we felt because, on the offensive end, when they stepped out to pressure us, we responded to that pressure by dodging them. The best thing that you can do for really good American defensemen is responding to their pressure by taking them to the rack because any way you chop it up whether you score or it’s a turnover situation, it’s a fast possession. When you don’t score, there’s a good chance that they’re going to end up with transition opportunities. The odd number advantage is going the other way.

That’s why you saw them go on a 7 to 1 tier in that second quarter and go down from 4-1 to 8-5. We felt in our conversation in the locker room at halftime, that we needed to respond to their defensive pressure with what we do best, which was short to long picks and two-man games. This is us applying what we’ve practiced and what we’ve agreed will be the style of play to what their adjustments were. We were able to do that.

All of a sudden, instead of a pretty good shot in responding to their defensive pressure, we ended up with a time and space, unbelievable high-quality shot, which our guys don’t. That allowed us to go on that 10-1 run in the second half because from a rational, emotionally free point of view said, “Where are we breaking down?” We’re attacking their pressure with an emotional response instead of a mindful response. We controlled our emotions, went out and applied what we had practiced as a group in an emotionally free way and did that one moment at a time.

It didn’t hurt that CJ Costabile hit a two-pointer. We started to get plays in transition that we didn’t get in the 2nd quarter that we got the 1st quarter. Instead of going into the locker room and losing our minds, it was us going to the locker room and regaining our minds. Doing that through conversation and agreed on what our plan of action was going to be. We went and we executed.

We talked a bit about that here in terms of emotional strength. Being able to understand the situation around you, may calm from that chaos no pun intended. Being able to internalize it and say, “What’s going on around me? Is this a situation where I’m going to continue to freak out and become emotional? Can I be mindful of what’s happening around me?” Focus that energy on actually achieving a result. The reason why I say that I feel like that second half was so pivotal is that when you went into the final, you had a similar situation.

You got out to a quick lead 4 or 5 goals you were up then quick and this is one of the best parts about this sport. These things can turn in two minutes. Turn so fast the other way. There is no margin of error. There’s no margin, which is enough in this sport because it can go so fast the other way. Like that, the Whipsnakes were back in the game in the championship.

What I loved about watching the second half of the championship game was it almost became robotic for the Chaos. Where you give up a goal then, two possessions later, you get it back. For every one of theirs, there were two coming back the other way. There was an element of professionalism almost. It was like a big F-you. Like, “We’ll give you that goal. That’s cute. Watch what I’m going to do to you. Here’s two in your face.” As that game got further down the line, you saw that confidence in the team, like “All right. That’s fun. Go ahead and do that. See what happens.”

With the way that the Archers game and Atlas game played out the semi’s, what we felt is when we’re hitting on all cylinders, we’re a really tough team to beat. Yet, we still, over the course of the entire summer through the end of the Atlas game, felt that we had not played four quarters. That Atlas game accentuated that point.

We won the first quarter 4 to 1. We lost the second quarter 7 to 1. We then beat them 10-1 in the second half. We had played 3 great quarters and 1 terrible quarter. It created such a natural narrative for us in what we needed to think about for the two weeks leading up to the championship, which was we’re going to play four quarters. We haven’t done that yet. We were fortunate that it was the Whipsnakes in the finals. I said to some other people leading up to it, it had to be that team for us to feel like we did it. I don’t mean that as a mock on the other teams in the league.

Anybody can beat anybody in that league. It’s unbelievably competitive. Great coaches, great players, great teams but the Whipsnakes were two-time defending champions. They beat everybody in the bubble and the playoffs, by an average of six goals. They were clearly the best team in the world for the last few years, without a doubt. It had to be them going into the championship for us to feel like, “We’ve got an opportunity here to accomplish what we set out to do,” but that’s where our focus on the Whipsnakes stack.

It transitioned to, “This is 100% about us staying in the moment and trying to stack successful moments on top of each other, with the true goal to play four quarters.” We felt that if we could play four quarters, we were going to be happy with the result, whatever that was. Clearly, you think that’s winning and it was, we won. The game at the end had its widest margin at 14 to 9.

I honestly did not feel that that game was in hand until 1 minute and 31 seconds left. I looked back at my son, James and I said, “We did it.” That’s when I felt like, “All right, we’re up by five goals with 1 minute and 31 seconds.” I just didn’t see how they’re going to be able to come back and do it. Unfortunately, that was the end of the scoring. We finished it and we accomplished it. As happy as we were to win it, I’m happy for our players that sacrificed everything personally for the chance to get it done as a team and no guarantees.

To have that validated and to have that on such a grand stage with many people that had followed the PLL in the summer, to see that when a group of people prioritizes the group’s success ahead of everything else, great things can happen. Great things happen for that group. It validated that on every level. Teamwork beats a team of individuals, regardless of the disparity and talent. Our guys are as talented as you’re going to find. Our greatest strength again was that they were so selfless that they were able to come together.

As you said at the largest crowd ever at the PLL on Sunday in the Fall of NBC and your son by far was the biggest fan out there. You brought up a good point here about the competition and how you view the competition. It’s something that I’m working with some of the organizations and teams that I work with are what I call do you name the enemy? What is the point at which you have to stop naming the competition? We’re going to interview, Kristen Holmes. She is the VP at Whoop, the wearable. Thirteen years, she spent as the Head Field Hockey coach at Princeton and won twelve titles in that time. Her perspective on this is you don’t name the competition because you create this allure.

You deal with that in professional sports. You deal with that in college sports where there are teams that have histories of success. You get it in your head that, “That’s who’s on the other side of the field.” It’s like, “No guys, stop.” They put their pants on the same way you do. They play the same game. They play the same way. You’re putting them on this podium that may or may not exist.

You talked about the Whipsnakes, the Chaos was 1 and 5, you got your ass handed to you in the first game. Those cuts are deep and they last. I like that point you brought up though about and you got to come to a point where it’s not about them. They don’t have a name anymore. It’s now about us. Can we play our game? How do you then focus the team on that and cut that noise out? Especially, young players, young organizations, it is the limelight. It is NBC on a Sunday against week 2 or 3e of the NFL. Here they are. It’s like, “Guys, no, this is your moment. At the same time, we got to go out to play our game.”

What our staff tried to do as it related to the communications with our players, we were constantly reminded by the media leading up to the championship on how this was a rematch. How are you going to do it in 2021? You peaked at the right time. Every single chance that I got when I spoke to any of the media outlets or speaking to our locker room was that I would point out how different this 2021 team was from the 2020’s team.

Teamwork beats a team of individuals regardless of the disparity and talent. Click To Tweet

The 2020’s team deserved the credit that they got. They went 0-4 in the bubble. They won two tough games in the playoffs. They were ten minutes from winning the PLL World Championship but that was the last 2020’s team. I talked about how we only had eight players that dressed in the 2020 championship. Dressing in the 2021 championship what we did schematically on the offensive end was totally unique to taking advantage of the strengths of the offensive players in our locker room.

How we didn’t have specific personnel, Johnny Surdick on the defensive end, who played it at all PLL levels this Summer. How we had a totally different faceoff group in the middle of the field. We had only 2 offensive players out of the 8 that we dress on the offensive end. Each team is different. I spoke to somebody after we won the championship that said, “You got to go and repeat.”

The fact is that I’m sure we will have some player turnover, whether we lose some guys whether we get some new guys, even if we don’t. We put the exact same people in that locker room. Everybody’s a year older. Different things happen. Everybody’s got unique challenges. Maintaining that binding element of humility and selflessness becomes more of a challenge when you win than it does a battle cry when you lose.

It’s easy when the world is saying, “You’ve got a 3.2% chance of winning the championship.” To use that as a narrative to take the pressure completely off our players in our locker room. We talked all along and every single game. First, against the Archers in the playoffs, the pressure is on them. That’s the best offensive team in the history of lacrosse. Look at everything that they’re doing. They beat us the last time we played them.

The same thing with the Atlas, they beat us by six. The pressure is on them. They’re the ones that pounded us in week six. Pressure’s on for Trevor Baptiste. He beat odds 70%. You then go into the finals, you get the two-time World Champions. Look at the players they have on their team. Maybe the two most prolific goal scorers in the sport, Matt Rambo and Zed Williams. We tried to constantly promote an atmosphere where the pressure was on everybody else. All we had to do was stay true to who we are, stay in the moment, execute what we’ve practiced, be authentic in your communications.

Be authentic in your actions. What happened was we ended up with a group of people that felt invincible in the end. We only got better and better as the season was on. It culminated crescendoed with a four-quarter performance against the two-time world champions in the Whipsnakes in the final game. We needed four quarters to beat that team. You could see it, we jumped up 5-2. They wouldn’t quit. They’re the two-time world champions for a reason. It’s an unbelievably well-coached team. It’s an unbelievably balanced team.

They’re great in every single area, they’re unified, connected and scary. They’d beaten us 5 of the 6 times that we’d played. It puts pressure on them. It doesn’t put pressure on us. With all that said and all of those things out there, we didn’t have any self-doubt because we were authentically connected. That’s when good things can happen and certainly, good things happen.

Let’s talk about a couple of the other players. Max Adler, 50% faceoff win percentage. Blaze Riorden in 63% save ratio. On defense, you mentioned Rowlett held the two previous MVPs to scoreless in the championship game. You had four goals for Chase Fraser. You had 4 guys with 2 goals apiece then Smith and Berg one goal piece. It really was a total team game.

One of the comments and quotes that you had in our last conversation was that, “What sets you free is knowing that you put in the work proactively.” I want to ask you about something that’s come out with regard to Jack Rowlett and his preparation for this season. I thought that this was an impactful and amazing story where he is in a very humble and mature attitude at the end of 2020, accepted that he got beaten.

He said, “I wasn’t strong enough. I wasn’t physical enough. I didn’t have the size. I didn’t have the skill to compete against these guys. One of the reasons we were unable to finish the season and win that final game was because I gave up too much and got pushed around.” His whole dedication, his whole mindset going into the off-season and the motivation was that final game and what happened to him. He puts on 15 pounds, comes back a totally different player. The result is the Chaos wins the championship and the guys who pushed them around are held to nothing.

He epitomizes everything that we want, zero excuses, total accountability, proactive response, to controlling what’s controllable. You’re not going to find many people that are so confident but not at all arrogant, are willing to work for everything without any guarantees that they’re going to get the desired result. If that doesn’t define character, I don’t know what does. This is a guy that only accepts blame, never accepts credit, couldn’t be less maintenance as a person. The guys trust him and everything that he does. He completely buys into his responsibility for his teammates’ success.

A hundred percent accountable, regardless of what his respective role is. Along with Surdick, Neumann and Jack, you’ve got 3 of the top, 4, 5 cover guys on the planet on one defense. All of them could have a problem if they’re not covering the top guy on the other team yet, none of them ever did. I listened to an interview that Jack did. He said that exact same thing with Johnny Surdick and Jarrod Neumann back there. Any 1 of those 3 guys can be the number one guy and could draw the top player on the other team.

They all want that assignment but they’re all 100% supportive if they don’t get it. None of them look at it as a slight, if they’re not getting that assignment. That level of maturity, that willingness to be accountable to the group, regardless of what your role is the most binding element in any relationship/organization.

It’s impressive to watch his interviews. It’s impressive to hear that story. Honestly watch the play. Talk is one thing. If you compare and watch the video from 2020 to 2021, there’s going to be a market difference in that. What about you? Let’s talk about your performance. League starts in 2019. You’re the alternate coach coming into the league. You came in because somebody else couldn’t come but in 2019, you’re the Coach of the Year.

2020, you go to the championship game. 2021, you win. Not bad for the guy who almost didn’t have a job. How are you doing? How do you evaluate yourself? How do you look at this? Say like, “What did you do well? What do you need to work on as you look forward to next year? How do you not now become complacent?” That is phenomenal first three years. I would tell you that you have every other coach in that league looking at you and saying, “I wish I had that.”

When I look at myself as the coach, I look at my staff. Ryan Curtis is our Defense Coordinator. Matt Panetta is our Offensive Coordinator. I’m the Head Coach in the title. The reality is everything is a discussion between us three and with our locker room. We may lean on a small group of specific players, more so than we do the entire locker room, at times but every decision that we make is the decision made by the group.

When I first came into this league, I looked at this and thought, “What’s my value here? What’s our value as a staff here? We’re not going to teach these men skill development. They are the most skilled players in the world, more skilled than we ever were as players. You’re not going to teach them IQ. They already know what the right decision is based on what the situation is, based on what their respective role is within that situation.

They’re the best athletes in the world that play our sport. Where’s the value? The value is trying to get these guys connected as a group. When you’re managing a group of people that don’t have a built-in connection with a built-in hierarchy and specific areas of the field offensively, defensively, whatever it may be. What we tried to do is set the tone from day one that this is our common goal. We all agree that the only goal that we have is to win the championship and how do we work towards doing that?

You got to say what needs to be said to the group. If you have an issue with somebody, you got to address that proactively and tactfully. You’ve got to be conscious of evolving schematically so that the teams that you’re playing in the next game, see something different on game day than they’ve seen on film leading up to that game. You’ve got to manage personalities in the locker room with the goal of getting everybody connected and staying connected but it has to be authentic.

You got to be consistent in your communications. Consistent with the decisions that you make so that you can’t be viewed hypocritically. You got to realize that no matter what you do or you say, there’s always going to be a few people that think you’re making a mistake, treating them unfairly or sliding them in some way. As I say to these guys, every single year and all the time throughout the year, we do not care who plays.

We are going to put our game day rosters together with the sole goal of trying to win that game. Each spot on the roster, we will be able to justify verbally why that guy is in that spot. If you have 25 on the roster and you’re dressing 19 in a perfect world, the six guys that you don’t dress respond to you in the way that Kyle Jackson, Tanner Cook responded to us. In real life, it doesn’t work that way. There’s always going to be a few guys that feel like you slighted them. That’s what the off-season is for. You can put guys in the players’ pool. You can make trades.

Guys decide it’s not worth the time and energy and effort to be a part of it. We will never bend on our mission to prioritize what’s best for the team, regardless of who thinks they’re getting slighted at times. I don’t give a shit about the people that take those decisions personally. It’s never personal. I’m not saying people should be happy about coming off of the lineup. I’d be pissed if I wasn’t in the lineup. I was pissed when that happened when I played professionally.

As a coach, I’ve only said one thing from the beginning and that’s, “We don’t care who plays. We’re going to commit ourselves to the people that are 100% team first, regardless of what their role is on game day.” That will always be the case as long as my staff and I are coaching Chaos. It will never change because that is what I consider the number one greatest determining factor of outcome. That is a player to player, player to staff, connected locker room.

You won the championship. I tell everybody that I work with that no one cares what you did yesterday. We can be proud of it. We can learn from it if we made mistakes. Certainly, embrace the moment and be thankful and grateful for our victories. The reality is that it’s now in the past. What you said on the show, I say in all the organizations, “How you prepare today determines success tomorrow.” We talked about the off-season. What’s the focus now for you and your team?

It’s a new team. It’s a new challenge. It’s the same goal is to win the PLL Championship with the 2022 Chaos Lacrosse Club. What is that team going to look like? We’re going to identify areas where we think we can get better. We’re going to manage our roster. That way there will be changes from the front office in the way that the coaches have to put their teams together. There’s a lot of variables that make each season totally unique. The 2021 Chaos Lacrosse Team accomplished its goal.

Don't let short-term hurdles derail you from the long-term path to the goal. Click To Tweet

If we go into next season with 2022 Chaos Lacrosse Club, it’s going to be a totally unique opportunity to that specific group with unforeseen variables that will come into play, that can derail our only locker room goal. We’ll manage those hurdles proactively, authentically, cumulatively. We’ll never sacrifice what’s best for the team on the account of an individual at any point in the process. That’s what’s next for us.

There are four things that you told me where we’re going to be required for this team to win the championship. I want to throw them out. Give me 2 to 3 sentences, how do you achieve it and what was the result. The first one is to stick to the process.

Stick to the process refers to don’t let short-term hurdles derail us from what we’ve all agreed is the long-term path to the goal. In every team, every group has its challenges. We had ours over the course of the summer but we didn’t let a quarter of digression from plan cost us the Atlas game. We used it as a tool to challenge ourselves to put together four complete quarters in the next game, which is what we needed to beat the two-time champions, the Whipsnakes. That’s what that means.

Also, the 0 and 3 start. Chemistry trumps talent when it came to this team.

We have a lot of unbelievable players in our locker room. Many future Hall of Famers are on the highest level. Regardless of those resumes, team chemistry is our number one goal. In a perfect world, you reach complete team chemistry with your most talented players. If that’s not the case, we will prioritize team chemistry over talent when we’re putting our rosters together every single time.

Sell your soul between the lines. Leave it all on the field.

Don’t get beat in the areas that are effort, toughness and competitive spirit related. Communication at both ends of the field. Getting 50/50 ground balls in the middle of the field. Riding with ten people. Clearing with ten people. Having tough conversations proactively. Teammate to teammate, staff to a teammate, player to staff, anything that is a decision, make the decision, address it. Come to common ground. Put it behind you. Eliminate those as reasons why you wouldn’t accomplish the respective goal

You saw that in the attitude of the team in every game. The last one is when you talk about, “There’s nothing better than punching the bully in the face.” The Whipsnakes were that bully and you smacked them.

They’re the two-time defending champions for a reason. They’re the best team on the planet in the last two summers. The pressure was not on us. The pressure was on them. Anyway, you chopped it up the pressure was on them. They had a much tougher challenge coming into this game than we did as long as we didn’t have any self-doubt in our locker room. Our feeling is always going to be, “We’re going down swinging.”

If you’re going to beat us and you’re going to knock us out, you’re going to get a black eye. That’s just the way it’s going to be. We made sure that we eliminated any regret proactively in all facets of the game and did it one possession at a time and stayed present. The end result was we got what we were looking to get but it was not easy. We needed everything, all four quarters to do it. Fortunately, it paid off.

I call it earning the respect. I’m sure that the Whipsnakes respected your ability to play but there was probably an element in their mind that said, “We got this. We’ve done this.” You had to go out there. You’re going to prove it. If they were going to beat you, they had to earn it. Nothing was going to be given to them. When you think about the word competition, you think about your position and your ability to go out there every day and compete, you compete for yourself.

There’s an element of true competition when you are at the most elite level and you’re operating with everything that you have, that you are forcing your competition to take it from you. It’s not necessarily about, “Do I give it to them?” If they’re going to beat me, it’s going to take everything they have.

One of the things that we said throughout the playoffs and leading up into that championship game was, make them have to manage to us. Make them have to deal with what we do. We knew we were a totally different team going into the final game than we were in the first game of the season when we played them in week one.

They had the confidence of winning the last two championships. They came back from a big hole to beat us. That was 2019 and that wasn’t this group. This group is totally different. There were so many reasons why the pressure was on them and we’re hitting on all cylinders. We were playing our best game after game. We kept playing better and better.

That last step going into the final game, our last challenge was to play four quarters, instead of 3 or 3.5. That was our primary focus was on us. Even though they were the two-time champions, we need to go out and stay in the moment and win small situation after small situation and stack those things. Realize it’s not going to go perfect. It didn’t but it was the best that it had ever been over the course of the summer. Down the stretch of the playoffs, we played the best that we’ve played in three seasons.

Coach, I asked you what the three things that you do every day to be successful personally. The Jedburghs in World War II had to do three things every day to be successful in their world. If they focused foundationally on these three core tasks then it didn’t matter what other challenges came their way.

They could address and focus their effort on solving those more complex challenges. That was because they could shoot, move and could communicate. I’m interested in what are the team’s three. As you look at the off-season now to prepare the foundation for success in 2022, what are the three things that the team has to focus on in the off-season to be successful?

The first thing would be, “Don’t forget how important it is to stay connected as people first and as teammates second.” That in the end, this team won because they were soldiers to each other’s successes. That would be number one. Number two, next season is a totally new, unique, different opportunity. The challenge for all of us, players and staff alike is to not lose sight that we’re responsible for our teammates’ success and we’re accountable to the group, regardless of what our role is on game day. The last thing would be to have fun and enjoy being able to play the sport with and against the best players in the world and get paid for it. I want these guys to realize that time flies. It’s not going to last forever and to take advantage of every moment they have.

Don’t forget the importance of the connection. Next season is a new season. It’s a new opportunity and have fun. You achieved your goal. The goal is to win the PLL Championship. You did it. You and the Chaos are Champions. I couldn’t be more proud of watching, getting to know you through this process, following this story, to tell this story, to have you back on and be able to tell the follow-up. I got to ask. Did you break the trophy? Who is accountable?

We won the trophy as a team. We broke the trophy as a team. We’re going to have to go with another.

Coach, thanks for joining me.

Thanks for that, Fran. I had so much fun. Love hanging with you. I love your angle on things. I appreciate what you do.

We’ll see you next time.

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About the author

Fran Racioppi
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Francis Racioppi, CPP, CBCP, most recently led Genius Fund as the Chief Executive and Chief Operating Officer, a vertically integrated cannabis company in Los Angeles, CA. Prior to Genius, Fran served as the Director of Global Security for Snapchat where he was recruited to professionalize and scale the security organization across the globe and among all business units. Fran holds an MBA from New York University and graduated with honors from Boston University with a BA in Journalism and a minor in Political Science. Fran served 13 years in the United States Army as a Green Beret, deploying three times to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation New Dawn. A lifelong sailor, Fran volunteers teaching Veterans to sail as the Race Director for Sailahead a Veterans service organization dedicated to reducing the Veteran suicide rate. Fran has also served as the Treasurer of the United War Veterans Council, an NYC-based non-profit focused on the wellness and healing of transitioning veterans, as well as the host of the annual NYC Veterans Day Parade.

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