This past Sunday, the Waterdogs Lacrosse Club defeated the Chaos Lacrosse Club 11-9 in the Premier Lacrosse League championship at Subaru Park in Chester, Pennsylvania, becoming the first expansion team to win a title in the league.
The Waterdogs were founded in 2020 and although their first season that same year was confined to a “bubble-like” atmosphere amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they struggled as an expansion franchise. With a 1-3 overall record in the regular season, which was good for a last place finish in the PLL, the Waterdogs still made it to the 2020 PLL playoffs before being edged out 11-8 by the Redwoods Lacrosse Club in the first round of elimination games.
A player who’s been there from the beginning? Rochester Knighthawks transition player Ryland Rees, whose found himself in a similar position between both franchises that he plays professionally for.
“With both Rochester and Waterdogs being expansion teams, it’s always different,” stated Rees when asked to compare the growth between the franchises. “When you head right into the season and none of the guys have really played together, it’s a whole different team. The atmosphere is different, but you go through the growing pains.”
Fast forward to year two in 2021 and the PLL season looked a lot more “normal” than the year prior.
Teams followed a tour-based format, traveling to different cities for the games almost every weekend between June and August. And after a 6-2 overall record in the regular season, the Waterdogs earned themselves a bye week for the first round of PLL playoffs in 2021. However, they’d fall just short in the semifinals, losing 14-10 to the Whipsnakes Lacrosse Club with sights set to come back better the next summer.
“My first year in the NLL we finished in last place, but there was room to grow. The way that Dan Carey and the coaching staff are putting this team together with the young guys that we’ve got coming in, the trades that we’ve made, you can see the growth coming in and it’s super exciting for this upcoming (Knighthawks) season.”
When you look at the history of both the Knighthawks and Waterdogs, it’s easy to compare. Both are expansion franchises. Both struggled in their first seasons in their respective leagues. Both are still trying to find the perfect pieces to the puzzle to become championship caliber teams, or in the case for the Waterdogs, remain championship caliber teams.
Over the last two seasons in the National Lacrosse League, Rochester has gone just 6-24. Last year, the team wasn’t lacking defensively, their defense actually kept them in most games. However, the offense was the side of the floor that struggled to produce or halted momentum in the most inopportune times.
Now, although the Waterdogs struggled in their first season – just like Rochester has seen its struggles over the last few seasons – their biggest focus to become a championship team wasn’t what they could do on the field together. It was the culture that they could build within the Waterdogs locker room that helped lead them to the top of the league.
“One thing we definitely focused was having family-like culture,” explained Rees when asked what the biggest focus for the Waterdogs has been over the last three seasons. “Everyone in the league, and both leagues, are phenomenal players. Being able to build that chemistry on and off the field, really feeling like teammates and family is definitely something that brought us a long way.”
In 44 regular season games in the PLL, Rees has combined for 28 points, 147 groundballs and 39 caused turnovers. Prior to the last three seasons with the Waterdogs, Rees played with the Boston Cannons in 2019 when he produced his best offensive and defensive efforts as a rookie in the league, appearing in 16 games.
Rees has appeared in the PLL playoffs on three separate occasions, once with the Cannons and twice with the Waterdogs, registering three points, five caused turnovers and 21 ground balls in five postseason matchups.
His last appearance earned him the coveted the 2022 PLL Championship, making Rees all the more excited to try and win another with a different team in Rochester.
“It was great,” started Rees when asked just how much celebrating there was after this weekend’s win. “It does make me more excited to go after another one with a different team. There was a lot a lot of celebrating, but now it’s past and now it’s kind of time focus in on when we can celebrate next.”
With Rochester, Rees has been a dominant force defensively in his short time in the league.
Since being drafted Rochester in the first round (2nd overall) in the 2019 NLL Entry Draft, Rees has gone on to appear in every single game since becoming a Knighthawk. In 30 games for Rochester, Rees has tallied 26 points on 15 goals and 11 assists and has twice been named the Knighthawks’ Defensive Player of the Year after totaling 192 loose ball recoveries and 26 caused turnovers in two years.
Although Rees has seen much success in both leagues personally over the last few years, there’s not much time to celebrate the championship he was just crowned over the weekend. Just a few days and it’s right back to the grindstone for the Knighthawks transition man.
“It’s a couple of days to celebrate and then you kind of switch your focus right away,” commented Rees when asked when the focus gets set to the 2022-23 campaign for the Knighthawks. “For me, it’s a couple of days off and then right back into my offseason training for my one month off a year. I’ll just kind of get myself ready for training camp and, especially this year, I’m trying to be a little bit more of a leader, particularly in camp. I’ll take those next steps to be to be the best player that I can for this team, and I know all the guys are doing the same.”
Rees is all business when it comes to the game of lacrosse. At the end of the day, Rees has now been with two expansion teams from the start, and he knows how it feels to be on the winning or losing side of things.
This championship feeling that Rees is riding on right now is all the more motivation for him to try and lead the group in Rochester to be able to experience that same high.
“I’ve lost a couple of championship games and I know how it feels at that end and we’ve missed playoffs for both teams. So, I definitely know what both spectrums look like now.”
Rees then finished with, “After winning my first championship, it just makes me that much hungrier and I love this Knighthawks group that we got and now I’m just itching to get back.”
The Knighthawks set out on their third season in the NLL on Saturday, Dec. 3 on the road against the Georgia Swarm before returning home to host the Toronto Rock on Opening Knight on Saturday, Dec. 10.
The on-sale date for all Knighthawks single-game tickets on-sale will be announced in the coming weeks. Season Tickets for the Knighthawks for the 2022-23 season are on sale now and start as low as $18 per seat per game. More information on Knighthawks season tickets can be found at www.rochesterknighthawks.com/memberships.