Long considered the fastest game on two feet, lacrosse took center stage in the nation’s capital this past weekend, showing why it’s not only the most rapid game around, but one exploding in popularity from coast to coast.
The Premier Lacrosse League (PLL), the professional men’s outdoor league founded in 2018 by Maryland native and former Johns Hopkins University All-American Paul Rabil, took over Audi Field on Sunday, September 11. It was a back-to-back presentation of the semifinals in a city shining bright as a hub of the sport thanks to the success of teams at the college and scholastic levels.
But it was some of the game’s most experienced and very best players putting it all on the line in two intense contests Sunday afternoon, with both matchups coming down to the wire in Buzzard Point.
In the first affair of the day, the Waterdogs ousted the Whipsnakes — the PLL champion in the league’s first two seasons — by way of a thrilling 11-10 final. In the second matchup, the Chaos — the reigning title winners from 2021 — held off the Archers 9-7 in another battle featuring numerous players who starred locally as high school recruits and at the NCAA level.
Eye-popping athleticism and unthinkable hand-eye coordination were on display all day long. Spectators witnessed back-hand shovels, behind-the-back goals, diving shots and — though none was scored — bombastic two-point attempts from long range, one of the unique, differentiating features of a league that’s determined to take the game to overdrive.
And while the PLL is still in its early stages, this past weekend saw no shortage of passion and emotion in its athletes.
Matt Rambo, the Whipsnakes star attackman who won the league’s inaugural Jim Brown MVP award in 2019, was admittedly disappointed to let down the many fans hoping to see the Whipsnakes, a team loaded with former University of Maryland All-Americans, make a return to the PLL finals.
“We had our opportunities on offense — we missed a lot of shots right in front of the net,” says Rambo, who helped power the Terrapins to the NCAA championship as a senior in 2017.
At the close of that historic season, Rambo won the Tewaaraton Award, presented annually to the nation’s top college lacrosse player in a ceremony at the National Museum of the American Indian.
“I thought our defense played great,” Rambo says. “It was just a gritty game and we just came up short. I thought their defense was great, but I think our offense is really good, too. I think we had a lot of opportunities we left on the field there. We just didn’t capitalize and that’s what hurt us in the long run.”
Blaze Riorden, the league’s MVP in 2021 after backstopping the Chaos to the title, said his squad came into the weekend with the plan to soak the first shot, make the first hit and get their uniforms dirty faster than Archers club, who beat them twice in the regular season.
“We did that today and we didn’t look back,” says Riorden, the PLL’s Oren Lyons Goalie of the Year in 2019, 2020 and 2021. “That’s what it takes in these crucial moments of high octane lacrosse games.”
A thrilling netminder at the University at Albany before his jump to the pros, Riorden said the big stage and the magnitude of the weekend (all of this year’s playoffs games are being featured on ESPN+) made it that much more challenging for teams to concentrate on execution.
“One of the hardest things to do is to show up on these weekends and really just focus on the main goal, because if you’re not 100 percent focused, these teams are too good and these players are too good,” he says.
The festive semifinal showcase lined up with Patriot Day, and the afternoon’s special guest helped commemorate the occasion in a way that resonated deeply with fans. Allison Crowther, the mother of the late Welles Crowther, was on hand to celebrate her son, a hero who saved as many as 18 lives before losing his own in the collapse of the World Trade Center’s South Tower.
The namesake of the PLL’s annual Humanitarian Award, Welles was honored by his mother and former Boston College lacrosse teammates on the field during halftime of the first semifinal. This year’s award was given to Lyle Thompson, one of the game’s biggest stars, for the work he’s done to raise awareness of the atrocities committed against Indigenous youth in Canadian residential schools.
Operating on a touring model, the Premier Lacrosse League heads to Philadelphia next weekend to close out the fourth season. The Waterdogs and the Chaos will clash in what’s expected to be an unforgettable showdown for this year’s PLL crown.
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