Kyle Harrison celebrates among teammates and coaches in the final moments of the Ohio Machine's MLL championship game victory over the Denver Outlaws at Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas.

Kyle Harrison Reflects on Long Journey to First MLL Championship

With just more than eight minutes remaining in the Major League Lacrosse championship game Saturday at Ford Center at the Star in Frisco, Texas, the Ohio Machine were on a 6-2 scoring run to tie the Denver Outlaws at 12. Ohio’s defense stopped the Denver offense and got the ball upfield to 10-year veteran Kyle Harrison.

Harrison underwent ankle surgery on April 3, causing him to miss the first seven games of the season. Even though he was back on the field, Harrison admitted his ankle was not 100 percent. Multiple changes in direction were difficult for him and often resulted in him losing his balance.

Harrison received the ball coming out of the box at the 50-yard line and split dodge to his left on Outlaws midfielder Noah Molnar. With Molnar beat, Denver midfielder Greg Downing slid to Harrison and checked the ball out of his stick and onto the turf, causing a two-on-one battle for the ground ball.

“Greg, we were teammates in Los Angeles. He’s an incredible player,” Harrison said. “I tried to plant and get out of it, but my capability with the lack of ankle strength isn’t what I was used to. Greg put the ball on the ground. I was thinking, ‘There’s no way I’m going to allow them to take the ball from me, score and get the momentum because I made a bad play.’ I was thinking, ‘Pick up the ball, and move it.’ I was going to do whatever I could to make sure I did not turn that ball over.”

Harrison won the ground ball to keep possession, Ohio drew a penalty, and attackman Marcus Holman scored on the ensuing extra-man opportunity, giving the Machine their first lead since early in the second quarter — a lead they would not relinquish.

In a rematch of the 2016 championship game, Ohio defeated Denver 17-12, giving both the Machine and Harrison their first MLL title.

“That was the first thing I thought of,” Machine coach Bear Davis said. “Kyle has done everything to help this league, our team, this franchise. For guys like him, Brian Karalunas, Scotty Rodgers, Steven Waldeck, I’m so happy for those guys.”

“We picked Kyle and people had wrote him off for dead,” Davis said. “I said, ‘We have Peter Baum, Tommy Schreiber, Marcus Holman, Steele Stanwick. We’ve got a good thing going.’ He said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”

While the Ohio players and coaches found plenty of motivation in their 2016 MLL championship loss to the Outlaws, the Machine really had been building to this moment for four years.

Ohio entered the league as an expansion team in 2012 and endured consecutive two-win seasons. The team accumulated high draft picks, taking Steele Stanwick, Peter Baum and Marcus Holman, and then drafting Tom Schreiber out of Princeton with the No. 1 one pick in the 2014 collegiate draft.

Harrison had sat out the previous four seasons to play on the LXM Pro Tour, a touring event that combined lacrosse and music that Harrison co-founded. Players were unable to play in both the LXM Pro Tour and MLL until a partnership between Adrenaline’s LXM Pro and MLL was reached in 2014.

A dispersal draft was held, and the Machine took Harrison with the first overall selection despite some hesitation from Harrison.

“When the LXM-MLL-Adrenaline partnership happened, my wife and I decided we were moving to Charlotte,” he said. “Ohio had the No. 1 pick. They reached out. My initial conversation with Bear and [former Machine general manager] John Algie was, ‘I appreciate and am honored you want me No. 1, but it would make a lot more sense for me to go to Charlotte. I don’t know if you’re interested in a trade, but ideally, Charlotte would be the best place for me to land.’”

“They said, ‘We have a young team and are in need of some leadership, but, more importantly, you’d love our group,” he added. “‘Your personality will mesh with this group. Why don’t we take you at No. 1? We’ll play a season. After the season, if you think Charlotte is a better fit, we’ll do what we have to do.’”

Davis knew the young core he had and was confident they could sway Harrison to stay.

“We picked Kyle and people had wrote him off for dead,” Davis said. “I said, ‘We have Peter Baum, Tommy Schreiber, Marcus Holman, Steele Stanwick. We’ve got a good thing going.’ He said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”

In his first season in 2014, Harrison posted career highs in goals (27) and points (33), and he helped lead the Machine to their first playoff appearance. Over his first three years in Ohio, Harrison played 38 games, scored 61 goals (including five 2-point goals) and added 16 assists for 82 points. Ohio made the playoffs each season, including making it to its first championship game in 2016.

Harrison said deciding to play with the Machine was one of the best decisions he ever made, likening it to his experience as a collegiate player at Johns Hopkins, which he led to an NCAA championship in 2005.

“It’s super comparable to college,” he said. “We stay in touch all year. We don’t show up Friday or Saturday and then disappear. What I love, with the team, it allows guys to fulfill their roles. We don’t need everybody to be Marcus Holman.”

Despite the individual and team success, Ohio and Harrison could not get over the hump and win the championship. Including 2016, Harrison had been to two MLL championship games (he played with the Outlaws when they took on the Toronto Nationals in 2009), and lost both of them.

As Ohio prepared to return to the championship in 2017, Harrison said he was working out and felt like he was in the best shape of his life until he found out he needed surgery on his ankle.

The road back to the playing field would be a long one.

“It’s been super tough. I got the surgery April 3. I was in a hard cast for two weeks. I was in a walking boot for four weeks, and then I got out and started movement — not running, but the elliptical, getting on the treadmill and walking,” Harrison said. “I’m not allowed to run to get in shape to play. I’m trying to do wall ball and the row machine and all these things, but you can’t mimic what happens on a lacrosse field without running.”

When Harrison returned, Ohio was 4-2 and on a two-game winning streak. Davis credited the depth of his team in allowing him to slowly bring Harrison back into the fold.

“Jake Bernhardt was playing at a high level,” he said. “We picked up Patrick Harbeson, Mike Birney, Tyler Pfister, and we had Dominique Alexander. Our stable was pretty good for the d-middie position. We had a hard time filling the fourth midfielder role. We said we’ll put Kyle there until you feel 100 percent.”


Ohio Machine midfielder Kyle Harrison signals after scoring a third-quarter goal, part of a game-ending 11-2 run in the team's 17-12 win over the Denver Outlaws in the MLL championship game Saturday at Ford Center at The Star in Frisco, Texas.

In seven games, Harrison scored seven goals and added four assists for 11 points, all his lowest totals since his 2009 season in Denver and the second-lowest totals of his entire career.

Harrison was happy to contribute, however, and when Ohio needed his goal scoring talents most, he delivered.

The Machine trailed 10-6 midway through the third quarter of Saturday’s final. With less than three minutes remaining in the quarter, Baum scored Ohio’s first goal since the 1:22 mark of the second quarter.

Forty-nine seconds later, Harrison scored to bring Ohio within two and help the team build momentum.

“Playing with the guys I play with, those opportunities will present themselves. Once or twice a game, I’ll get a wide-open step-down,” he said. “That was the stuff you dream about as a kid. When Pete threw that ball up there, that’s a shot and rip I’ve taken millions of times by myself. I was lucky enough to step into it. I had a sliding defender. I shot around him, which may or may not have made it more difficult for [Denver goalie] Jack Kelly.”

“We see Kyle shoot, and it’s just fun,” Davis added. “It’s a poetic shot. To see it go in — it’s such a hard, heavy shot — it got everyone fired up.”

Ohio, which coughed up a seven-goal lead and lost by one in last year’s bizarre lightning-delayed final in Kennesaw, Ga., scored the final seven goals of the game Saturday to clinch the first title in franchise history.

While the championship was the first for most players on the Machine roster, many around the league were particularly happy to see Harrison win his first. Players past and present — such as Brett Hughes, Paul Rabil and Chazz Woodson — as well as Harrison’s former coach at Johns Hopkins, Dave Pietramala, tweeted congratulations.

For Harrison, the veteran midfielder who turned 34 in March, it was the perfect way to conclude a frenetic 2017 before getting ready for another ride in 2018.

“It was crazy,” he said. “I had surgery April 3. My wife was seven months pregnant, and she’s waiting on me hand and foot when I should be doing everything for her. I’m doing what I can to get myself healthy to play and we have our second child. It’s been an incredible summer. I have zero complaints. Its been tough mentally. It’s been tough physically. The fact that my wife was supportive of me coming back and playing despite the pregnancy and having a newborn, I’m fortunate to have my support system. It’s been a crazy five months, and that championship makes everything worth it.”