The Right Fit: Mark Matthews Feeling at Home with Blaze

PHOTO BY BRETT DAVIS

Mark Matthews started the season with the New York Lizards, but was placed in the player pool and promptly picked up by the Atlanta Blaze.


In November, the New York Lizards announced a huge transaction (in more ways than one) when they announced they signed 6-foot-5 Mark Matthews, who was the reigning National Lacrosse League MVP, to play on attack in the 2019 MLL season.

Matthews previously played for the Lizards in 2013, when he tallied 17 points in eight games. Bringing him back was a heralded move, and Matthews was promoted heavily by the league in it’s rebranding, even starring in a video showcasing his stick skills and nicknaming him “The Artist.”

For as promising as his return to New York was, it fizzled out rather quickly.

The cliché is, however, that when one door closes, another opens. While his return to Long Island didn’t work out, it did create an opportunity for him to go back to Atlanta, and it is something Matthews is extremely excited about.

“It was great,” Matthews said about his initial run with the Blaze in 2014-15. “Having some guys on my team that are familiar faces from home, obviously [Dave] Huntley coaching and [Spencer] Ford. We had fun. We played well and came up short, but the experience was great. To be back there, I’m very happy. The ownership and team treat you well.”

Matthews welcomes his move after a frustrating start to the season.

He played the first three games of the season as part of the highly touted Lizards offense alongside Rob Pannell, Dylan Molloy, and Kevin Crowley. In those three games, Matthews scored four goals on a 25-percent shooting percentage and added three assists.

The team lost all three games.

“I had a tough game the first one. I just couldn’t score on [Outlaws goalie] Dillon Ward,” he said. “I wasn’t used for what I could’ve been used for. I just wasn’t performing to what I should’ve been, and the surroundings weren’t best for me.”

Matthews sat out each of the next five Lizards games, and he said there was never any communication as to when or even if he would return to the field. Finally, Matthews was placed in the league’s player pool.

He said he had discussions with the Dallas Rattlers about returning to the organization he played for in 2014 and 2015 (when the team was still in Rochester), but it was a call from Blaze general manager Spencer Ford that sealed his return to Atlanta.

“Having Atlanta and [Ford] and [head coach] Liam [Banks] saying they wanted me, that it wasn’t going to be something I was going to sit on the bench or not play,” he said. “To have that security that they wanted me was great.”







Ford said bringing Matthews back to the Blaze was a no-brainer.

“His mindset, his skill, his IQ, it’s fun to watch. I think adding him to our team makes the Atlanta Blaze offense one of the most fun offenses to watch in the last 19 years,” he said. “The guys are super excited. He’s as funny as he is good at lacrosse. When you have a chance to win something, there aren’t many better in the world than that guy, and he has proved it time and time again.”

This is the seventh time Matthews has changed teams, which could raise some questions asking why a marquee player hasn’t been able to latch on with any team for more than two seasons.

Ford has a specific evaluation of him, though.

“It’s crazy because he’s got this thing against him that he’s lazy or doesn’t work hard,” he said. “I think he’s very methodical and extremely cerebral. He has great size, but he doesn’t have great speed. His IQ is through the roof though.”

In Atlanta, Matthews joins another highly regarded offense. In ten games, the Blaze are second in the league in goals per game (14.9), just 0.1 goals behind the league leaders, the Boston Cannons. The team also has four of the top six in the league in points: Shayne Jackson (second with 42), Randy Staats (third with 40), Bryan Cole (fourth with 37), and Tommy Palasek (sixth with 35).

Matthews is very familiar with Jackson, Staats, and Cole, specifically. He has been friends with Jackson, and he played with both Jackson and Staats in Atlanta in the team’s inaugural season in 2016. He also has come face-to-face with the three many times in the NLL, including when Matthews and the Saskatchewan Rush were beaten by the Georgia Swarm (the team for which Jackson, Staats, and Cole play) in the 2017 NLL Finals.

He is glad to now be on their team instead of against them.

“It’s nice having familiar faces and guys you can rely on,” he said. “When you throw bad passes, they’ll bail you out and make you look good. Playing with them, playing against them, they’re special players. It’s an honor to be on the same floor as them.”

The excitement goes both ways.

“I was fired up,” said Cole. “I think the whole team was excited. He’s an exceptional player. I’ve been watching him from a distance for a little while now. He’s a special player. He’s one of the best in the world.”

Matthews made his 2019 debut with Atlanta in Week 9 against the Dallas Rattlers. The Blaze lost to Dallas, the team last in the standings, 16-14.

Despite the loss – the third in the past four games for the playoff-hopeful Blaze – the impact Matthews could have on the team was evident. Playing out of the box at midfield for the first time in his career, Matthews tallied three assists, including ones to both Jackson and Cole.

“I’ve seen it. It’s tough to play against him,” Cole said. “He causes a lot of matchup problems playing against him in indoor. You really see his skill set and how diverse he is. He can attack the net. He’s got great vision, with three apples … He sees things a couple steps ahead. Good players have that common denominator.”

“If you’re familiar with box lacrosse and their shot clock, when all five offensive guys are on that floor, they have 15 to 19 seconds to play. In MLL, we’re giving them 28 to 33 seconds to play offense,” Ford added. “You think about how exciting they are in box, now you think about it. Now we’re doubling your time and how many more opportunities you’ll see. I think in our walkthroughs and practices it’s neat to see how that ball flies around.”

Matthews said Atlanta is a much better fit for him as a player than with New York. He also sees the success the team is having with Staats, Jackson, Cole, Palasek and Brendan Sunday, and he said he told Ford he didn’t want to mess that up. He said he was willing to do whatever he could to help the team, even if that was playing in midfield.

In his new role, Matthews said he was a little tired running out of the box, especially after not playing any MLL games in a few weeks, but he was pleased to see so many matchups against short-stick defensive midfielders, which reminded him of playing in box.

It’s a recipe that makes Matthews believe the organization’s first trip to the playoffs and a run at the championship are well within the team’s grasp.

“I honestly think we are a legitimate contender,” he said. “Having been there a week, we get a couple guys healthy, Randy gets back in the lineup, we have a lot of young guys. We have first year guys who haven’t been exposed to the MLL ways and have a few mistakes here or there. If we can get those fixed and get guys healthy, chemistry and all the pieces should fall into place.”

Most Recent

Tips from the C-Suite: Ian Garrison's 5 Keys to Officiating Box Lacrosse

From the May/June edition, NLL crew chief Ian Garrison dives into the basics of reffing box.

Chaos LSM Ian MacKay Returns Value on Connor Fields Trade

The versatile midfielder "checked a lot of boxes" for Chaos LC. Now we see why.

Why Don't More Pros Wear Pads? Matt Dunn Bucks Trend with Chest Protection

After what he called the scariest moment of his life, Dunn suited up and spoke out.

Wayne Gretzky Throws BTBs with Joe Tsai During NLL's Vegas Unveiling

Gretzky and Tsai were in Las Vegas for an event introducing the owners of the NLL's 15th team.







Twitter Posts