Panic Never Set in for Resilient NLL Champion Mammoth


There were so many opportunities during which the Colorado Mammoth could have thrown in the towel. The squad certainly had fair explanations to fall back on if its tumultuous playoff run ended early.

But excuses don’t get you championships.

“It didn’t matter what happened, who was in and out of the lineup, who went down,” Mammoth goalie Dillon Ward said after accepting his National Lacrosse League Finals MVP trophy. “We just found a way. We stuck together.”

Of course, their postseason journey had to start against the Calgary Roughnecks, a franchise that had bested Colorado in 10 of the teams’ 11 previous playoff matchups. But Ryan Lee helped them exorcise those demons, notching 10 points in a 16-12 Mammoth victory.

“It kind of felt like a weight was lifted,” forward Eli McLaughlin said.

That was the last time Colorado enjoyed the services of Lee, the team’s leading scorer and an MVP candidate during the regular season, after he suffered a lower body injury prior to the West Finals. No one would have blamed the group for failing to upset the top-seeded San Diego Seals without their premier offensive weapon. Colorado did it anyway, even after the Seals forced a Game 3 back in San Diego.

“Now we have some extra motivation,” Mammoth captain Robert Hope said. “We have a fallen brother. What are we going to do for him? He’s dying to get out here, so if you do need a little bit of extra motivation, it’s standing right beside us.”

Yet another blow to the lineup came on the league’s biggest stage. At the end of Game 1 of the NLL Finals, a contest that saw the Buffalo Bandits take an early lead in the best-of-three series, the Mammoth lost McLaughlin, the team’s leading scorer throughout the postseason.

“You take away the two top players from any offense in the league and everyone counts them out,” Mammoth forward Connor Robinson said. “They counted us out as soon as [Lee] went down. We get to the Finals, [McLaughlin] goes down, and the only people that thought we could do this were the guys in the room.”

Folding simply wasn’t in the Mammoth’s DNA. Hope says that starts at the top with head coach Pat Coyle and his assistants, Andrew McBride and Jason Bishop. The trait trickled down to every player on the team and ultimately was instrumental in the franchise winning its first title since 2006 in front of over 19,000 hostile fans in Buffalo.

“It is just the professionalism of some of our guys, even our younger guys,” Hope said. “There was never a real panic moment. It was just, ‘Go out there, and do your job.’ Play within yourself, but we might need to do just one extra play.”

Early signs of that remarkable ability to bounce back came during the regular season, most clearly during the team’s matchups with the Vancouver Warriors.

You couldn’t have scripted a worse start to Colorado’s trip west on January 7. Less than five minutes into the game, Vancouver was smothering the visitors, up 7-0 in a blink of an eye. That advantage extended to 10-2 just 37 seconds into the second quarter.

As Lee said that night, the Mammoth stayed composed. For the rest of the evening, they were slowly chipping away at the deficit. A 7-1 run helped the group make it a game again in the closing stages of the second quarter. Then another three-goal spurt to start the third gave the team their first lead.

In the end, a stunned crowd and Warriors group watched Colorado walk off the floor as 18-15 victors.

“We couldn’t have been much worse for the first quarter of that game,” Hope said. “Usually, teams just kind of fold tent on that one. But we kind of had the mentality all year: Down by five from the get-go. We started kind of using that mentality. Instead of having to actually go down five, you start saying, ‘Let’s embrace it from the get-go.’”

That game script repeated itself just over two months later, this time in Denver. Vancouver had the Mammoth doubled up at 14-7 with less than four minutes remaining in the third quarter. Colorado responded with nine of the final 11 goals of regulation to force overtime, where McLaughlin scored to secure another epic win.

“When you come back against a team twice like that from so many goals and end up winning the game, you kind of get it in the back of your head,” McLaughlin said. “It doesn’t matter how many we’re down. We can always come back. Just having that belief in the room is great to have.”

They’d need that mental boost come playoff time. Colorado trailed in the second half in four of its five postseason victories, including Game 2 of the NLL Finals. The team ended that contest on a five-goal run to keep its championship hopes alive.

Many of Colorado’s core players have spent their entire careers in Colorado, including the likes of Ward, Lee, McLaughlin and Hope. But a handful of moves helped push the team over the edge, especially on the offensive end.

Zed Williams proved to be a steal, acquired in 2020 along with two second-round picks from Georgia for Dan Coates and a first rounder. Coates never ended up playing for the Swarm due to the 2021 season being called off, opting to sign with Rochester a year later. Meanwhile, Williams accumulated 21 points during the NLL Finals.

Two months after landing Williams, general manager Brad Self swapped a pair of draft picks for Robinson, a former fifth overall pick of Saskatchewan. In his first full campaign, Robinson accounted for 71 points during the regular season, then finished second in points in the postseason behind only McLaughlin.

Colorado leaped at the opportunity to bring a former first overall pick into the fold at the trade deadline, adding Tyson Gibson from New York for Tyler Digby, Ron John and a first-round pick. Gibson finished eighth in the playoffs in scoring, putting up four points twice during the West Finals.

That trio helped Colorado withstand the losses of Lee and McLaughlin, and they weren’t alone. Brett McIntyre went without a point in two regular season games but finished with 16 in six postseason games. Chris Wardle nearly matched his regular season assist total in the playoffs, and Sam Firth scored his first NLL goal during the Finals.

“Guys were ready,” Hope said. “Guys put in the work. A guy like Sam Firth, you see him in the weight room in between the gym and our game because he knew he wasn’t playing that night. Guys held each other accountable when it came to our workouts during the week. It wasn’t a malicious thing, but guys wanted to get better. That kind of a culture really helps to make sure if a guy does go down, the next guy is in shape and knows our system.”

The turning point in the NLL Finals came on the other side of the floor, however. After allowing the Bandits to score 15 in the opener, the Colorado defense tightened up, orchestrating more successful slides and forcing the Bandits to the outside in Games 2 and 3. By the end of the series, a Buffalo offense that led the league in goals by a wide margin during the regular season looked completely out of rhythm.

“We’ve had a really strong defense all year, and we went out and executed and played them how we wanted to,” Ward said. “We forced them into situations I don’t think that they wanted to be in, and the shots that we gave up, for the most part, were the shots we were looking for, so credit to the defense in front of me.”

Even with successful Colorado adjustments, who lifted hardware at the end of the night in Buffalo on June 18 came down to the final few minutes of play. Connor Fields opened the fourth-quarter scoring to tie it at 7, but that proved to be Buffalo’s last gasp. Three straight from Colorado, including two from Williams, sealed Colorado’s second crown. When Williams made it 10-7 with less than 30 seconds to go, Hope knew they had done it.

A few minutes later, he was grabbing onto Ward and looking up at the scoreboard to make sure that final buzzer had really gone off.

“It was a whirlwind of emotion, that’s for sure,” Hope said.

McLaughlin was struck by the similarities between this year’s title run and Colorado’s only other championship. The Mammoth’s social media highlighted the coincidences in a thread earlier this week.

Colorado has only defeated Calgary in the playoffs twice — 2006 and this year. Both championships came against the Bandits in Buffalo, with Colorado’s foe entering the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in both occurrences. The Mammoth were not the top seed in the West either time. Both head coaches in this year’s finals, Coyle and Buffalo’s John Tavares, were players in that 2006 championship bout.

It almost seemed meant to be. McLaughlin said at points it felt like they were a team of destiny. In the end, he was right.

“It’s really well deserved for the city,” Coyle said. “They’ve been waiting since 2006 for us and have been supporting us the whole time, and I know we’re very happy and thankful for that.”


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