2021 PLL Championship Game Preview

PHOTOS BY KEVIN P. TUCKER


Andy Towers and Jim Stagnitta would like anyone on hand at Audi Field this Sunday for the 2021 Premier Lacrosse League championship game or watching on TV to know one thing. This is not 2020. Yes, it is a rematch between the same two teams, but mostly in name only. Each squad has experienced significant changes that have allowed them to peak at the right time and find themselves facing each other again in the final game of the season.

They’re even vastly different teams than their last meeting, a Week 1 matchup in which the Whipsnakes prevailed 13-7.

While Josh Byrne and Dhane Smith’s combined 11 points led the Chaos to a win in the semifinals over the second-seeded Atlas, the squad has several new contributors, like Chase Fraser, Kyle Jackson, Chris Cloutier and Mac O’Keefe. The team’s offensive additions for 2021 accounted for 84 points in the regular season. On Sunday, the Chaos will only have eight players dress that played in last year’s championship game. Johnny Surdick, the 2019 first-round pick, has helped solidify the defense after the missing the 2020 Championship Series due to military commitments. One consistent theme, however, has been two-time goalie of the year and 2021 MVP finalist Blaze Riorden.

PLL CHAMPIONSHIP GAME FAST FACTS

Where: Audi Field, Washington, D.C.
When: Sunday September 19, 12 p.m. (EST)
Watch: NBC or Peacock

The Whipsnakes boast the 2019 and 2020 MVPs, Matt Rambo and Zed Williams. Neither are up for the top honor this year, though they’ve looked the part recently — especially Williams, who has tallied 14 points in two playoff games and looks to have regained his Championship Series form. Rambo missed several games in the regular season due to a hand injury and was one of the main reason the Whipsnakes settled for the fifth seed. The semifinal win over the Waterdogs also represented the first game in the team’s three-year history that goalie Kyle Bernlohr did not start in the cage. Instead, Stagnitta turned to the 10-year veteran Brian Phipps, who after making the transition to the PLL, started on the Redwoods’ reserve roster.

“There’s not many teams that have a backup that’s a championship caliber goalie,” Stagnitta said yesterday during the PLL Championship media day.

Other notable additions include Justin Guterding, who’s provided another scoring threat from the midfield after moving from his natural attack position. He was acquired via a trade with the Chrome.

“And as much as it’s Chaos, Whipsnakes [again], this team is not connected to last year’s Chaos team,” Towers said. “Last year’s team was its own unique body of work, totally independent of this team … our guys know that.”







KEY MATCHUPS

Jack Rowlett vs. Zed Williams

Rowlett, a defensive player of the year finalist, largely silenced MVP finalists Grant Ament and Jeff Teat in the playoffs. Williams has been on a tear — notching 10 goals and 14 points in two wins. Rowlett notably was the one covering Williams when he exploded for five goals in the fourth quarter of the 2020 Championship Series final that lifted the Whips to back-to-back titles. It will be interesting to see how the Chaos deploy Rowlett with both Rambo and Williams on the Whipsnakes attack.

“All three of our guys at close defense can guard anybody in the world, to be completely honest,” Rowlett said in a video published by the PLL. “We could pick names out of a hat between those two and the three of us, and I think we have a good opportunity to win all of those matchups.”

Max Adler vs. Joe Nardella

Outside of Rambo and Riorden, who are roommates and play together on the Philadelphia Wings, Adler and Nardella might know their opponent’s tendencies better than any other matchup in the championship game. The faceoff specialists coach together with the Faceoff Factory, which Nardella founded, and are frequent training partners. They even helped each other dial in for the semifinals in Philadelphia.

“If you asked us how you wanted the season to play out, it would be to go against each other in the championship,” Adler told LSN’s Travis Eldridge.

Towers described Adler as the most improved player of the 2021 season. Nardella was the faceoff specialist of the year in 2020. While he hasn’t quite matched the otherworldly numbers he put up in Utah, Nardella did win nearly 60 percent of his draws against Jake Withers in the semis to give the Whipsnakes a possession advantage.

Blaze Riorden vs. Brian Phipps

These two won’t face off directly, unless Riorden tries for score like in his Albany days, but their performances will play a massive role on the outcome. Riorden, the MVP frontrunner, has the capacity to turn the outcome of the game in a matter of seconds with his point-blank stops and ability to immediately move the ball up field. Phipps made 13 saves in the semifinal, several of the spectacular variety, and seems to have gained the full trust of the Whipsnakes defense, despite his lack of playing time in the regular season.

FAN POLL

“Our guys realize that the only opinions that matter, as it relates to our team’s chances of success, are the opinions of the guys that go to practice, are in the locker room, and dress on game day,” Towers said on Wednesday of the team’s underdog status. “That’s only opinion we care about.”

PRE-GAME READS

Most Recent

NLL Announces 2021-22 Regular Season Schedule

The league's Face Off Weekend on December 3-4 starts with Vancouver at San Diego.

Give & Go: Embarrassing On-Field Moments with Sam Apuzzo

Sam Apuzzo, the Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse pro, talks embarrassing moments and more.

Max Adler Pays Off Andy Towers' Confidence with PLL Championship

Adler, whose shoulder separated in the third quarter, still finished the game.

Bruising Chaos Defense Earns Redemption After 2020 Letdown

The Chaos defense held former PLL MVPs Zed Williams and Matt Rambo to zero goals.







Twitter Posts