Archers' Rookie Class Delivering Early Returns in First PLL Season


Rookie attackman Connor DeSimone returns to his college haunts this weekend when the Archers take on the Atlas at Johns Hopkins' Homewood Field in Baltimore.

Just a few weeks ago, Connor DeSimone arrived for Premier Lacrosse League in Albany training camp looking to prove himself. An undrafted signee out of Johns Hopkins, he understood he had an uphill battle to crack the Archers roster. But he remained focused, looking to show both himself and his teammates he belonged with the best lacrosse players in the world.

Need proof that he succeeded? In Week 3, he walked out on to the field at Hofstra as part of the Archers’ starting lineup against Cannons, flanked by lacrosse household names Will Manny and Marcus Holman in a game televised nationally on ABC.

“It’s a very humbling situation, it really is,” DeSimone said. “Those are one of the best shooters and best players in the world, and just walking out with those guys, it’s really an incredible experience. It’s like everything I could have dreamed of. But at the same time, they don’t let me think that way. They expect me to do my job.”

Frankie Labetti understands DeSimone’s path well. He also arrived at Archers training camp this spring with nothing promised. Undrafted out of Fairfield, he had to battle two other faceoff specialists for a chance at playing time.

“For me, it starts with my older brother,” Labetti said. “He’s been one of my biggest supporters. He was kind of giving me the mindset of, ‘Hey, you’ve got nothing to lose. You’re good enough to be here.’ I was a little nervous here and there, but the guys just made it really easy to be myself.”

Labetti didn’t suit up in the Archers’ Week 1 matchup with the Chrome but had his number called a week later against the Chaos. In his team’s 20-9 beatdown of the Cannons last week in Hempstead, New York, Labetti went toe-to-toe with Stephen Kelly.

Both are examples of how successful Archers coach Chris Bates was with this year’s rookie class. Four of the Archers’ draft picks have made it into the lineup through three weeks — Matt Moore, Justin Inacio, Jon Robbins and Ryan Aughavin — in addition to the undrafted pair of DeSimone and Labetti.

Moore has hit his stride at midfield, leading the PLL in dodge-to-shoot goals while totaling 10 points, one off the rookie lead. Inacio won 48 percent of his draws in his professional debut, Robbins has found a niche in the long-stick midfielder rotation and Aughavin drained his first career 2-pointer against the Cannons.

From outside the draft, DeSimone has accumulated four goals and four assists through three games, while Labetti is coming off his best performance at the faceoff stripe yet with a 41-percent success rate.

The crop of first-year players has added tremendous depth to the Archers lineup, helping the squad handle early-season roster setbacks. They’ve elevated a team already loaded with talent into a clear title contender.

“[They’ve provided] great youthful energy and confidence, a joy of playing,” Bates said.

As you’d expect, Bates’ scouting process features plenty of film and conversations with others around the sport, seeking recommendations on which prospects would be a good fit. Some are slam-dunk picks — like when Moore, a two-time NCAA champion at Virginia and former No. 1 recruit, dropped to the fourth overall slot.

But outside the first round, the right selection isn’t nearly as clear.

There aren’t many spots available with the level of talent crammed into the eight-team PLL, a logjam heightened since the merger with Major League Lacrosse. The Archers staff needs to be targeted with their selections, addressing specific needs.

“We’ve been able to do a really good job of identifying guys that fill those needs,” Bates said.

That success rate has been necessary for the Archers to maintain a high level of play, especially on the offensive end. Grant Ament, the reigning PLL Attackman of the Year, has yet to play this season while dealing with injury. His absence leaves a glaring hole and more than 30 points of production to replace.

Ament’s time on the sidelines created an opening for DeSimone, who spent time at both midfield and attack at Johns Hopkins.

“Connor DeSimone came in in training camp and made play after play,” Bates said. “You’re like, ‘OK, this kid is just demonstrating that he can play at this level.’ He hasn’t backed down from the challenge, and guys respond to that.”

DeSimone dealt with his welcome-to-the-PLL moments, like getting sent back a few feet in practice by a booming check from Graeme Hossack, but still the rookie found early success. He had two goals and two assists in his first pro game against the Chrome.

“I can’t say enough about [DeSimone],” Archers midfielder Tom Schreiber said. “The plays he makes on the field are great, but if you watch the film with kind of a close eye — where he is on the field and the decisions that he makes — he opens up a ton of space for everybody else. He’s a selfless player.”

In DeSimone’s  first game as a starter, the Archers put up the first 20-point performance of the 2022 PLL season. He scored twice himself, and his move to the starting attack unit helped unlock Moore too.

“After Grant and everything happened, I got used predominately at attack, which was great. It kind of let Matt settle into his role at the midfield and get really comfortable dodging and long dodging with Tom, Tre [Leclaire] and Ryan [Ambler],” DeSimone said. “Being behind the net and kind of regulating the offense and setting everyone else up is what I think that I’m good at and helping other guys get in spots that they want to be in.”

A visa issue helped Labetti get his first extended opportunity, as Inacio has been unable to travel to the United States the past two weeks along with other Canadian-born rookies. The Archers maintained a next-man-up mentality.

“Frankie throughout training camp just kind of kept plugging,” Bates said. “He was an athlete — tough, competitive, all the things you’re really looking for in a faceoff guy. Sure enough, his number gets called and he’s delivered really what we’ve asked and put himself in a position where he’s helping us win games.”

Labetti scored his first career goal last week as part of a glowing showing by the rookie class. Ten of the team’s 20 points involved a first-year player.

“It’s honestly just been really fun to showcase my capabilities, my effort, my different type of skillset and style of play,” Labetti said. “I’ve kind of just kept using that chip on my shoulder, that underdog mentality.”

There’s an old draft mantra that you can find in any sport: It doesn’t matter when you’re selected, but who you go to. The culture a young player is brought into can have an enormous impact, making or breaking his development. For both DeSimone and Labetti, the Archers’ room made for an easy transition.

“They almost allow you to play carefree lacrosse,” DeSimone said. “They’re such great leaders and they take a majority of the workload that they make your role and make the game as simple as possible, which is something I know I’ve struggled with in my career. I tend to overthink things and really complicate simple things in the game. The leaders on this team just do such a great job of simplifying everything to the point of what you need to do, where you need to be at an exact time.”

“The veteran guys have done a great job of lifting up us rookies,” Labetti added. “Me and DeSimone, Matt Moore, the list can keep going — we didn’t really know what to expect. They’ve just elevated our game and confidence from day one.”

The Archers have developed a dynamic beneficial for all, with the rookies gaining from the knowledge of the veterans and the vets getting a youthful boost from the new recruits. The chemistry has the squad riding high heading into Saturday’s meeting with the Atlas in Baltimore (8:45 p.m. ET, ESPN+).

“I give our guys credit,” Bates said. “It’s a high-character group but it’s a veteran group. They realize that these are guys that can come in and contribute, and if they’re hesitant or questioning or taking a back seat, that doesn’t serve anyone well. So they create an environment where they’re welcome, but they’re also encouraging these guys to find their game and don’t hesitate. Go full speed, don’t worry about making mistakes.”


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