Jarrod Neumann (left) and Mark Glicini contributed to a defense that helped limit the Whipsnakes' top scorers.

Bruising Chaos Defense Earns Redemption After 2020 Letdown

WASHINGTON, D.C. — “It’s impossible to say you don’t remember last year’s championship,” Chaos defenseman Jack Rowlett said on the NBC broadcast after yesterday’s Premier Lacrosse League title game rematch against the Whipsnakes. 

Rowlett and the Chaos will hold onto the memory of this year’s championship in a far more positive light, when, or if, the celebrations finally wind down following a 14-9 win Sunday at Audi Field.

Last year during the PLL Championship Series final in Utah, the Whipsnakes rattled off nine unanswered goals in the fourth quarter. Zed Williams, marked by Rowlett, scored five of his six goals in the final frame alone of the 12-6 comeback win. The performance locked up MVP honors for Williams and the Whipsnakes’ second consecutive championship. 

“I did,” Rowlett said when asked in a video interview published by the PLL last week if he failed in his matchup during the 2020 title game. “I lost last year. There’s no ifs, ands, or buts … the Zed goals this past year were on a lot of [social media] clips. I got to watch a lot of those.” 

He will not see any from the 2021 championship. 

For all the contributing factors that led to the Chaos’ 14-9 win and its first PLL title — newly-minted league MVP Blaze Riorden’s 15 saves; housemates Dhane Smith, Josh Byrne, Chase Fraser and Chris Cloutier combining for 10 goals and 18 points; Max Adler’s ability to neutralize Joe Nardella by winning half the faceoffs despite suffering a shoulder injury in the third quarter — none stood out more than the zero goals from the Whipsnakes’ two MVPs at attack. 

Neither Williams, the 2020 PLL Championship Series MVP, nor 2019 PLL MVP and championship hero Matt Rambo found the back of the net Sunday. Williams shot 0-for-8. Rambo was shut off and finished 0-for-1.

Rowlett was particularly effective against Williams, who scored 10 goals in the two previous playoff games and four in the Whipsnakes’ 13-7 win over the Chaos back in week one of the regular season.

“All three of our guys at close defense can guard anybody in the world,” Rowlett said on PLL championship media day. “We could pick names out of a hat between those two [Rambo and Williams] and the three of us, and I think we have a good opportunity to win all of those matchups.”

“All three of our guys at close defense can guard anybody in the world.”

— Jack Rowlett

Rowlett’s bold words proved prophetic Sunday. Refusing to bend, let alone break, the Chaos defense didn’t let history repeat itself.

Rowlett and Jarrod Neumann covered Williams and Rambo, respectively, tighter than the traffic on the Capital Beltway. Neumann knocked off Williams’ helmet after making a slide in the third quarter. 

For the majority of the game, however, little help was needed for the two matchups. 

When Williams or Rambo did get a sliver of space, Riorden denied their opportunities. He made 11 of his saves in the second half to squash any hopes of a Whipsnakes comeback. 

Entering the game ranked second in defensive efficiency, the Chaos held the Whipsnakes to their lowest offensive output since Aug. 1. The defensive unit had not surrendered more than 10 goals since a 14-12 win over the Chrome that same day.

“Coach Curtis might get the least amount of credit out of anybody,” Rowlett said of Chaos defensive coordinator Ryan Curtis, the former Vermont head coach who was a Major League Lacrosse Defensive Player of the Year and five-time all-star with the Boston Cannons. “He’s given us two amazing game plans in a row. We had backup plans if we needed them and it just comes with trust.” 

During Rowlett’s rookie season in 2019, Curtis promised the eighth overall pick in the inaugural PLL draft that they’d get matching tattoos if they ever won a PLL championship together. 

“That is an ongoing conversation,” Curtis said with a laugh before the Chaos’ semifinal matchup against the Atlas when reminded of the promise. “I don’t know if it was necessarily completely matching. That’d be a little weird.”

During the semis, Curtis and the Chaos threw a unique look at the Atlas when they triple-poled the Bulls’ starting midfield. Rowlett was tasked with guarding Jeff Teat, the PLL Rookie of the Year and MVP finalist, and held the former Cornell star to just two goals. Both of those came in unsettled situations. The second was the only goal the Chaos allowed in the second half of a 15-9 victory in Chester, Pa.

“We didn’t want to be flying a million miles an hour to him because of how good of a passer he is,” Rowlett said afterward. “We wanted him to beat us with his athleticism. We have maybe the most underrated defensive midfield in the entire league.”

On a team that made sweeping changes on the offensive end, the defense that plays in front of Riorden has stayed far more intact since its inception. Along with short-stick defensive midfielders Mark Glicini and Patrick Resch plus long pole Troy Reh, Rowlett, Neumann and Johnny Surdick first played together in the PLL’s inaugural season in 2019. That Chaos team earned the No. 1 playoff seed, but failed to make the championship after they dropped consecutive games to the Whipsnakes and Redwoods. 

After Surdick missed the 2020 PLL Championship Series because of military commitments, he played every game in 2021, reuniting the close defense. Near his hometown of Odenton, Maryland, the DeMatha Catholic grad and the Chaos’ first-ever draft pick caused a turnover and had four ground balls in the championship win at Audi Field. 

“This is our third year together,” Curtis said. “You can see our connectivity defensively has certainly improved as a result of that.”

“I really think it comes down to strategy and execution,” Glicini said in the championship post game press conference when asked what worked so effectively Sunday. “We have a good group of guys that are willing to buy into whatever Coach Curtis makes on the defensive end.”


Jack Rowlett helped hold Zed Williams scoreless on Sunday.

This year, the Chaos added to that group by trading for Ian MacKay in the deal that sent Connor Fields to the Archers and picking up long-stick midfielder and pro lacrosse veteran CJ Costabile from the player pool in late June.

MacKay’s presence on the defensive end and in transition likely surprised many fans early in the season. Not Curtis, who knew from coaching MacKay at Vermont and watching him play for the National Lacrosse League’s Buffalo Bandits and Canadian national team that UVM’s all-time leading scorer could fit on defense. MacKay played more short-stick defense as the season progressed, further highlighting his versatility and team-first mentality. 

“He is a guy that I wanted on our team,” Curtis said. “He’s a relentless worker. He is extremely coachable. He’s an unbelievable teammate. All these teams are really, really good. But we hope, or we believe, that those are the little things that can push you over the hump against a team that’s equally loaded from a talent standpoint.”

They did. 

Rowlett set the tone Sunday when he slid cross-crease and knocked Whipsnakes attackman Jay Carlson to the turf after he scored the game’s opening goal with a between-the-legs shovel shot. Rowlett received a one-minute unnecessary roughness penalty for the hit. It turned out to be the Whipsnakes’ only lead of the game.

Carlson finished with a hat trick and Justin Guterding and Mike Chanenchuk each scored two goals, but it was not enough to make up the difference against the Chaos’ potent attack. 

Late in the fourth quarter, a large portion of the crowd chanted “Let’s go OS,” followed by a standing ovation. Rowlett offered a see-you-later wave to the Whipsnakes with 30 seconds left.

Rowlett’s bruising brand of defense often results in cuts above his brow from the pressure on the inside of his helmet. But as the celebration commenced Sunday on Audi Field, it was impossible to tell if the player who was frequently reminded of his failure last year carried any battle scars. The black hat he wore obscured them.

“PLL Champions,” it read.