Jay Carlson, Master of the Little Things, Basking in Every Opportunity

Jay Carlson put himself in the right place at the right time. With the clock winding down in a tied game against the Archers last weekend, the Whipsnakes attackman found an open space in the interior of the defense. He then caught a pass from John Haus, turned, jumped and fired a shot past Adam Ghitelman.

The ball was in Carlson’s stick for less than a second. His third goal of the game with 32 seconds remaining in regulation lifted the Whipsnakes (4-1) to a 15-14 win and helped the team rebound after its first loss in 672 days.  

“It’s just a lot of fun playing with this offense,” Carlson said after the win. “I’ve played with some of them at Maryland, and I’ve played with some new guys this year, but they all have the same mentality. They’re all unselfish.”

Few exude that outlook better than Carlson. He doles out praise for his teammates quicker than his release, citing the two passes immediately before Haus’ assist that led to his game winner. Carlson will be the first to tell you his scoring chances are a product of other Whipsnakes “doing the hard stuff” and drawing slides.

“Jay is the ultimate team player,” 2020 Championship Series MVP Zed Williams said. “He’s one of a kind. He’s so smart and he’s got some of the best hands in the world. One thing I love and I know we all love about Jay is he’s willing to put his body on the line for us, whether it’s a ground ball or catching and finishing with a defenseman all over him, which he does all the time.” 

Carlson, who’s scored eight goals in five games in 2021, tallied two of them in an overtime win against the Atlas in front of a hometown crowd at Homewood Field. His most impressive play — besides several key ground balls late in the game — was an immaculately timed can-opener check on Tucker Durkin to force a turnover in extra time. 

Though Matt Rambo scored the game winner, he called Carlson’s takeaway the play of the game.

“He does the little things better than anyone in the league,” said Rambo, the 2019 MVP. 

“He’s the best player that nobody knows about.”

— Jim Stagnitta

On an offense that boasted the highest scoring attack duo in the league last summer with Rambo and Williams, Carlson is anything but a third wheel. He acts as its hub. When he’s producing, it means the Whips are likely rolling. Tied with Rambo for the second-most game-winning goals at the University of Maryland, Carlson projects a California cool that belies his grit and has always seemed to have a knack for finding the back of the net or making a play in the biggest moments.

But despite his finishing abilities around the goal that are at times flashy, he tends to stay out of the limelight the way he evades second slides. 

“He’s the best player that nobody knows about,” Whipsnakes head coach Jim Stagnitta said after the win against the Atlas. 

Carlson’s unsung nature stems in part from the way he operates. He does the majority of his work off-ball, working relentlessly to find a sliver of an opening. He often ends up on the turf after he scores — either from a dive or a hit. He vacuums loose balls like an LSM on a faceoff wing and puts back rebounds, like the pair of second-chance goals he had in the Whipsnakes’ Week 2 overtime win against the Cannons, with the efficiency and fearlessness of ‘80s NBA big men. 

“Jay Carlson, hands down,” Whipsnakes midfielder Mike Chanenchuk replied to PLL host RJ Kaminski during the Championship Series training camp when asked who was best on the team at ground balls. “Eats them up. All day, every day.”

The scrappy play has earned Carlson the nickname “garbageman” from his teammates. Rick Brocato started calling Carlson “phone booth” at St. Paul’s (Md.), where his ground balls total (157) almost matched his career points (160), because he thrived dodging and shooting in tight quarters. Brocato believes Carlson, who was the No. 11 attackman in the Class of 2011 according to Inside Lacrosse, has the makeup of an old-school crease attackman but has elevated the position to another level. 

He’s seen Carlson pull off plays like he did against the Archers since he was in sixth grade. Watch the entire possession, Brocato said, and you’ll see that Carlson never stops moving. 

“It’s almost like a great rhythm section in a band, like a bass player searching for the sound,” said Brocato, a music lover, who noted Carlson possessed the highest lacrosse IQ of any player he ever coached. “Jay is always searching for the sweet spot.”

The subtle elements of Carlson’s game are finally starting to gain a greater appreciation like an underground indie band. The saying “Jay Carlson doing Jay Carlson things” coined from PLL analyst Ryan Boyle has entered the lax Twitter vernacular. Carlson’s Twitter handle — “juicyj32_” — which he created in 2010, is a reference to one of his nicknames that hints at his slickness around the cage. He said he forgot he had a Twitter account until he joined the PLL and started getting tagged in highlights. They’re usually goals, but also sometimes the hustle plays he fell in love with when he started playing in the Lutherville-Timonium Rec program at the age of 5. 

Now, he’s one of a few — if not, the only — attackman in the PLL whose stat line usually contains more ground balls and caused turnovers than assists.

“It’s been cool showing fans and kids that you can produce off-ball, get tough ground balls and you don’t need to be the most athletic or the biggest or the fastest to be successful in this sport,” said Carlson, who has a lean build and is listed at 6’0” and 185 pounds. 

To put it another way, he’s made the most of his opportunities. 

That’s been the story of his pro career, which he described as “fragmented.” He ranks 16th all time at Maryland in career goals but always had a feeling that his “unique” style of play could work even better at the pro level, where the shortened shot clock and up-tempo pace result in more looks to the crease. 

He just needed the chance to prove it. 

Three Maryland Terrapins were selected in the 2015 MLL draft. Carlson was not one of them. He did win a championship that summer, but it was at the Ocean City Classic with a Long Island Express team that featured several former Maryland teammates and a midfielder by the name of Tom Schreiber. Carlson relocated to San Diego and got a job at Qualcomm, where he works full-time as an Ops Planning Analyst. 

The next year, he was invited to the inaugural Atlanta Blaze training camp as a “walk on.” The distinction was apparent because Carlson sported Maryland gear while the more established players donned the team’s new orange and black duds. By the second day, Carlson received new equipment. He started the Blaze’s first game and had a hat trick in a 16-13 win over the Chesapeake Bayhawks. Despite the early success, Carlson was traded to the Bayhawks after two games and never played in more than four games each of the next two years. He registered 24 points in nine career games before making the leap to the PLL in 2019. 

The cycle at first seemed to repeat itself in training camp at IMG Academy. Carlson vied with more household names like Ben Reeves, Ryan Drenner and Jules Heningburg for the Whipsnakes’ third starting attack spot. 

His goal entering the 2019 season was just to score one goal. 

“That meant I had an opportunity and played in a game,” he said.


He got his first shot on the game day roster during Week 6 at Audi Field in Washington D.C., where he scored one goal in a loss to the Redwoods. He finished the regular season with five goals in four games. Carlson suited up for both of the Whipsnakes’ postseason games and made his presence known with his play on the biggest stage. In the second quarter of the championship game against the Redwoods, he collected a loose ball after a deflected pass from Chanenchuk and scored on a diving effort. 

It was Carlson’s only shot of the game. 

“That’s just Jay Carlson doing what Jay Carlson does,” Maryland head coach John Tillman said of the play the week after the championship game, in which Rambo played the part of the hero with the game-tying and winning goals. 

The Championship Series allowed Carlson to solidify a starting role and showcase his ability. He scored 12 goals, nine of which were assisted, in six games. He led all attackman with 17 ground balls and ranked 13th in the entire league. 

He’s the type of player who prefers to suit up for a game with the San Diego Lacrosse Club during the week than tote a bucket of balls to an empty goal to practice. His talents are most apparent in live game scenarios, and he prides himself on being able to catch almost any pass. Carlson honed his composure around the cage from early on by telling his dad, Chip, who was his first coach, to throw passes off the mark in their Cockeysville backyard. It was more fun that way. At St. Paul’s, where Carlson also caught 12 touchdowns in two seasons as a wide receiver, the Crusaders’ varsity lacrosse team started incorporating a “bad ball” finishing drill. 

“But nobody was as good at doing it as Jay,” Brocato recalled. 

The type of guy who can dazzle his teammates with juggling skills despite having no formal training, Carlson loves the hand-eye coordination required in lacrosse almost as much as beating defenses with good cuts and ball movement. 

While Williams forced the Whipsnakes defense to ask themselves if they had lost a step since he was so dominant at training camp in Utah, he remembers how Carlson ran through slashes and won every rep during a ground ball drill on day one. 

“It’s hard to come by people like Jay with that mental and physical toughness to be able to take a beating and keep getting up and continuing to do his job,” Williams said, while adding Carlson is one of the most positive people he’s ever met. “If I had to start my own team, I would pick Jay any time and any day.” 

When the All-Star Game takes place next weekend in San Jose, Carlson will be 500 miles south in San Diego. That’s all right. His focus is more immediate. A rematch with the Redwoods this Saturday in Minnesota awaits.

The player who thought his pro career might be over before he ever caught on knows it’s another opportunity to validate the trust of his teammates, coaching staff and everyone who believed in him. 

“The last couple years, every game could be my last game,” Carlson said. “That’s my mentality, so I don’t take it for granted and just try to compete one game at a time. Like good Whipsnake lacrosse.”