PLL Championship Game Preview: Whipsnakes' Well-Oiled Machine


While Jim Stagnitta’s confidence is less overt than the coach who will stand opposite him in the PLL Championship Series final Sunday, it wasn’t hard to decipher his surety even through the phone when he talked about his roster this offseason. 

“I am comfortable with where we are and who we are,” Stagnitta said back in June. “I don't think we'll lose a beat in finding people to go out there and compete at the same level we did last year.”

Stagnitta had good reason to trust his additions. Any concerns about the new-look offense were left behind after their opening win over the Redwoods. As PLL analyst Joe Keegan has noted consistently, Zed Williams, whom the Whipsnakes picked up in the PLL entry draft in March, scored 444 goals in high school. If people forgot that, the Virginia product has reminded them of his scoring potential over the last two weeks.

Williams has tallied the most goals in the league (14) while shooting 31 percent. But in the PLL semifinals Thursday against the Redwoods, Williams was silent on the stat sheet. So was the 2019 regular season and championship MVP Matt Rambo. 

That the Whipsnakes still prevailed 13-12 in overtime was a testament to their versatility and the team’s ethos. 

“We don't have anyone who wants to isolate themselves on an individual level,” defenseman Matt Dunn said a couple days before leaving for Utah. 

That should bode well for the reigning champs Sunday in the title game against Chaos LC.


Where: Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah
When: Sunday, 12:30 p.m. EDT
Watch: NBC
Chaos Team Preview

The Whips are more concerned with how their role fits into the ecosystem of the whole team. Even when the Redwoods blanked their two offensive leaders, they scored 13 goals against the best six-on-six defense in the league.

Brad Smith, who Stagnitta selected in the first round of the college draft last year but was sidelined all season, had four assists and one goal.

Jay Carlson, who has had an expanded role this year, continued to “do Jay Carlson things,” in the words of NBC Sports analyst Ryan Boyle. Carlson is one of two attackmen ranked in the top 25 for most ground balls in the league. He also scored four goals against the Redwoods. 

Michael Ehrhardt, otherwise known as MikeVP, once again lived up to his nickname, scoring a pair of 2-point goals, playing lockdown defense and wreaking havoc on the faceoff wing. 

Jeremy Sieverts punched the Whipsnakes return trip to the championship game with a beautiful on-the-run high bounce shot. It was his first goal of the Championship Series. 

“The flexibility of the people on our team really gives us depth,” Stagnitta said. 

The Whipsnakes’ team-first mentality also provides them strength. When Joe Nardella gets praised for his absurd 74-percent success rate at the faceoff stripe, he deflects the attention and references the importance of wing play by Ehrhardt, Tyler Warner and Jake Bernhardt. When Rambo was asked about his offensive explosion in their final group play game, a PLL single-game record 10 points against the Archers, he stressed how important their ball movement was and how that’s just “Whipsnakes lacrosse.”  

“That's what I'm most proud of the way those guys are playing,” Maryland coach John Tillman said earlier this week. “You hear Rambo say, ‘We just hit singles. We just hit singles.’ It's kind of funny because that's his standard line, but all those guys know and trust they are going to get the ball back so one has got to get theirs. They're just so focused on winning and having so much fun together.”

The top-scoring offense in the league has been buttressed by its stingiest defense. The Whipsnakes have the fewest caused turnovers and Kyle Bernlohr has seen the fewest shots of any starting goalie. That’s their formula for success. 

“We don't make highlight plays and we don't really want to,” said Bernlohr, who‘s ranked second in save percentage during the Championship Series. “We just want to be the defense that keeps guys away from areas of the field where we don't want to see shots.” 

The close quarters in Utah have only magnified the team’s chemistry. 

“Where other guys are building relationships,” Tillman said, “I think these guys are building on relationships.”

Those relationships are why Whipsnakes defensive coordinator Mike Murphy feels like he has coached this team for 20 years instead of two. They’re why Bernlohr can tell through body language when Dunn, Tim Mueller and Bryce Young will slide. They’re why the defense can double-team in a blink of the eye, but also know when to hold off. 

Yet despite that familiarity and the Whipsnakes’ dominant performance in group play, the win over the Redwoods showed how incredibly thin the margin for error is. 

“The difference between one and seven [seeds] in this league is a goal or two,” Murphy said earlier this month. 

Little did he know that difference would determine the PLL’s next champion. 

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