PHOTO COURTESY OF LARS KEIL

Sidewall Jedi Lars Keil The Chosen One for Top PLL Pros


When Trevor Baptiste and TD Ierlan lined up across the stripe from each other for the opening faceoff of the Premier Lacrosse League All-Star Game, they were linked by another thread besides their sensational play this season.

They both used sticks strung by the same person. They were far from the only ones who did so at PayPal Park. When the man behind many of your favorite pros’ pockets wasn’t tending to equipment issues, he toed the 50-yard line lest to give the impression he was leaning one way or the other.

His name is Lars Keil — aka the Sidewall Jedi.

“I really do think he is the best stringer there is out there,” said All-Star faceoff specialist Joe Nardella, the PLL’s reigning Faceoff Man of the Year for the Whipsnakes.

Though Nardella’s Defenders fell to the Adversaries 23-21, the entire All-Star Game felt like a win for Team Unfair Advantage. That’s the title Keil, 39, created for those he strings for from the youth level to pros to 60-year-olds, and applies to anyone who plays with a stick strung “markedly” better than their competition.

Amongst the Team Unfair Advantage members who shined was Tim Troutner, who was named All-Star Game MVP after making 24 saves and scoring a behind-the-back goal with a goalie crosse. Chaos midfielder Jake Froccaro came out on top in the fastest shot competition using a Maverik Kinetik 2.0 with ECD Hero 3 mesh he borrowed from Keil, who strung it the previous weekend specifically for his own personal record attempt (he hit 101 mph). Rob Pannell registered eight points, including a pair of two-point goals. Keil strung up a Warrior Evo QX-O for the 2013 Tewaaraton Award winner less than 48 hours earlier.

“Dude, I need some new sticks,” Pannell messaged Keil a couple days before the game. “I’m in my own head right now.”

The confidence Keil has in his craft helps even the best players in the world get out of their heads.

“He knows every single thing possible about stringing sticks,” said Cannons starting goalie and All-Star Nick Marrocco. “It makes a big difference when you get out on the field. You see it all the time. Some games, you have guys sailing the ball or shooting it into the dirt. Just being able to go out and play and not have to worry about that is huge.”


“If there’s one person you should ever listen to about stick stringing, this is the guy.”

—Lars Tiffany


***

A self-described stick stringing nerd, Keil talks about the subject and all facets of lacrosse with the fervor of someone who’s centered his professional life around the sport. The Director of Lacrosse Operations for Harvard men’s lacrosse since 2018, Keil also joined the PLL this summer as an equipment manager after spending the past four seasons on the Boston Cannons’ staff, which culminated in an MLL championship. He’s spent the past 15 years coaching at various programs in Divisions I, II and III and considers himself lucky that his passion for stringing is so intertwined with helping players achieve their potential.

He’s on a mission to bring to light the underutilized and undervalued aspect of high-performance stringing. He believes everyone can, and should, have a great stick. He estimates that the “vast majority” of the current playing population does not.

“There’s never a shortage of lacrosse players playing with sticks that are holding them back,” Keil said last week during a three-hour Zoom interview in transit. He watched a bald eagle fly over I-90 West while he drove from Massachusetts to Skaneateles, N.Y. An Epoch Z-Three head he strung with Warrior Warp Mesh on an Instagram Live hosted by HersheyLaxDyes the previous night rode shotgun in his pickup truck.

Both the head and mesh are not available to the public yet.

“I can’t really say how I got this piece of mesh because I probably shouldn’t have it,” Keil explained.

Unlike his route on the Massachusetts Turnpike that afternoon, Keil’s path to become one of — if not, the — most trusted resource on all things string in this galaxy was somewhat circuitous. He didn’t start playing lacrosse until his junior year on Andover High School’s inaugural varsity team in 1999. Early in the spring semester of his freshman year at Springfield College, his coach informed him his skills were not at a level that he’d get to play in practice, let alone games. He told Keil he wouldn’t hold it against him if he decided to quit.

“What immediately came out of my mouth immediately was, ‘I’m staying,’ and what went through my head you’re not allowed to print,” said Keil, who has a shaved head and a hearty laugh.

He played in almost every league game that season on the highest scoring offense in Division III. By his junior year, he was a starter. Keil seems to delight in upending and exceeding people’s expectations — a trait that carries over into his stringing. He finds it hilarious when people tell him you can’t have a deep, high pocket that also throws easily. “You absolutely can,” he said.








***

Keil majored in Educational Leadership and Administration at Springfield, though for a while, he thought he might go to art school. He fell in love with drawing comic book covers and characters after an assignment in the fifth grade.

The more he focused on stringing, especially after he graduated college, the less he dabbled in visual arts.

“My artistic expression became the sticks that I strung,” Keil said.

Back at Springfield, he’d scavenge mesh out of teammates’ broken heads and then experiment on his backup Warrior Evo with busted a sidewall hole. The entirety of his supplies fit into a Nike shoebox.

Now, his “dojo” consumes the entirety of the retrofitted basement office at his home in Andover from where he strings and packages the heads that he’ll ship across the country. Every type of men’s and women’s head imaginable with seemingly endless varieties of stringing covers a black pegboard on one wall next to the pair of Brine gloves Keil wore at Springfield. He converted a storage closest near the locker room at Harvard into a second workspace.

“Everything you could possibly imagine, want or need for stringing sticks is in there,” Nardella said. “It’s wild.”

The setup of Nardella’s sticks used to frequently be a point of frustration. They’d work for one game, but then the head would warp, or the mesh would loosen. Awry passes followed. That was before he started working with Keil at Harvard in 2018. While watching film of the previous MLL season when Nardella ranked second in faceoff win percentage, Keil noticed how the ball often got caught momentarily in the back of his head.

“There’s a better way to string your sticks,” he told Nardella.

After some trial and error, Keil started stringing to the outside of the sidewall, one of many techniques he’s popularized. Nardella has never had the same problem. A higher pocket with tighter sidewalls and an easier release gave him greater confidence off the ground and moving the ball in transition.

“All that stuff I would attribute to having a better stick,” Nardella said.

Faceoff specialists are Keil’s most frequent clients because of the wear and tear of the position. Nardella typically brings three to four STX Duel Reflexes to every PLL tour stop. Keil strings him a new one every week of the regular season to add to the quiver.

“My bag is getting a little full,” Nardella said with a laugh.

After stringing around 57 heads during training camp, Keil now squeezes in between five and 10 heads every weekend for PLL players when he’s not tackling all his other responsibilities as an equipment manager. He sticks around the various facilities late at night until security kicks him out or wakes up early to complete the work. The middle digit on his right hand has the consistency of leather.

“Tell me your hands are sore without telling me your hands are sore,” Keil said in a TikTok from his room on the 11th floor of the Omni Lakes Hotel overlooking the Minnesota Vikings’ training facility. He then stepped aside to reveal 10 freshly strung heads resting on the carpeted floor.

Keil chronicles his new creations on Instagram (@Lukesidewallker) and is an active member of the stringing community. His iCloud account contains 33,000 photos. Over 20,000 of them are of lacrosse sticks. His online presence serves as a forum for him to showcase his work and share his knowledge. His Instagram stories are filled with responses to “Ask Me Anything” and before and after shots of people applying his pocket pounding method to stretch every single hole of mesh. It involves a baseball bat — the best use he’s ever found for one — and takes no more than 30 seconds.

One of the most frequent questions he gets asked is how quickly he can string a stick. The answer varies. He can weave one of Nardella’s pockets in about 12 minutes because he’s done it so many times. Speed, however, is never the primary focus. Performance is. As long as it takes to make it “absolutely awesome,” Keil likes to reply.

The best promotion, though, is often word of mouth. In the case of stringing, seeing, or rather feeling, often results in believing.




PHOTO COURTESY OF LARS KEIL


***

“We need you,” Virginia offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan texted Keil in the fall of 2017. “When can you come here?”

Kirwan had witnessed Keil’s impact up close in 2016 when they worked together at Brown during the Bears’ final four run. After Keil spent a season in Durham with the Duke women’s lacrosse team, he returned to Massachusetts, where he officially established Sidewall Jedi stringing and consulting.

“If there’s one person you should ever listen to about stick stringing, this is the guy,” Lars Tiffany said when he introduced Keil to the Cavaliers.

Keil strung seven or eight sticks as “testers” with a range of pockets that he then doled out at practice the next day. Anyone interested in getting a stick also filled out a Google Form listing their preferences. By practice the next day, Keil had the dozens of bespoke orders ready — crafted with each players’ mechanics in mind.

Three-quarters of the team used sticks strung by Keil in 2019 when Cavaliers won the national championship.

“I want to create raving fans,” Keil said. “I want to have the kind of impact on people that not only are they never going to go to anybody else, they’re always going to come back to me to string their sticks. I want them to be so impacted by their positive performance that they’re going to go out of their way to tell everyone they ever have come in contact with that I’m the person that they should talk to about stringing every stick for the rest of their lives.”

Still, he knows he can only string for so many people. He’s just one guy. He hopes and plans to expand his impact in the form of a subscription platform he’s been working on developing for the past year. It would serve as a one-stop shop for all stringing and stick maintaining information.

“My goal is to basically take whatever has already been created from an educational standpoint about stringing and then go 1000 miles further,” Keil said.  

“He's just so passionate about stringing and seeing the results and the joy for the players that he does it for,” Cannons LC head coach Sean Quirk said. “And he's a student of it as well.”

When Keil coached with Quirk at Endicott from 2010-12, he also wrote a 26-page research paper on the topic of “whip” for a course in his Masters in Athletic Administration. The conclusion he arrived at, he said, was a very long and technical way to explain that the term is relative to every stick and every individual.

In conversation, his opinion is more pointed.

“I hate the word ‘whip,’” Keil said. “It is one of the most, if not the most, misunderstood words in the game right now.”

Keil’s own driving force can be distilled down into four words. The phrase, in Latin and English, adorns his Twitter bio, website, email signature and every wristband he includes in the packages to customers with their strung heads.

Ut Ceteri Iacere Possint. So Others May Throw.

He adopted the saying from the U.S. Coast Guard’s motto “So Others May Live.”

He takes his responsibility just as seriously and likens stringing to getting paid to breathe. Though he started out stringing looking for a way to help himself, then a way to supplement his coaching income, he now calls it cathartic. He wants to give players something that will help them progress and spark a love for the game that he found a little more than 20 years ago.

“The whole reason I’m here is so you guys and girls can throw and get better,” Keil said. “That’s why I’m doing this.”