Versatile Joe Nardella the 'Most Elite Guy in the League'

Throughout the Premier Lacrosse League Championship Series, teams must have thought the turf at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, felt more like the Oquirrh Mountains that they could see off in the distance when they played the Whipsnakes. 

Every game was an uphill battle. 

At the center of that advantage was Joe Nardella. The Paul Cantabene Faceoff Athlete of the Championship Series consistently tilted the field in the Whips’ direction with a 72 percent win rate. But that eye-popping number doesn’t fully capture Nardella’s influence on the game and the Whipsnakes’ undefeated run to their second consecutive title. Nardella led the league in ground balls with 65 (almost doubling Connor Farrell, the second-place finisher) and tallied three goals and three assists in six games. 

In an era of hyper specialization, Nardella’s range is arguably his greatest asset.

“He is, in my opinion, one of the only guys in the league right now that is a complete lacrosse player,” midfielder of the year finalist John Haus said. “That’s what really makes him dangerous. Absolutely he can win almost every faceoff, but his ability to then go defend or play offense makes him different from a lot of other guys in the PLL and makes him the standard and most elite guy in the league.”

That’s the only way Nardella has ever known to play. “A lot of that stems from how I grew up and how I learned the game,” he said. 

“He is, in my opinion, one of the only guys in the league right now that is a complete lacrosse player.” — John Haus

Nardella started playing defense in the third grade in Cazenovia, New York, and learned the fundamentals from John Cannizzaro. Though Nardella shifted to the midfield in middle school, he’d fill in between the pipes if needed. A standout hockey player who grew up in a wrestling household, Nardella’s scrappiness made him a natural fit facing off. 

While he already possessed preternatural spatial awareness and body control when he arrived at Rutgers (where he was recruited as a regular midfielder by current Whipsnakes head coach Jim Stagnitta), Nardella was hardly the polished technician we saw during the Championship Series. He had learned some of the basics about how to rake, jam and clamp — all in standing neutral grip — at various Syracuse and Cornell camps but became enamored with the technical minutia of the position and knee-down motorcycle grip after he received some instruction from Rutgers alums Aaron Krudyla and Chris Mattes. 

“I loved how competitive it was,” Nardella said. “How there was so much to learn every time you lost and how much nuance there was in the blink of an eye. I was fascinated by it and wanted to learn everything about it.”

Initially the third faceoff specialist on the depth chart in addition to his defensive midfield responsibilities, Nardella’s competitive prospects quickly changed his freshman year in New Brunswick. The starter left the team before the 2012 season. Before the Scarlet Knights’ third game of the year against Wagner, his replacement lost his scouting report. Nardella stepped in. He went 12-for-18 and collected seven ground balls in a 9-5 win over the Seahawks. 

“I think you could be really good at this if you put your mind to it,” Rutgers head coach Brian Brecht told him. Nardella ranked fourth in the country his sophomore year in faceoff win percentage and turned into a two-time Big Ten Specialist of the Year. 

Despite that proficiency, Brecht had Nardella continue to practice with the scout team offense and stay involved with the rest of the team. 

That immersion was evident in Utah, too. Throughout the four-day training camp, Nardella took part in transition drills and played defensive midfield. 

“He’s not one of those typical faceoff guys who just stands to the side the whole practice and faces off,” Whipsnakes LSM and captain Michael Ehrhardt said. “He gets in every drill with us, and he’s a very skilled athlete and player.”

Ehrhardt, the LSM of the Championship Series, and Nardella form two-thirds of the most lethal triumvirate in the league. Add in Tyler Warner, who was named the Short Stick Defensive Midfielder of the series after collecting the second-most wing ground balls amongst short sticks, and the Whipsnakes rope unit looks like a cheat code. Their success, however, is a product of determination and a willingness to work together. Faceoffs, after all, are a three-on-three battle. 

“Team team team,” Nardella tweeted after he won 18 of 21 faceoffs against the Chaos in group play. “These are the guys who deserve the credit,” he captioned a picture of the unit.

“He put so much time and effort into it before this Championship Series,” Haus said of Nardella. “I think that made a world of a difference for him. He just seemed like he was in better shape and that he had taken more whistles than any other faceoff guy in the series.”


While the world seemed to stop overnight in March, the shelter-in-place orders gave Nardella more time to train and learn. He was in the midst of his first NLL season with the New England Black Wolves during which he ranked first among rookies in faceoff win percentage (.578) and loose balls (46). The stoppage allowed him to spend more time back at his parents’ home in Syracuse since he wasn’t traveling to games or coaching Faceoff Factory events in person. When he wasn’t building out the Faceoff Factory’s online offerings for both group and private sessions, he trained against the likes of Waterdogs specialist Drew Simoneau and his protégé — NCAA faceoff record holder TD Ierlan. On weekends, Nardella met up with Denver Outlaws and Connecticut Hammerheads specialists Max Adler and Noah Rak in Connecticut or Boston to get more reps. 

“Those guys really helped challenge me,” Nardella said. “I was pretty much attacking it every single week for three, four or five hours if you add it up.”

Along with his added faceoff work, Nardella reconfigured his training with Joe Drain, founder of COMPETE Strength & Conditioning. They addressed weaknesses like running efficiency and lateral agility. Nardella offered his teammates a glimpse into his regimen through the group Snapchat posts he’d send the team of him taking draws or working out. Most of them were around 5:30 a.m. 

“Our mantra is we work in the shadows,” Nardella said back in May. “People underestimate us a little bit, and that allows us to train with a chip on our shoulders.”

That’s been the story of his career. The real or perceived slights from the “haters” offer a renewable energy resource. He always looked up to the way Kobe Bryant or Allen Iverson played with an edge. “Get angry,” Nardella’s father, Andrew, who wrestled at Rutgers, used to tell him while training. 

“That anger can really help fuel the fire for you being more prepared than somebody,” Joe Nardella said. “It creates a sense of urgency.”

Nardella can list the times he was overlooked almost as quick as his reaction at the whistle. How he was the last commit in his class at Rutgers. How the Boston Cannons traded him to the Atlanta Blaze in 2018 for a first-round draft pick after he tore the ACL in his right knee in the final game of the 2017 season. How he was cut from Team USA before the 2018 World Championships and how last year he was left out of the PLL All-Star Game despite ranking second in faceoff win percentage and leading all faceoff specialists in points. 

“I think that's what drives him at times as well, that he probably doesn't get some of the credit that he deserves and that some of these other guys do,” Haus said. 

While several teams opted for two faceoff specialists to split the workload during the Championship Series, Nardella took all but 11 draws for the Whipsnakes. He still felt fast and explosive throughout the entire event. Though he was out of breath last year after he won the overtime faceoff against the Redwoods that led to Matt Rambo’s game-winner, this year he said he never felt tired. His confidence was at an all-time high. He felt so prepared and locked into the details that all he had to focus on was keeping a clear mind. 

A refreshed mental approach was a key ingredient to his success. This spring, Nardella reconnected with sports psychologist Wally Bzdell, who worked with the Rutgers men’s lacrosse program and whose clients include the 2014 NCAA Division I hockey national champion Union College and the 2015 national champion Providence College. As a part of Faceoff Factory’s virtual offerings, Bzdell led some high performance mindset training sessions. Nardella initially hopped on the Zoom calls to help spark the dialogue but soon found himself taking notes and applying Bzdell’s lessons before and after he trained.  

“We focus on training the mind,” reads a description on Bzdell’s website. “The body does the work, but the mind is the gatekeeper for the body. Your quality of thinking impacts your quality of action.”

At times in the past, and even last year when he won 55 percent of his draws, Nardella wanted to win so badly he would let his emotions get the best of him after he got beat. The negative thought pattern would trail him throughout a quarter like his opponent pursuing him after the clamp. 

He’s tried to let go of the losses and prioritize what he can control: his outlook. If he found doubt creeping in while waiting on the sideline at Zions Bank Stadium, he concentrated on his breathing to reset and stay present. The night before games when he watched film of his opponents, he’d visualize toeing the stripe against them and countering their moves. 

So when the Whipsnakes trailed the Chaos 6-2 at halftime, Nardella reminded himself there was a lot of lacrosse left and remained engaged in the moment. “Stay positive,” he told his teammates. “Let’s stick together.” 

They did and unleashed a 10-0 run to end the game. While Zed Williams earned MVP honors for his six-goal performance, Nardella’s streak at the stripe helped fuel the rapid comeback. He didn’t get to see many of the goals because they happened in such quick succession. He finished the game 12 of 19, which was, incredibly, his lowest mark of the series. But the final stat line didn’t matter. 

Nardella and the Whipsnakes were PLL champions. Again. 

They could breathe a sigh of relief.