ALBANY, N.Y. --- The Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) opened their season on Saturday in Albany, NY. Despite no teams having home cities yet there are still many ties to Western New York in the PLL. Whether it be players born in the area, former Rochester Rattlers or current Buffalo Bandits and Rochester Knighthawks, there are connections everywhere to Western New York.
Day one featured four different teams, first was the Redwoods and the Atlas. Victor, NY can claim rights to the first goal of the 2023 PLL season. After a chaotic scrum for the first face-off of the game, TD Ierlan broke away from the pile and received a pass from Nakeie Montgomery. The specialist barreled into the offensive zone and found the back of the net for the goal.
“It’s cool, winning by one goal was nice,” Ierlan continued. “Someone said ‘you might as well just score here’ I said sure sign me up then someone told me after the game I was +5000 to score the first goal so don’t know how many takers there were.”
Another western New Yorker made their presence known in game one. Former Rochester Knighthawk and Manlius native Charlie Bertrand had a goal on the day, going behind his back for a highlight tally. The Redwoods saw a new face come to their coaching staff this season as offensive coordinator. A name synonymous with Rochester, John Grant Jr. is the only retired lacrosse jersey in Blue Cross Arena for the Knighthawks.
In his first season with the team he has started to implement more of a two man game with box influences into the Redwoods offense. The Woods group is full of big bodies and step down shooters but Grant has been diversifying the offensive looks. Their pair play and off ball movement too a significant step up even just after one game. Ryder Garnsey saw most of the production from that as he put away a sock trick (six goals). Four of his goals were assisted.
“He’s one of the best lacrosse players of all time so it’s hard not to have a tremendous amount of respect for that guy and buy in for what he says.” Garnsey said. “We’ve embraced the off ball movement that has sometimes been stagnant in years past, I think we did a great job with that today, that’s probably the biggest impact he’s had.”
Game two was home to the first current Knighthawk as Connor Fields started on attack for the Archers. Fields’ team saw many changes over the offseason due to the first ever free agency in the PLL. It seemed to work out for Fields as he has shifted into his natural position as the lefty attack men instead of being a midfielder. He took the position and ran with it as he scored four goals to lead the Archers. His second goal was an absolute show stopper as Fields crashed down the alley on the right side of the field, he flicked the ball behind his back and between his legs to send a bouncer into the back of the net.
“I think it’s where I’m most comfortable, they started putting me down low at the end of last year and credit to coach Bates it’s where I am the most comfortable,” Fields continued. “Knowing the spacing of always playing attack, I just like having a poll on me.”
Jared Conners, the Fairport native and one year Knighthawk started on the face-off wing and at Long stick Midfielder for the Archers. He didn’t play for the Knighthawks this season, instead he played for the Archers in the 2023 Championship series. A sixes tournament The PLL implemented to increase the outreach of the sport. After the tournament the young midfielder is still unsure whether he will play in the championship series or the NLL next season.
“I definitely felt like I didn’t have as far to go preparation wise coming into camp.” Conners said. “Being able to connect with our team in February was great and I definitely feel like I’m closer with a lot of guys on this team because of it.”
Brett Dobson started in goal for the Archers. The St. Bonaventure alumni played his first season in the NLL for the Georgia Swarm this year and seamlessly transitioned onto the field for his second PLL start. Dobson found his game in Duluth this season as a rookie net minder in the NLL, he posted 555 saves for the Swarm. Coming home to upstate NY was a key for the young keepers first weekend as he felt the support of friends and family in his first PLL win.
“Since that start last year I’ve grown as a person and as a goalie.” Dobson said. “It’s only fitting that it’s kind of in upstate with western New York and being a Bonnies alumni it was great, had a lot of texts from the boys who were watching.”
Day one saw The Redwoods and the Archers both move to 1-0 while the Atlas and Cannons fell to 0-1. Day two brought two even closer games, the first went to overtime while the second was won with 4.7 seconds left. First was the Chaos and the Waterdogs. The Chaos offense looked different than normal on Sunday, that was because many key players for the Chaos were busy winning an NLL Championship with the Buffalo Bandits Saturday night. That meant increased minutes for Knighthawks forward Ryan Smith who proved to be a veteran leader on an offense without Dhane Smith and Josh Byrne. He proved to be key in training camp for coach Andy Towers.
“Ryan Smith and KJ, these guys are 100% authentically team first people, there is zero ego there,” Towers said. ” You’re not gonna find two guys who are more unselfish, that are tougher, that hold people accountable the right way. They are invaluable to what we are trying to do in the offensive end.”
For the Waterdogs, they are the home of Knighthawks alternate captain Ryland Rees. The transition player gets a long poll back in his hands as he plays long stick midfielder and takes a wing spot on the face-offs for the defending PLL champions. This summer he will also be coaching collegiate box lacrosse in Rochester for the UCBLL season.
“The UCBLL is during the week and it allows me to give back to the Rochester community and it allows me to keep my head in the box game and a stick in my hand at all times throughout the week and then compete on the weekends,” Rees said.
The game came right down to the wire as Fairport native Blaze Riorden stood on his head in goal for the Chaos. His 18 saves brought flashbacks to his time in college when he played four years for the Albany Great Danes. Riorden along with the Thompson brothers were the backbone of players that brought the program to prominence in the 2010s. Now a seasoned veteran at the pro level, some would argue he’s the best player in the world right now. That’s certainly the thought of coach Towers.
“I’m really proud of how our team played,” Towers said. “Our defense played really really well and Blaze showed why he’s the best player in the world.”
The Chaos forced overtime with a late power play goal but it was the Waterdogs who brought home the win. Rees won the ground ball to start the winning offensive play for the defending champions. Eventually Connor Kelly crashed in on net and went high on Riorden to score the game winner.
Game two was between the Chrome and the Whipsnakes. The Chrome are coached by Fairport native and former Rochester Rattlers coach Tim Soudan. Some of the captains of the chrome are also former Rattlers as they are led by Jordan Macintosh and Mike Manley. Manley was marked up against Matt Rambo for the Whipsnakes, a top ten player as voted by players in the PLL ahead of this season. He also scored the first goal of the game in transition as he slipped through two long polls to give himself an opportunity on the crease. Coach Soudan noted the versatility of his captains as all three are extremely different from one another in how they lead.
“They’ve been playing for so long, they understand the gravity and every game matters, they’re invaluable,” Soudan said. “Jesse’s more quiet, Mike’s more ‘Ra Ra’ and Jordan’s a great locker room guy and great in the huddle.”
The Chrome were comfortably leading the game through the first half, they carried an 8-6 lead into half time. The second half was significantly lower scoring than the first as Whipsnakes goalie Kyle Bernlohr came into his own as the game went on. Things were tied with 30 seconds left and Soudan called a timeout. The ball was in Sam Handley’s stick first for an attempt around the cage but he was denied at the crease. Missing wide, the shot was backed up by Division three rookie Cross Ferrara, he streaked from the back corner of the field right into the hole and ripped a shot in the top left corner to seal the win with 4.7 seconds left. Coach Soudan didn’t flinch at the idea of two rookie attackmen taking the last shots of the game.
The PLL proved to be quite the product in its opening weekend of 2023. The biggest win margin was a three goal win for the Archers. Every other game came down to one goal for the win. With eight league teams the competition is high. Western New York still finds a way to stand out nationally in every area of the field. Whether it’s a Victor Native scoring the first goal of the season, a Fairport native backstopping one of the strongest defenses in the league or the East Amherst native leading his offense to a 16 goal performance and win. The PLL will head to Charlotte next weekend for week two.