When Trevor Baptiste graduated from the University of Denver last May, the Premier Lacrosse League didn’t even exist yet. Not publicly, at least. While the Rabil brothers were busy building their new professional lacrosse league in stealth, Baptiste was busy winning 222 faceoffs during his rookie MLL season while serving as Team USA’s faceoff specialist straight out of school. Flash forward to today—less than one year later—and Baptiste is now the poster boy for the PLL’s stop in Denver, single-handedly serving as a selling point for fans, an anchor for the league’s Atlas Lacrosse Club and a constant source of energy for the PLL’s social presence.
But it took a little persuasion to get to this point. Baptiste didn’t jump on board and join the new league instantaneously. He, like many others, had reservations. “There was definitely some hesitation on my end,” Baptiste told Sports Illustrated. “You’re starting a whole league from the ground up. It’s a start up. And start ups are very volatile and fragile.” But some of the sport’s biggest names—Myles Jones, Kyle Harrison, Tom Schreiber, Paul Rabil himself and more—helped alleviate any uncertainty for the young star, each eventually endorsing the league to other players and helping the Rabil brothers pitch the PLL after taking their own time to consider the pros and cons of making the jump. Everyone had to get comfortable with the concept. “It feels like we’re all in now but you know, it took some time for a lot of us,” Baptiste admits.
“Change for anyone—in business or personally—is really hard and it requires someone to trust that you have not only the right capital and investors but that you have the right operating team and the right plan,” Rabil says. “It’s also a different experience for everyone. We kept that in mind for each player we approached.”
Now that the uneasiness has subsided and the athletes feel fully acclimated to the new venture, they say they share another common sentiment: readiness. It’s an encouraging feeling for the league. Here’s a look at how the inaugural season is shaping up and how players are preparing for PLL’s debut on Saturday, June 1 at Gillette Stadium in Boston.
INSIDE PLL CAMP AND PRE-SEASON TRAINING
To prepare for the start of play, almost all of the league’s 160 players spent five days at training camp at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Two-a-day workouts were sandwiched between information sessions on everything from nutrition, personal branding and social media, to relationship violence and television production rundowns. Full-field scrimmages capped off the final day of camp, giving players the taste of what’s to come that they’d been craving all off-season.
“As soon as I left camp I started thinking to myself, ‘Man this is going to be a tough summer,’” said Jones, a two-time National Champion and Duke alum who has continued his career professionally as an Adidas athlete and now midfielder for the Chaos Lacrosse Club. “There are a lot of great players on these six teams. I’m excited, I think everyone’s just ready to get out there on the field and show out, show how hard they’ve all been working this offseason.”
With the PLL putting the players at the forefront of their new league, Jones says they understood that meant higher expectations when it came to performance. Where the sport was previously seen as a supplemental source of income or a side job for many professional lacrosse players, the new league is trying to empower each athlete and put them in a position where they are incentivized to improve individually, which will in turn elevate the game on a larger level. Jones notes that especially because the league will be under a microscope during its inaugural season this summer, players throughout the PLL have shown an unprecedented commitment to their training, investing more than before—himself included. (Jones has branded this summer as #ScarySZN after an offseason spent taking his own training to another level.)
He’s not the only one who noticed a difference.
“I think we’re just going to see everything elevated because of what the league is investing in these athletes,” says Harrison, who is entering his 14th season of professional lacrosse as a player for the Redwoods. “You could see in just what they showed up to camp looking like. It looked like 130 real, full-time professional athletes. Guys took this offseason seriously.”
Jones and Harrison both cite the increased wages for players and anticipation of increased exposure as incentives for players to perform at higher levels than in the past. Because players are being treated as full-time employees, they have more freedom to put lacrosse first. Harrison compared what the new league has offered to players this offseason to what he was afforded by one of his sponsors, STX, after he graduated from Johns Hopkins.
“I had healthcare, I had a 401K and I was taken care of,” Harrison says of his relationship with STX. “It allowed me to train and try and grow a brand and align with other players and get to be a real pro. For so long, whether it was through camps or clinics or sponsorships or non-lacrosse jobs, most players have had to scramble off the field to make sure they could stay on the field. Now the playing is at the forefront again and the athletes can focus on that first. And you could definitely feel that they did.”
After spending the last few months prioritizing lacrosse on their own, training camp provided a space where the players could adjust to playing alongside their new teammates under the guidance of their new coach. It was also the first tangible product the league has put out that all the players could see and participate in. Archers defender Matt McMahon, who quit his job in finance to join the league and go all-in on being a professional athlete, says that part of camp provided another needed feeling for many players, including himself: relief.
“Everybody feels so confident that this is something the whole world needs to see. But we still hadn’t seen ‘the PLL,’ so to speak, yet,” says McMahon. “So when we all got down to camp, we saw the infrastructure in place for this to be successful and for the sport to finally be taken seriously.”
What they all saw was exactly the unparalleled level of competition that the Rabil brothers unapologetically preached during their pitches to players and the press. “It was no joke,” says Schreiber, a two-time MLL MVP winner and who now plays for the Archers.
Each of the six teams that will take the field for the inaugural season is named to denote the club’s intended identity, to characterize the style fans should expect to see during the fast-paced, 48-minute game that features the sport’s shortest shot clock at just 52 seconds. Camp gave the first glimpse as to whether or not the logos and names actually fit with the product on the field.
From what the players in this piece have seen so far, the Archers should be as precise as promised, with some of the best on-ball offensive players, six crafty Carolina alum to start creating chemistry and one of the most talented midfielders in the game in Schreiber, who happened to play for head coach Chris Bates at Princeton. Scott Ratliff should lock down the defense and will take advantage of the closer two-point arc (the PLL will play with 15 yards rather than 16).
Atlas should be strong, physical and tough—like Rabil and Baptiste, who headline coach John Paul’s roster alongside Kyle Hartzell and Tucker Durkin—on both sides of the ball. Jones says he saw “some of the best offense of camp coming from those guys, they have some really slick players.” With a loaded roster that includes seven Hopkins’ alum on the same squad, it’s not hard to see how the roster aligns with the same emotions evoked by the Atlas name. “And they have arguably the best faceoff guy in the world right now [Trevor Baptiste] so that’ll be fun for everyone else,” Jones jokes.
Harrison grounds the Redwoods, who are set up with great shooters. Their defense has a strong nucleus of Notre Dame alum who play hard and exhaust offenses. All four starters from 2017 Fighting Irish’s elite defense–Matt Landis, Garrett Epple, Eddy Glazener and John Sexton–will play together again for coach Nat St. Laurent. With five Brown All-Americans also on the roster, expect to see the same potent offense that characterized the last Bears squad they played for.
Chaos will create just that–with slippery midfielders and a sizeable defense, they’ll be hard to get by, especially one-on-one. Jones, who stands at an imposing 6’5” himself, and the rest of his team play with a similar physicality to Atlas, but with an added intensity. With six Albany alum and a Canadian- and Iroquois-inspired offense, Andy Towers’ team will bring a box-style game to the outdoor field. Both Jeremy and Miles Thompson will join Jones, Josh Byrne and the rest of the Chaos crew.
Although Jones calls Chaos home, Chrome captured the rest of Duke’s professional players. With nine former Blue Devils and five former Syracuse stars on Dom Starsia’s roster, the PLL might have just brought the ACC back to life at the professional level when they crafted Chrome. The swift strength and agility anticipated for this team when it was named should become reality.
The Whipsnakes bring the Maryland boys back together again with 20 former Terps playing for Jim Stagnitta including defenseman Michael Ehrhardt. The 2018 World Championship MVP’s physical play and ground game will lead the Whips and his strength in transition and at the two-point shot make him a dangerous dual-threat. Fans should anticipate nothing less than the same tough and talented defense that Ehrhardt plays with from the rest of the Whipsnakes and an offense loaded with lefties and tricky two-handed players.
And while distinct identities are beginning to develop, another critical part of any professional sport—rivalries—have yet to really emerge. Harrison might’ve seen some beginnings at camp but, then again, he says that also might’ve been because they were in “hot a-- Florida for five days getting some pent up energy out.” Regardless, the intensity competition that inspires any eventual enemy is already apparent. Jones saw it even in scrimmages.
“All the teams are so stacked. Everyone’s here to really compete,” he says. “When you looked at the scrimmages there were a lot of, I’ll say, extracurricular activities between players after goals, for lack of a more eloquent term. There was some s--- talking. There were some fights. Everyone wants the first PLL Championship and the race is wide open right now. There’s been so much anticipation and hype since Day 1 in October and we haven’t even played a game yet. So you know we’re going to go out there and put on a show."
The race is open and the green light is about to go off. Players are counting down the hours before the Archers and Chrome face off in the league's first ever game on Saturday afternoon at the start of the league's 14-week season.