Paul Rabil’s Premier Lacrosse League is entering the fifth weekend in the fledgling league’s inaugural season. Many of the sport’s best players–like Kyle Harrison–took a leap of faith in joining Rabil’s new venture, leaving the already established MLL to join the PLL. The 36-year-old Harrison, a midfielder for the Redwoods Lacrosse Club, also serves as the league’s head of player relations. As the PLL heads to Atlanta for Week 5, Harrison’s 2–2 Redwoods prepare to face the undefeated Whipsnakes. The pro lacrosse veteran detailed a first-hand look at the league’s first month, which began in Boston at Gillette Stadium on June 1, including his favorite moments, greatest challenges and more.
Hello! My name is Kyle Harrison. I’m from Baltimore, Md., and I graduated from Johns Hopkins University in 2005. Since leaving Hopkins, I’ve been playing professionally and for the U.S. National team (2006, 2014) and traveling the world spreading this incredible game. I was fortunate enough to sign with STX Lacrosse once I graduated, and that partnership gave me the opportunity to be a real, full-time professional player and included everything from developing my own equipment line (K18), to traveling the world, to training and developing my game.
When Paul approached me two years ago about what he and his brother [Mike, now the league’s CEO] wanted to build with the Premier Lacrosse League, I was drawn to the elevated player experience–healthcare, higher wages, the opportunity to earn additional income through PLL Academy, distribution. These are all things that thousands of players that came before us didn’t have access to, and, as a result, most of them were working also another job.
I’ll always be appreciative of the players who have paved the way for us to be in this situation–because there were plenty. I often think about those who left the game professionally before hitting their prime athletically to pursue a desk job and want to make sure that’s a decision a lacrosse athlete never has to make again. Here’s what attempting to turn that goal into a reality has been like for me so far.
Week I: Gillette Stadium (Boston, Mass.)
Truthfully, when I woke up on our first game day, it didn’t feel too different from the way it’s felt for the first 14 years of my professional career. I packed my bags, went through my checklist of things I’ll need for the weekend, kissed my wife and kids (and dog, shout out to Ace), and drove to the airport. I spend so much time and energy working on the business that I forgot to think about how exciting the weekend would be as a player. I’ve spent a good amount of time the last few months thinking through how to mentally separate playing from operating the PLL. It’s not as easy as it seems.
When I showed up to the [fan festival at the] Premier Zone, that’s when it hit me! I couldn’t believe how many people were there. It took me back to being a kid and showing up to the Final Four. The music, the feel, the atmosphere and the energy were next level. I did an autograph session with my teammate Greg Gurelian and I was floored at how long the line was, and the amount of PLL gear everyone had.
After the signing, I watched the first two games in the history of the Premier Lacrosse League and BOTH went to OT! Our training camp in Florida was intense, but you can’t duplicate the emotion and energy of game day. Guys were flying around the field and getting after each other.
We had practice later that night after watching the other teams play. It gave us a sense of the speed of the game, what the referees were letting go, and what it felt like in Gillette Stadium. I’m typically fine the night before a game in terms of sleeping but I couldn’t sleep a wink after practice. My mind was racing! On one side I’m thinking about the business. What will the stands look like? The production? Will all players have the things they need? Then from the player perspective I was going through our game plan–our matchups, the goalie’s tendencies and our sets offensively and on the power play. Plus: What socks we rockin’? Did I fit my helmet properly?
This didn’t feel like a typical pregame sleep, and it wasn’t. For me, this was something I’ve been building toward my entire life.
Game Day: Redwoods vs. Atlas
Joe [Walters] and I got going early and walked down to the coffee shop to start the day. We had our pregame shootaround in Gillette and then I met my parents back at the hotel which was a special moment. Walking into the lobby and seeing them wearing all the PLL gear brought a smile to my face. They’ve ALWAYS supported me and ALWAYS had my back, no matter what the situation was.
Then I switched to pregame mode. In college, I used to have a ton of different rituals, and even early in my professional career I probably had five or six things I HAD to do before heading to the stadium. Call it old age, maybe it’s my kids and their unpredictability, but now before getting to the stadium, I just try to relax and listen to music. Adele, Wayne, Biggie, Pac, Drake, James Arthur, James Morrison, Meek and a few others are in the mix.
All I wanted to do was get on the field once we arrived at the stadium. For almost two years we’ve been talking about stepping on the field to play in our very first PLL game. I dropped my bags in the locker room and immediately went to the field. I hardly remember what came next. My first vivid memory was walking out of the tunnel. Lined up with my team next to our opponents, Atlas, and walking out in Gillette will forever be one of my favorite memories from my career. In a new era of lacrosse, I got to lead my team out on to the field. As a 15-year vet of the professional game, you’d think a moment like that wouldn’t be all that meaningful, but it was. I was thinking about all the all-time greats who have come before us to fight for Pro Lacrosse to be legitimate, all the players who blindly trusted us when this was just a concept. The energy and effort everyone in the PLL office has put into making this thing go. Mike and Paul Rabil’s conviction and vision to make it happen–it was all running through my head.
As I listened to the National Anthem, my mind drifted to how thankful I was for this opportunity. I’m a realist. I certainly understand I’m significantly closer to the end of my career than the beginning. But the best thing about sport, in my opinion, is the second that first whistle blows, all the build-up, nerves, and anxiety are gone. It goes back to the thing we’ve been doing since we could walk: simply playing a game.
The clash was back and forth, with players on both teams making meaningful plays to sway momentum but the real story was without a doubt the two young goalies. With 21 saves and 19 saves respectively, our goalie, Tim Troutner, and Atlas’s Jack Concannon were seemingly having a competition with each other. Each save was more impressive than the last. At the end of the day, we were able to come away with a W.
As Paul and I stood at midfield taking pictures holding each other’s jerseys, I felt the significance of what happening. Typically, I’m not a huge advocate of making a game bigger than it is. It’s a game we all love, but, at the end of the day, it’s just that, a game. But standing next to Paul after completing our first official PLL weekend felt bigger than a game.
Week II: Red Bull Arena (New York, N.Y.)
Game Day: Redwoods vs. Archers
As far as venues go, it doesn’t get much better than Red Bull Arena. I walked out to the field to watch the game before ours, and it was ANOTHER OT game! We’re only at week two, but the margin of victory or defeat thus far is so slim. From OT games to one-goal losses, it’s going to be tight all season long.
The Archers were our Week 2 opponent. They’re a tough matchup because they’re so balanced. They’ve got a defense lead by Matt McMahon and Scott Ratliff leads a great transition game. They’ve got an athletic goalie in Adam Ghitlman who makes all the saves he’s supposed to, steals at least six saves a game he shouldn’t make, and also ignites transition. Offensively, they’ve got the best player in the world in Tom Schreiber, and he’s surrounded by a handful of the best shooters/finishers in the world in Marcus Holman and Will Manny. Add in Bones Kelly at the X and they’re a handful to deal with.
The game was back and forth like our first outing against Atlas. Anyone that has seen Pro lacrosse for the last 20 years can agree, this game is FASTER. A shorter field, closer two-point line and shorter shot clock help. With the new rules, talent level, and all the good goaltenders, scoring in transition is the way to build leads–and keep them–in this league. We ended up losing 10–9, but we learned a lot from this game on our strengths as a group, and more importantly, what to focus on heading into Week 3 in Chicago.
Week III: SeatGeek Stadium (Chicago, Ill.)
Game Day: Redwoods vs. Chaos
As a lifetime Michael Jordan fan, the second we locked Chicago in, I was beyond excited. Coming into this weekend after a loss last weekend, we needed a good start against the Chaos. They play exactly like their name, which makes them nearly impossible to prepare for. They fly up the field in transition and ALL of their poles are capable of shooting from distance. Offensively, they’ve got an unselfish group who feed off the creativity of Connor Fields. Fields was incredible during his career at Albany and I was curious to see if the way he played professionally (in terms of style) would change. What’s impressed me the most about his game at the professional level is that he’s only gotten even more creative, even tougher, and even more productive. He’s a smaller guy but plays a physical style, which is difficult to do at the pro level.
We jumped up to 3–0 in the beginning with Sergio Salcido continuing his hot start with a clean 2-pointer for us out of the box. But, as I said earlier, no lead is safe in this league. Players are too skilled. Goalies are too good. A save, transition goal, faceoff win and a 2-pointer had us heading into halftime down 7–5.
We battled back and we traded goals in the 4th quarter. I’ve struggled shooting the ball these first few games. Goalies have made some saves, I’ve missed some shots, but overall it’s just been a frustrating start for me from a shooting perspective. With five seconds left in the fourth quarter, it was a tie ball game. I catch a pass with an opportunity for a step-down shot. I couldn’t think of a better time to break out of a shooting slump. Game on the line, time running out, this is the stuff you dream of! I step into my shot. It felt great coming out: hard, accurate, and a quick release. All of a sudden Mark Glinici, a short stick defender on the Chaos jumped in front of it about five yards after it left my stick and ate the shot directly in his back. Horn sounded, and we’re headed to OT. I wanted that one badly.
We had our chances but we fell to Chaos 13–12 in OT. Similar to our last loss, the margin of error in this league is so small. From my shot at the end of regulation to potentially win the game to our OT opportunities, if one of those shots goes, we’re 2–1 and feel great heading into Homewood Field next weekend in Baltimore. Instead, we’re 1–2 and desperately need a W.
Week IV: Homewood Field (Baltimore, Md.)
Game Day: Redwoods vs. Chrome
Homewood Field. I’ll say it again. Homewood Field!!!! For those of you that are new to lacrosse, Homewood is THE most historical field in our sport. I was fortunate enough to go to Johns Hopkins University and got to practice there every day for four years. Playing for Coach Pietramala, Coach Tierney, Coach Dwan and their staff was the best decision I could have made for my career. The lessons learned here have set the tone for my professional life both on and off the field. Another fun fact about my career at Hopkins: my class, the senior class of 2005, never lost a game on Homewood Field–four years and not one loss. The thought of having the opportunity to play here again is something I could have never imagined.
As we lined up for the National Anthem, so many memories floated through my head. The overtime thrillers we’d won here during my days as a college player, the playoff victories, the marathon practices that felt like they’d never end, even the first time I stepped on this field for a game my freshman year against Princeton. After the anthem, I spotted my wife and our two little ones near our bench and got to go share a moment with them. Our daughter Brooke has been to a game of mine before, but never at Homewood. Our son Smith has never seen me play live and though he won’t remember much (he’s almost two) having him there for his first game was special. Watching my parents proudly walk around the stadium made brought back so many memories! For four years this was their home, too.
Once the opening whistle blew, it was back to business. We got out to an early start with some incredible plays from Greg Gurenlian at the X and our defense making stops AND scoring in transition. I love watching our defense from the sideline. Garret Epple scored one of the nicest goals I’ve ever seen. From the move before to the actual shot, it was ESPN #1 Top Play worthy. Later Tim (our goalie) made a save, and ran the full field for an assist! It was out of control. Plays like that ignite the crowd and get our entire team going.
It was another back and forth game with multiple lead changes. With John Galloway in the goal and Jordan Wolf at the attack for the Chrome, they’re really never out of a game. Galloway makes difficult saves look easy. Wolf is as tough a cover as they come and can close the gap very quickly. A couple of big plays in the middle of the field, one in particular by rookie Tyler Dunn got us the ball back, and we were able to hold on to a big W at Homewood so we could sit comfortably at 2–2 going into Week 5.
I rarely have time to reflect, but, with us being four weeks into our very first Premier Lacrosse League season, it seems like a good time to take a second. As far as the business goes, I couldn’t be more proud. Almost two years ago I sat down with Paul to talk through his vision and to see where this is now is truly remarkable. Obviously, there are improvements to make, and we’ll continue to learn as we go but the team Mike and Paul have built and the journey thus far has been amazing to be a part of.
I love my team. The Redwoods are as unselfish a group of players as I’ve ever had the opportunity to be around. From our coaching staff to all of the players, it’s a group that relies on each other for success and doesn’t care who gets credit.
Personally, I’ve enjoyed every moment I’ve had the opportunity to be on the field. As one of the older guys in the league, you learn to appreciate everything about the game: the ups, the downs, struggles, the wins and the losses. I’ve been in a bit of a shooting slump since the season started, which certainly hasn’t been ideal. But it’s part of the game. The only way out of the slump is to continue working and shooting.
One thing is for sure. The amount of exposure our sport is getting right now is at an all-time high, and players are more excited and optimistic as they’ve ever been. The best part? We're just getting started.