No lead is safe in professional sports. That saying is especially true in pro lacrosse. Whipsnakes LC head coach Jim Stagnitta experienced that firsthand in last September’s PLL Championship game. He watched as a 9-2 Whipsnakes lead with a little over two minutes remaining in the third quarter turned into a 10-10 tie late in the fourth quarter.
“If I had my choice, I would have kept the lead and it would have been a lot less stressful for all of us,” Stagnitta said. “Every game this year in the league felt like a college playoff game. There was an intensity to it, and a stress level to it—a ‘never feel safe’ type of scenario. So I think that that prepared for us for the playoffs,” Stagnitta said.
For Jim Stagnitta, a long time coach on the college and professional level, this was the first time that he had won the proverbial and literal final game of the season. “I’ve done this a long time, I’ve been in final fours, I’ve been in league championships and have never come away with the championship,” said Stagnitta.
As a first time champion, Stagnitta said he was eager to soak in the feeling of coming away a champion.
“I was going to take this, I was going to embrace it and enjoy it,” Stagnitta said. “I let this one kind of marinate a little bit compared to what I might have done when I was younger,” he added. As for his players, Stagnitta says they properly enjoyed their championship moment. “Some of them were lucky to get out of bed in the morning.”
The PLL recently announced it is delaying the start of its season, but that hasn’t stopped Stagnitta and his staff from preparing to defend their title.
“Now we’re back to work, trying to make sure we put our team in the best situation, and make sure we have a roster that yields the best opportunity to win every weekend.”
As the Whipsnakes prepare to defend their title, they’ll do so with a roster that looks quite a bit different than the one that hoisted the cup in Philadelphia in 2019. While most of the core remains intact, the Whipsnakes lost a league high four players in the PLL Expansion Draft, and added two more via the PLL Entry Draft.
When it came to deciding which players Stagnitta would leave unprotected, he says his decisions were not based on which players he felt comfortable losing, but rather by looking ahead and seeing where an opportunity existed to replace the players he left unprotected. “There was no decision that was easy. We were very deliberate in our approach. We did a lot of research, where is the most depth; where, if we do lose some people, can we make up for it,” Stagnitta said.
Among the Whipsnakes’ protected players were four defensemen, more than any other team protected in the league. Stagnitta says this was a result of preparation his team did leading up to the draft.
“What makeup of teams led to the most success. When we did all that homework, and we did all that evaluation, the teams that had the strongest and most consistent defense were the teams that were always in it. You could say the two teams that were in the championship last year had the two best defenses in the league,” said Stagnitta. “We felt like it would be most difficult for us to replace our defenders. We had to make a decision and we went with that side of the field,” he added.
The Whipsnakes lost two midfielders and two attackmen in the draft, but Coach Stagnitta feels the players he added via the entry draft will do their part to help fill the hole left by the Expansion draft. When it comes to Zed Williams, Stagnitta envisions him playing all over the field for the Whipsnakes.
“We had one ball and we got really lucky and it came up five. That saved us. It gave us somebody who fits our team well, and replaces maybe two of our losses. Zed can play attack and midfield,” said Stagnitta.
Much like Williams, the Whipsnakes picked up another versatile midfielder with their second pick in the Entry Draft, selecting TJ Comizio. “TJ is a dynamic two-way guy,” said Stagnitta. “To have middies that can play attack, and to have short stick middies that can play offense, the flexibility is really something that we focused on this time around,” he added.
Another challenge for Stagnitta and his staff is the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 PLL college draft, which has been delayed to mid-May. While the COVID-19 pandemic has thrown a wrench into the plans of the league and coaches, Stagnitta insists that he will be ready for whatever form the draft ends up taking.
“We always have a running list of players,” said Stagnitta about how the possibility of returning seniors effects his draft plans. He says him and his staff are always updating the list of potential players, and also says that the entry draft helped teams be more confident.
“The fact that we did have an entry draft helps. The league was able to pick up a couple players there. The rest of it is—well, college coaches have a lot of decisions to make,” said Stagnitta. “We’re at the whim of the college coaches and what they’re able to do for their fifth year guys. We’re at the whim of the economy, as well,” he added.
Even with so much uncertainty, Stagnitta has remained focused on preparing his players for the 2020 season in whatever form it may take. Stagnitta feels like with an offense very much focused on being free flowing and allowing players to play with each other, that working in the new additions to the offense shouldn’t be a problem.
“The thing we try to do is put my guys in positions where they’re comfortable, and then let them play. Very little of what we do is scripted,” said Stagnitta. He feels the simplicity of the offense makes it easy for new players like Zed Williams and Brad Smith to settle into the offense.
“I feel like I have a solid defense, I have very good short stick d-middies, I have two very good attackmen, the midfield we have Channy, we have Brad or Zed,” said Stagnitta talking about the versatility his existing roster provides him.
Stagnitta emphasizes that the team’s culture is what will help them avoid a letdown in 2020. “We started with the conversation, why is it so difficult to maintain success? Why is it easier to win a championship than to stay there?” said Stagnitta.
“That is a culture piece, it’s how you approach it every single day. One of the biggest downfalls of teams that win a championship is the next season they’re focused on winning a championship and that’s not our focus. Our focus is going to be on winning a game every Saturday or Sunday throughout the season. You’ve gotta win games to be one of the teams in the playoffs,” said Stagnitta. “Stay focused on what we can control; we’re focusing on the process and being prepared every weekend.”