On Saturday, April 15, 2023, Panther City Lacrosse Cub clinched their first NLL playoff berth franchise history. Their celebration, if you would even call it that, lasted all of two seconds.
It took a furious flurry of goals in the final frame of their last game against the Vancouver Warriors. Still, Panther City was able to walk away from that battle having secured arguably the most significant win in the franchise’s two-year history. However, despite the historic nature of this particular win, the team treated it similarly to any other triumph, according to the team’s Captain, Matt Hossack.
“It wasn’t too much different than any other week,” Hossack said. “We do celebrate our wins, but come Sunday or Monday, we’re back to focusing on the next game.”
For a younger, newer franchise in this league, that’s a great mindset to have, but let us not downplay the gravity of this moment. This is a team that was built during the COVID-years, the expansion team announced on July 22, 2020 and Expansion Draft held on June 29, 2021. General Manager Bob Hamley and the rest of the front office staff, the scouting team, and the coaching staff led by Head Coach Tracey Kelusky had to navigate through unprecedented times to try and give the city of Fort Worth, Texas, a team that they could be proud of.
In their inaugural year, headlining veteran names such as Ryan Benesch (who was only part of the team for three games), Jeremy Thompson, and Matt Hossack were joined by a bevy of rookies and other youngsters who were still finding their way. Unfortunately, that group of guys struggled mightily to find the winning way in the early goings – the team started 0-4 and then finished the first half of the season at 1-8.
Since that 1-8 abysmal start to their experiment in Fort Worth, the team has been one of the winningest performers in the West Conference – they’ve gone 16-10 since their first nine games. For the handful of players that have been with this squad since the beginning, it’s pretty surreal to know PCLC will be starring in the playoffs after how things started.
“It feels really good for us,” Hossack said. “At points last year, it definitely felt like we were in a pretty dark place – we had an 0-6 start. But I think understanding where we were last year and how that felt, it certainly means a lot to get to this point. In some instances, making the playoffs is a measurement of our success – it certainly is in professional sports. Seeing where we were last year to where we are now, it’s come full circle, and it feels like a big step for our group.”
Head Coach Kelusky, winner of the Les Bartley Award for Coach of the Year last season, shared similar thoughts. He gave further insight into how his teams have mentally approached their games over the past two seasons. His message to the guys before and after the game in Vancouver gives you a good taste of how Kelusky believes that this team’s story for this season is still being written.
“It’s been a whirlwind, that’s for sure,” Kelusky said. “But, I think ultimately, when you look at it – I had a pretty good chance to reflect this past week – part of our messaging to the boys ahead of the game in Vancouver was, ‘in order to get to where you want to get to, you have to understand where you came from.’ A big part of what we talked about on Saturday night was about this whole process, including all the hard work we’ve put in – none more than Bob Hamley, our coaching staff, and down to the scouting people last year.”
“We knew who we were from the get-go,” Kelusky said. “We were a bunch of guys that weren’t the best players on their team that we went out and picked. Another one of the things we said from day one was, ‘We’re going to live and learn. We’re going to learn every time we take the floor.’”
When you talk to Coach Kelusky, you quickly realize that he is a man guided by his values and principles. He thinks about this game on many levels, which has made him successful as a player and a coach. One of the main lessons he wanted to impart to this group was how they could take ownership of their play on the floor.
“I wanted to empower these guys and make this their team,” Kelusky said. “As much as this is Bob’s team or Greg Bibb’s team or the city of Fort Worth’s team, which it is, these guys need to take ownership of this team and make it theirs. That was really the message from day one with this group.”
This was something they learned the hard way last season through all of their struggles. There were a handful of games last season where things got entirely away from Panther City. In losses with a narrower margin, or even some wins for that matter, when the opposition got on a roll, PCLC didn’t have many answers to stop teams in their tracks.
This season that is much less the case. You can look at the fact that Panther City has avoided lengthy losing streaks this year as a prime example of that. Last season the team had two four-game losing streaks. Other than their early-season three-game skid this year, they have not had multiple losses in a row.
Diving deeper into the numbers, Panther City has become a much more dangerous team in the second half this season compared to last season. Last season, PCLC had a combined goal differential of -51 in the final 30 minutes of play. This season, they’ve flipped that number on its head; they have a second half goal differential of +24. Being able to absorb punches and follow up with a counterattack has given this team a grit they didn’t have much of last year.
“We learned how to punch back last year,” Kelusky said. “We learned to not just be satisfied to be playing in the National Lacrosse League – that’s been a big part of our messaging from day one. In order to tell our story, though, we need to do more. Each and every one of these guys needs to do more and provide us with more.”
By providing the tools and wisdom for each of the players to feel empowered, they’ve learned how to work better as a complete unit. After all, the whole is only as good as the sum of the parts. Now this isn’t to say that there aren’t remarkable men tasked with being leaders of this group. Kelusky noted that guys like Hossack and Chad Cummings have excelled in their roles as leaders of this group.
“Matt Hossack, he was an assistant captain with us last year, he is a guy that can transfer messages from myself to the referees,” Kelusky said. “But, everyone has taken on some sort of leadership role throughout the course of it all. I’ll go back to Cummer [Chad Cummings], who was our initial captain. He was the best and was one of the best guys in creating a locker room where losing is unacceptable. He played for the right reasons and played with a we-mentality instead of a me-mentality. But again, everyone who has put on a jersey for us has been a leader somehow.”
When you’re tasked with leading a large group of men into battle, getting everyone on the same page can be challenging. It can be even more formidable when the team you’re tasked with leading needs to be formed from unfamiliar faces but also undergoes many changes in a short time.
“It can be difficult with that sort of energy and the type of feeling in the locker room where you don’t feel familiar with everybody,” Hossack said. “It comes down to the people in the locker room and how guys treat each other. Week-in and week-out, guys are excited to be in our locker room. Part of making success is making things fun.”
Fun is a relative term. In this case, fun does not include letting loose and relaxing. In this case, it’s more about finding ways to relieve stress if the pressure of playing win-or-go-home games becomes too overwhelming.
Friday night’s game versus Calgary (8:30pm ET, ESPN+/TSN+), which is Panther City’s last game of the regular season, won’t feel very fun, although it will be heartwarming because friends and family will be in attendance for Fan Appreciation Night in Fort Worth. Panther City will be battling the Calgary Roughnecks. And, with how things look right now in the standings, these two West Conference rivals will likely be facing off in the Quarterfinals of the NLL playoffs.
The last time these two clubs met a couple of weeks ago, Calgary won handily 12-5. This weekend, if Calgary wins again, they’ll sweep the two-game series and have bragging rights heading into the postseason.
That is something that Coach Kelusky and his staff very much want to avoid. It will be important for PCLC to learn from their mistakes in the last outing if they want to right the ship and end their regular season on a high note. This team’s 10-7 record proves they are better than the 12-5 scoreline suggested.
“We said from day one, ‘We’ve got to be better than the last time we played,’” Kelusky said. “I think the guys have accepted that, and we’ve certainly learned some lessons along the way, and we’re going to continue to learn. If you ever stop learning in this league, you’ll be in a whole heap of trouble.”
“I’m thrilled with our progress, but am I completely content? No,” Kelusky said. “There’s a ton of lows here for our group still. I think we’re just scratching the surface, and I think that they’re starting to realize that as well.”