In the first half of the 2022 NLL season, Panther City Lacrosse Club looked more like the hunted than the hunter.
Now, heading into the final stretch of this season, the league’s newest expansion club is playing up to the ferociously dominant way their namesake would suggest. Even more frightening, this group of apex predators has no plans to stop being on the prowl until their ultimate mission is complete.
Heading into their Week 19 matchup with one of their West Conference rivals, the Calgary Roughnecks, Panther City is riding a five-game win streak and is currently in a position to qualify for the playoffs. This comes after the young franchise had endured a 1-8 start in their first nine games, which included two four-game losing streaks. The team had a bye in Week 18.
Yet, despite their successful stretch of wins, Panther City defensemen Liam Byrnes explained that this team can’t come into their game this weekend unprepared and unenthusiastic. The last time Panther City had a week off, it was after their first win of the season – one of those mentioned above four-game losing streaks succeeded it.
“The biggest thing after our last win versus Colorado was that Coach [Kelusky] told us to rest the body, but make sure we’re still disciplined with the workouts and pounding the pavement,” Byrnes said. “He said we need to get to the gym and keep working, so we don’t have another four-game slide.”
Byrnes indicated that during this bye week, the team is in better spirits due to their lengthy winning streak and that the team is more focused on preparing for this game than after their first win of the season. That has included studying film and participating in Zoom calls with the coaching staff.
In a league with an incredible amount of parity, taking every moment to perfect the details of the game plan is paramount to a team’s success. As Panther City Head Coach Tracey Kelusky stated, buying into the game plan and building unbreakable chemistry with your teammates have been a couple of the reasons this young team has begun to thrive.
“It’s the minute details – I know I told [Assistant Coaches Steve Toll and Dan Teat], guys who are exceptional minds in this game, to focus on breaking down why we weren’t having success,” Kelusky said. “But, a lot of that has to do with us getting to know one another, understanding where guys are, knowing their tendencies, and just feeling comfortable with each other.”
Emotionally, it has benefited this young team to have endured such significant levels of losing before feeling the highs of winning. Because of that, they’ve learned how bad it feels to be continuously losing.
Also because of that, the team’s leading scorer Patrick Dodds and the rest of his teammates know how badly they don’t want want to feel those losing feelings again. They understand that they need to continue riding this winning momentum through their final four games and into the postseason.
“It’s a good time of the year to be working our way up [the standings], that’s for sure,” Dodds said. “The last few weeks, we’ve been playing well, and we’ve been coming out on top. In these last few weeks of this season, we’re going to go out there and give it our best and see what we can do.”
To say that Panther City has come a long way this season would be an understatement. To go from having one of the worst records halfway through their season in the league to currently fighting for a playoff spot is no small feat.
Furthermore, on Saturday, Panther City has a chance to extend its winning streak to six games. This would be tied for the second-longest winning streak in NLL History by an expansion franchise. Only the 2002 Vancouver Ravens won more games in a row – they won seven straight games that year.
But, what this team has had to overcome as an expansion team began long before the team’s first game in the 2021-22 NLL season. Panther City General Manager Bob Hamley outlined many of the trials and tribulations this team had to face as they were trying to construct a brand new team in a market that was unfamiliar with box lacrosse, all while battling the circumstances set by the COVID pandemic.
“It was a challenge in our expansion year, so we couldn’t go see live games,” Hamley said. “We had to rely on video and our scouts. Kyle Goundrey does a great job for us in the west. Ken Watson does a great job for us in the east. Our Director of Player Personnel, Jordan Cornfield, I think watches more video than all of us put together. Then we’ve got John Grant Jr. as our U.S. scout, so we’ve got an amazing staff, and we feel very fortunate to have all of them.”
As Hamley just explained, it has taken a village of high-lacrosse IQ minds who understand how to lead and teach young men to craft this team. With their destiny in their hands now, Panther City has the potential to become only the 5th expansion team in NLL history to make the postseason in their first year in the league.
All of these accomplishments, all of the potential history that could be made, are all just footnotes in a story that is yet to be completed. Kelusky and his coaching staff have had a goal to make the postseason to prove doubters wrong, but right now, in his mind, they are still in a position they do not want to be in.
“As a team and as an organization, it’s certainly exciting to see our growth,” Kelusky said. “But, we have to be realistic with what we’ve accomplished. We’re chasing a playoff spot, and that’s all that really matters. I don’t care about the five-game win streak, and the good thing is that I don’t think our guys do either. Being content is basically the same thing as being complacent. I’m not content. How could we be content when we’re under .500. Be your best – I don’t think we’ve played our best yet.”
No one in this Panther City organization is content with what they’ve accomplished thus far. They are hungry for more, and it seems as though the only ones that can stop them are themselves.