Building an expansion team always presents new challenges. Starting from scratch, though, has some benefits as well.
Panther City Lacrosse Club’s first ever head coach Tracey Kelusky (NLL Hall of Fame Class of 2016, 823 career points as a player) is taking on his first head coaching role in a particularly tough time to build a new team. Covid restrictions have made it tougher to scout and project talent, with two NLL seasons compromised and junior and college seasons disrupted as well.
Given the abundance of talent in the NLL and knocking on the door to become NLLers, he has hope Panther City can build from the ground up without much of a setback.
“I think we (the NLL) has to be careful with that, that whole expansion, and how quickly and fast we want to do it,” he said. “That said, I think there’s tons of talent up there, in particular I think more Americans are being drawn to our game.”
Kelusky, who has been involved with the NLL in some capacity for 20 years, most recently was the offensive coordinator with the Philadelphia Wings, before, a stint as an assistant with the New England Black Wolves.
He has a history with new clubs dating back to the early 2000s. Kelusky was a member of the first-year Columbus Landsharks in 2001, joining the expansion Montreal Express in 2002 before settling in with a young Calgary franchise for the prime of his career.
Coaching a new team who has not played together is an entirely different animal, though, especially when it’s more challenging than ever to scout and build a team during a pandemic.
“The last time we’ve seen these guys play was a year and a half, two years ago,” said Kelusky. “We’re gonna do our due diligence of watching film and scouting. I’m really just trying to identify again the best available guys that we think fit the bill.”
A new franchise is a clean slate as well, so it’s different than a typical first head coaching gig. Instead of inheriting what was left behind, it’s an opportunity to build from day one from a specific vision.
Kelusky, along with veteran general manager Bob Hamely and newly named assistant coach Dan Teat, already have a vision in mind. Success and failures of past expansion clubs — including the current teams in San Diego, Rochester, Philadelphia and New York — also give a blueprint.
No one is sharing secrets, Kelusky noted, but there’s something to be said about all the data from these previous expansion franchises right in front of Panther City, looking to take a shape of its own.
“Bob has been a part of that as a coach and general manager with the Arizona franchise (in 2007),” said Kelusky. “I was certainly a part of it with Philadelphia’s resurgence. As far as that process went, you learn from what’s successful and not successful… We don’t get any mulligans on this.”
Panther City isn’t the first time Texas has had pro lacrosse — the Dallas Rattlers made that mark with MLL half a decade ago with decent success — but they are the first attempt at the pro indoor game in Texas.
The league has found more success in untraditional markets in recent years, such as San Diego, but it’s still a deviation of the norm for a league that has been marked by franchises in Canada and the north.
It’s not too tough to convince players to come to San Diego, but Fort Worth is off the beaten track of the indoor game.
That, in some ways, can also make the opportunity in this market more attractive, building something not only entirely new on the floor and as a culture, but in a space that had been yet to be tested.
“We want to do this right from the start,” said Teat at his introductory press conference. “I think the best way to do that is to put our heads together and we find those guys who really gel and have key character components in our room so it’s gonna be a mixed bag, but they’re all gonna have that same idea of culture and character.”
Panther City marks the 14th team in the league, giving more athletes the opportunity to earn roster spots but it adds another challenge in scouting and coaching more players who are newer to the indoor game; especially in a spot like Fort Worth.
Kelusky doesn’t take the challenge lightly. It’s not the easiest first head coaching role, but that’s not what he asked for, either; he wants the chance to make history, something he’s been doing since his playing days in the NLL.
“Being a part of the league for a long time, even when I was playing, I was like, ‘oh, I’m a pioneer,’” he said. “We’re trying to get this to the next level. And for whatever reason we seemed to be kind of stuck, and we finally have now… a vision (in the league). Expansion is good.”
Panther City Lacrosse is scheduled to make their team debut this fall during the NLL’s 2021-22 season. An expansion draft is scheduled to happen at a date to be announced in late summer or early fall. Follow @NLL on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for all updates and news.