Since entering the league as an expansion team before the 2018-19 NLL season, the San Diego Seals have tried to send a clear message to the rest of the league: “Just because we’ve recently been labeled as ‘an expansion team’ and are in only our third NLL season as an organization, don’t expect us to play that way.”
In their first season, the Seals finished 2nd in the Western Conference with a winning record of 10-8, and before the COVID-shortened season was canceled in March of 2020, the team was on pace to finish 9-9. This season, they are off to their best start in franchise history, going 5-1 in their first six games, which puts them on track to finish the year 15-3.
If the Seals finish with a non-losing record again, they would be the first expansion team to start their first three years in the league with a non-losing record since the Boston Blazers who did it from 2009 through 2011. If they managed to finish 15-3, that would be the best record achieved in the NLL since the 2014 Edmonton Rush, who went 16-2.
So, how have the Seals been able to be so successful so quickly, particularly this season? Dane Dobbie, while only in his first season with the club, believes that not only have the guys picked each other up when things aren’t working as planned, but also that no one thinks they are better or deserves more than the guy beside him.
“We’ve won games in all different kinds of ways,” Dobbie said. “We’ve been battling through, and certainly, whatever it takes to win the game, that’s what we’ve been able to do. Sometimes your offense isn’t there, sometimes your defense isn’t there, but at the end of the day, we’re still getting the win.”
Having that mentality of wanting to work together and play unselfishly doesn’t just happen overnight or develop out of thin air; it requires effort. One of the Seals’ promising young rookies, Tre Leclaire, mentioned that while this group was particularly keen to gel as a unit, the weeks of training camp allowed them to put it all together.
“We came into training camp, and I think we all bonded very quickly,” Leclair said. “I haven’t been on many teams where that has happened. There’s no ego on this team; we play a very unselfish game. Each guy knows his role and he’s fulfilling that every game.”
Unselfishness has been one of the keys to this team’s success. Offensively through six games, the Seals have three players with 30+ points – that’s the 2nd-most players to reach that mark only behind the Philadelphia Wings four players, but the Wings have played nine games. Defensively, they have the lowest goal per game against average in the entire league at 9.50 a game.
When everyone is on the same page and doing their best to fulfill the ultimate goal – in this case, winning games – it’s hard to stop that momentum. But this season hasn’t gone as smoothly as the team’s record is suggesting.
Notable players such as Austin Staats, Brodie Merrill, Cameron Holding, Zack Greer, and others have all been sidelined by injuries or COVID at one point or another this season. And that’s before even mentioning the goaltending situation, which put Frank Scigliano out for a couple of games due to COVID, forcing two rookie goaltenders (Justin Geddie and Christopher Origlieri) to make their NLL debuts in between the pipes on short notice – it can not be overstated how impressive their two starts were.
As Leclaire noted, the team has fallen behind in games and had to claw their way back, and they’ve blown leads. But, as he said, aside from the season-opening one-goal loss to the Vancouver Warriors, the Seals have always found a way to come out with a win.
“The first four or five games, we faced a lot of adversity,” Leclair said. “We haven’t had many leads coming out hot in the first period; we’ve had to battle back from four-goal deficits. I just think this team has grown so much since our first game. All of that will help us in the long run.”
The wins like the ones this team has earned this year show the lacrosse world this team’s true character. Head Coach Patrick Merrill praised his fellow coaches and his veteran leaders for instilling a positive, never-give-in attitude to the team. Whether young or old or experienced or inexperienced, the values of handwork, being a good teammate, and others are very present in this team.
“In this league, you have to be resilient and be able to adapt,” Merrill said. “We just feel like we have really strong leadership core that has helped us, along with our coaching staff of [Bill] Greer and Josh Sanderson – they’ve done a really good job to be ready to face some adversity. Overall, our leadership core is getting everyone very devoted to the process and is devoted to each other.”
With one-third of the season in the rear-view mirror, the Seals are sitting in a comfortable position tied atop the Western Conference to work their way into a decent playoff position. Yet, Dobbie, who has been in this league for over a decade, knows all too well that this 5-1 start doesn’t ensure that the team will have the same results as the first part of the year.
“It’s important that we’re peaking at the right time,” Dobbie said. “I’ve been part of a lot of seasons in this league where it’s all sunshine and rainbows, and then wham you’re done, or I’ve played a lot of seasons where it’s really bad, and then it turns. So, we’ve got to ride the ups and the downs, wait it out and try to stay as consistent as possible by worrying only about what’s right in front of you and not what’s behind you.”
Head Coach Merrill echoed similar thoughts. What’s essential, he says, is focusing on the goals for the week ahead of them by learning and correcting when they could’ve done better in the week’s past, and that’s it.
“We didn’t come out of our last bye-week the way that we had hoped we would,” Merrill said. “We felt we were a little flat after that time off, and because of that, we put ourselves in a really tough position against Calgary. Our focus this week was to use the bye-week wisely and make sure that we are as prepared and as hungry as we can be on Saturday night.”
The Seals will get a taste of Texas as they head into Fort Worth for the first time to take on Panther City this weekend. If the team’s results so far this season indicate what to expect from the Seals this weekend and for the remainder of the year, that warning issued by Merrill is the cherry on top of the cake.
This was not a typical expansion team, and this is not a typical third-year organization. This group of men, through a mix of varying talents and experience, are forcing us to think of them as what they truly are: NLL Cup contenders.