In Bid For Rare Trilogy of Titles, Will Whipsnakes Be Back to the Future or Hangover? | Inside Lacrosse

In Bid For Rare Trilogy of Titles, Will Whipsnakes Be Back to the Future or Hangover?

Saturday September 18th, 2021 6:30am

Since the day the season began, the Whipsnakes have been saying all the right things: They’re only focusing on the game in front of them, making the right plays, hitting singles, you know how it goes. Staying in the moment and taking matters step by step, the team has managed (at least publicly) to avoid being distracted by the possibility that it could go down in history as the most successful dynasty the field game has ever seen. They’ve carefully avoided counting their chickens before they hatch, but this here’s the internet, and around these parts we stay counting unhatched chickens each and every day, so let’s talk about a Whipsnake three-peat. 

Not to diminish something that relatively few will ever get to experience on any level in their lives, but when it comes to winning championships, two in a row may be great, but it’s certainly not uncommon. By winning the 2019 and ‘20 PLL championships, the Whipsnakes joined teams such as 2015-16 Pittsburgh Penguins and 2017-18 Golden State Warriors among those to go back to back in the past five years alone, and the Tampa Bay Lightning just won their second straight Stanley Cup earlier this summer. 

Winning two in a row is certainly a tremendous accomplishment, but the three-peat is a completely different level of rarified air. Teams will often secure a pair of championships by keeping a dominant core intact for a few years, but by the time the third opportunity rolls around, the wheels start to get a little wobbly and the machine isn’t quite as efficient as it used to be. When you add an army of opponents that have spent two years dreaming of nothing more than your misery, it’s no surprise that that third year can make for especially hazardous terrain. The difficulty in winning three straight championships is similar to the difficulty in making a successful movie trilogy, where more often than not, two good movies are followed by a disappointing effort usually regarded as the worst of the bunch.

Of course, not all movies run out of gas before the finish line, some have three-peats of their own; in that regard, Michael Jordan’s 1995-97 Chicago Bulls are like the Star Wars-level three-peat, both just about as high on the mountain as they can possibly be. They certainly weren’t the first team to accomplish the feat (they weren’t even the first Bulls team to do it), but just like George Lucas’ original trilogy, they were classic game-changers, permeating all throughout the culture like none before. Not only did the Bulls and Star Wars shatter their respective industries’ records for single-season wins and total box office numbers, but they expanded their reach with promotional crossovers the likes of which the world had never seen. Even if basketball and outer space weren’t your thing, you knew the Bulls and you knew Star Wars because there was essentially no way to avoid them while participating in everyday society (For the record, If I were forced to draw parallels between rosters and characters here, I feel like Luc Longley is one of the Ewoks, but we’re already getting way off track). 

As for three-peats in professional lacrosse, the 2012-14 Rochester Knighthawks were a bit different, and were more like your lesser-seen Thor-level trilogy arc. For their first two championships, the Knighthawks finished their regular seasons 7-9 and 8-8, respectively. Not remarkable, but they got the job done, which was clearly what mattered most. Now, as for their third season, aka their Ragnarok year, the Knighthawks stepped up huge, compiling a 14-4 record and finishing the regular season in first place. Interestingly enough, both Thor and the Knighthawks ended up leaving their original locations, altering their appearance beyond recognition and settling down in lovely fishing communities (New Asgard and Halifax), but again, way off track. 

Not only have we never seen a three-peat in the outdoor game, we’ve never even seen a back-to-back winner (of which there have only been two) reach the championship game that third time around. Prior to the Whipsnakes making it to Washington, D.C., this year, the Philadelphia Barrage were the team that came closest to a third straight championship, suffering a 16-15 overtime semifinal loss to the Rochester Rattlers in 2008. The other back-to-back champs, the Chesapeake Bayhawks, finished 5-9 in their third campaign, and they lost as many games in a miserable 2014 season as they did in the previous two combined, which kind of makes it their Home Alone 3. Furthermore, that would make the four-year postseason drought that followed the equivalent of the multiple straight-to-video Home Alone spinoffs, of which I’m not going to waste my time googling exactly how many there were, nor am I going to waste your time asking you to read anything about them.

It all depends on a victorious Sunday, of course, but based on a series of highly complicated technical research, it appears that the 2021 Whipsnakes are currently trending toward a Dark Knight trilogy-level three-peat: The 2019 championship is Batman Begins: Highly anticipated, simultaneously new and familiar, and most of all, featuring the main character triumphing in his hometown with no time to spare. Of course, the 2020 championship is The Dark Knight, an unstoppable juggernaut that kicked down the door and posted record numbers on its way to a flawless victory. Aside from the fact that they’ve ended up in the same place once again, the third installment of their trilogy has been dramatically different for the PLL’s lone champions, who fought their way to the main stage despite finishing the regular season 5-4 with a minus-11 score differential. A Whipsnake victory on Sunday would give their season full Dark Knight Rises status — an overall triumph that, although providing a fitting conclusion (along with the intriguing possibility of running it back yet again), also happened to have some goofy low points that made no sense whatsoever.

Regardless of the obstacles faced along the way, sticking the landing is what matters most, and if the Whipsnakes want their Sunday to be a little more Back to the Future 3 and a lot less Hangover 3, they’ll need to avoid the three main problems that trip up third installments. 

They run out of ideas.

Just like how the audience can spot a franchise phoning it in for a little more cash, it’s easy to spot a team with no plan b, and the Whipsnakes are probably going to need one when it comes to Dhane Smith, one of the few bright spots for Chaos when these teams last met (he recorded two goals and an assist in a 13-7 loss). With six points in each outing, Smith has been an absolute nightmare during the postseason, especially when dodging from behind the goal against a shortstick. If the Whipsnakes’ initial approach works out as well as everyone else’s has been working (i.e., not at all), how will they separate themselves from the pack with a solid backup strategy? Do they completely bypass the idea of sending a short stick? Does a close defender get bumped up to Smith in favor of shorting Chris Cloutier down low? Does Michael Ehrhardt get assigned to follow Smith wherever he goes, and the two of them square up like Godzilla and a slightly larger Godzilla on practically every other possession? Even if they silence Smith, it just means they’ll have to account for someone else who attacks in a completely different manner, because the Chaos offense is like one of those “bad guy following you in a carnival house of mirrors” scenes — you’re aware of the potential danger, and you’re pretty certain you’re about to get punched in the nose, but you’ve got no idea where it’s coming from. 

There’s too many guys just wasting space. 

Like Spider-Man 3 cramming in multiple villains and love interests on its way to becoming the longest and most disliked edition of the series (Note: Assessment based upon Rotten Tomatoes fan score; please don’t @ me on a lovely weekend afternoon to yell about this), one of the easiest ways a third installment can go wrong is by bringing in too many characters who bring relatively little to the table. If you’re going to change up the numbers that got you this far, those new guys better be worth the hassle. 

Chaos coach Andy Towers may be the patron saint of swapping in a bunch of new players and making it all work out, but Whipsnakes coach Jim Stagnitta has incorporated a pair of recent additions in Justin Guterding and Brian Phipps, and they’ve both thrived in their new roles. The Phipps story is a well-documented one by now (second-half savior who steps in the goal to prevent a quarterfinal exit at the hands of the Redwoods), but it should also be noted that the Whipsnake roster is now home to both goalies who won field championships in 2019, which is not only some Marianas-level roster depth, but a testament to Stagnitta never believing that his team’s composition couldn’t somehow be improved. As for Guterding, his contributions have been far less in-your-face, but his incorporation has been beneficial as well; he’s shooting less yet scoring more, and generally fitting in as a complementary piece of the puzzle.    

As a bonus, Guterding has traditionally fared very well against the Chaos defense, racking up 13 points in four games against Blaze Riorden’s squad. Guterding could be the one of Sunday’s leading scorers, or he could be the guy who keeps the ball moving and sets up the guy who sets up the other guy, and neither role would be all that surprising. 

They don’t level up.

While the original Mighty Ducks movie culminates in a peewee hockey game, and D2 an international competition, the big showdown in the far less successful D3 is basically a JV-Varsity scrimmage at their new private school, which is a pretty substantial dropoff after battling Team Iceland a few years prior. You can’t lose your intensity in the final installment; you’ve got to crank up the difficulty setting and make things a little more interesting. It’s the reason why Ocean’s 13 featured the biggest heist of them all, Dark Knight Rises featured an active nuclear bomb, and War for the Planet of the Apes featured, well, a war for the planet of the apes: The stakes should be highest the third time around, and the PLL is no exception. 

The Whipsnakes won’t be facing Riorden this Sunday, they’ll be facing league MVP Blaze Riorden, who just joined Greg Cattrano as the only goalies to win the award. Cattrano capped off his MVP season by winning his first championship (he defeated the team that beat him the year before, mind you), and this Sunday, Riorden looks to do the same. 

Furthermore, with as many clutch victories as we’ve seen during the Whipsnakes’ run, they’re facing a team that now features Chris Cloutier and CJ Costabile, and not only are they two of the biggest overtime legends around, but they, along with Max Adler, bring professional championship rings to the table as well. This isn’t the same team that lost the 2020 championship, and it’s not even the one that lost to the Whipsnakes earlier this season — if the Whipsnakes show up expecting a JV opponent, they’ll be sorely mistaken and quickly corrected.  

No matter who raises the trophy this Sunday at Audi Field, immortality awaits the victor: Either the Whipsnakes assemble the game’s first three-peat, or Chaos becomes the first team to derail them. Should the former take place, the story will be one of a team that staved off complacency, continued to adapt, thrived with new members, and overcame a series of new challenges throughout the season to defend its title for a second time. Cinematically speaking, while the Whipsnake three-peat would be more Dark Knight trilogy as a whole, it’d be only appropriate that the bonus Sunday matinee would be the third installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy: The Return of the King.

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