By Matthew De George
For Phillylacrosse.com, Posted 9/18/22
No one on the field at Subaru Park Sunday afternoon for the Premier Lacrosse League final had more eyes on them than Michael Sowers.
From his purple No. 22 Waterdogs jerseys dotting the crowd to the 157 family and friends he secured tickets for to the Upper Dublin grad’s status as one of the game’s most electric attackmen, Sowers was squarely in the spotlight.
Ever the master orchestrator, Sowers’s job is all about knowing when to pull the strings and when to pull back. Sunday, he struck that balance masterfully.
Sowers won finals MVP honors with two goals and an assist. But in not trying to do too much, he let the team around him shine as the Waterdogs claimed their first PLL title, 11-9 over reigning champ Chaos.
Sowers, recovering from a lower-body injury, probably wasn’t quite at the 100 percent that he deemed himself on Friday. But mentally, he was locked in, ensuring the moment didn’t get too big for him.
“I think it’s hard because you definitely want to do everything you can to make the people in the stands proud,” said Sowers, the former Princeton and Duke standout. “But at the same time, you’ve got a championship to win.
“I think we’ve got great veteran leaders. We just have to follow in line with those guys and they lead the way.”
Sowers nearly had the dream start, firing a shot 16 seconds in that Blaze Riorden, last year’s league MVP, kicked away. Sowers scored by the end of the period, leaping to snare a rebound and finish it before he landed.
Sowers dished from his office behind the cage to Ryan Conrad for a goal midway through the second to tie it the game at 4, wiping away Chaos leads of 3-0 and 4-1. As the shot clock ran down with 9:43 left in the third, he snuck a left-handed shot past Riorden to make it 7-5.
That goal was part of the day’s decisive run, Waterdogs scoring eight of nine goals for a 9-5 edge.
Sowers made sure everyone on the Waterdogs attack got involved. Kieran McArdle tallied two goals and two assists. Ryan Conrad potted a hat trick from midfield, and Connor Kelly added two goals. Jack Hannah had a bar-down snipe on the run to make it 9-5.
“I think me and Kieran on the offensive end, we get a lot of hype and press,” Sowers said. “But at the same time, it’s a group effort. Anybody at any moment can step up and make a play, and that’s what you saw.
“At the beginning of that second half, Conrad makes a play, Jack Hannah makes a play, Connor Kelly – who probably is the most clutch guy and for my money is the midfielder of the year with Zach Currier – they make plays. We have such a solid team, and at this level of the game, that’s what you need.”
Sowers, though, is the focal point. And his ability to withstand pressure, in its many forms, makes the Waterdogs go.
“You come out of Duke and there’s a lot of cameras in your face, and he just handles it well,” McArdle said. “He keeps his poise, he keeps his calm, he doesn’t try to do too much, but at the same time, he does a ton for our team. He’s the ball-carrier, he’s drawing the No. 1 defenseman, and he’s pulling out each time. Some of the plays he makes, I wish I could move like that. It’s pretty impressive.
“Mikey is going to be a successful pro for a long time, lucky enough to be his linemate.”
“He’s one of the best lacrosse players in the world, no doubt about it,” Waterdogs coach Andy Copelan said. “I think everyone understands that he wasn’t at 100 percent last week.
“Anyone who knows Michael knows how diligent he is about putting the work in and taking care of his body. He put himself in a position, he was probably closer to 100 percent than I think anyone maybe gave him credit for, but he knew his limitations today and just kept it simple and is just a great all-around teammate and force. He’s in his second year. This kid has a huge professional future.”
Chaos started fast, its Canadian influence shining through via Josh Byrne, who scored twice. Matt Rees added two goals, one a two-pointer that got them within 9-7 late in the third. Kyle Jackson’s goal narrowed the deficit to 9-8 late in the third.
Ethan Walker went 5-hole to nudge Waterdogs ahead 10-8, though Chris Cloutier got one back for Chaos with 8:46 left. That would be all of the scoring for seventh seed, trying to complete a Cinderella run to its second straight title after a 2-8 regular season.
Kelly tacked on an insurance tally with 4:18 left, a sublime hesitation move after a power play expired. That was more than enough for the Waterdogs defense. Dillon Ward made 13 saves, and Chris Sabia (Haverford School/Penn State) helped clamp down for an unselfish defensive unit.
“It builds and builds,” Sabia said. “We talk about five minutes at a time, and that’s what we were doing. It’s unbelievable.”
For an expansion team started in the league’s second season, the Waterdogs’ journey has seemed long. They earned the top seed in the 2021 regular season but were upset by the fifth-seeded Whipsnakes at Subaru Park in the semis.
As the five seed this year, they turned the tables, dumping out the Whips in the semis. Sunday, Sowers and company were determined to finish the deal.
“Just to be in my hometown of Philly, have everybody here, it really is crazy,” Sowers said. “Obviously we started slow, we had injuries along the way and to somehow find a way to win it is crazy.”