“America loves speed. Hot, nasty, badass speed”- Ricky Bobby, Talladega Nights.
If you want your defense to be feared in today’s NLL, you must have copious amounts of size and speed coming out the back door.
Over the past 35 years, the balance of professional box lacrosse has been high-scoring offenses mixed with big, mean, physical defenders. In the last decade or so, the slow-footed defender has been replaced by hyper-athletic hybrid models that combine speed with tenacity.
This transition has not only seen a much more aggressive defensive style take over the league, but it’s also sped up the entire flow of the game.
The West Division has often been the leader of this new strategy of speed; the Seals are no different. San Diego prides themselves on playing fast and physical in all aspects of their game, especially in their own d-zone. The confidence in Frank Scigliano between the pipes allows the defense to extend out, get in the hands of shooters, and play their defensive style.
And while he may not have the top-end speed of his early days in the NLL, the Seals are led by the future Hall of Famer, Brodie Merrill.
Entering his 16th season, Merrill is the all-time leader in loose-balls and will look to add to those numbers as he continues his quest for this first-ever NLL Championship. Merrill is the consummate leader on the floor and in the locker room. Everyone follows his lead and his actions. He’s adjusted his game over the years but is still as dominant as ever when patrolling the floor.
Older brother and head coach Patrick Merrill knows the importance Brodie brings to the floor each and every night. “He takes pressure off of the younger players by having their backs and almost always being in the right position directing traffic,” said Patrick. Adding that his mere presence allows his teammates to “play more freely and aggressively knowing that he’s out there battling with them.”
Cam Holding, co-pilot on the defensive end, found a bit of Brodie’s magic elixir and has rejuvenated himself after a devastating knee injury four years ago. Holding can play on the outer perimeter of the defensive zone just as well as he can match up 1-on-1 down low on the crease. His calm demeanor and veteran leadership are an essential part of keeping this unit in check.
These two war-horses lead the way out the back gate and behind them is a bounty of youthful exuberance and speed led by the likes of Tor Reinholdt, Drew Belgrave, Eli Gobrecht and Matt Sykes.
All four have the green light to run the floor, and if they can chip in a couple goals per game, it will definitely help provide those much-needed mid-game sparks. Patrick Merrill expects these men to play a much larger role than in previous years.
“Our young core of defenders have the potential to be very strong. We have a great mix of speed, size and physicality.”
Reinholdt is the more experienced of this foursome and will again be a pivotal piece of the defensive puzzle. He brings championship experience and many years in the trenches battling it out for a steady roster spot that he has finally found with the Seals. He’s a quiet leader but speaks loudly with big hits and momentum-shifting plays.
Belgrave, much like Reinholdt, has blossomed under the guise of HC Patrick Merrill and his blazing speed has allowed him to become an everyday pro player. His explosiveness up and down the floor is his most significant asset, and he’s constantly creating turnovers with his in-your-face style of play. If he can find a scorer’s touch in transition, he could have a break-out season, and that would be a massive catalyst for the Seals, who are big advocates of running the floor.
Sykes and Gobrecht broke into the league during the shortened 2020 season, and if they can contribute regularly, they too will have outstanding seasons. This summer, Sykes got in some much-needed lacrosse and will be expected to come into camp ready to take his game to the next level. Gobrecht was just as active as Sykes, playing in the PLL during the summer. Undrafted out of D3 Ithaca, Gobrecht finally earned his stripes with the Seals and has become one of the better American-born defenders in the league.
After giving up his #44 to the incoming Dane Dobbie, Graydon Bradley will wear #4 this year, but that isn’t expected to change the way he plays. The 6-4, 220-pound defender was a second round pick by the Seals, and after seeing little action during his rookie season, he burst onto the scene during 2020 and all signs point to him playing, even more, this year. His combination of speed and size allows him to be very active on the defensive side of the ball.
Fellow energy guys Mark Glinici and Oliver Bolsterli will look to earn more minutes this season. Glicini played in five games back in 2020 and his level of compete is infectious. He’s still learning the nuances of the box defense but is eager to show that he can excel within this group. Bolsterli is still a young prospect that saw three games before the season was halted. He has all the intangibles for the pro game, but some more fine-tuning during camp and the early part of the season will allow him to find his role.
Finding a role is exactly what Tyler Garrison will try and do this year in San Diego. Having not played in the NLL since 2018, there could be some rust on Garrison’s game. But, if he’s fully healthy and in shape, there’s no doubt the former 11th overall pick back in 2012 can find the game that saw him put up 42 points in his first 48 games in the league.
Finally, a young rookie coming in that everyone expects big things from is Patrick Shoemay. He was a highly coveted prospect in this year’s draft that San Diego was thrilled to land. He hasn’t played much box since a leg injury back in 2018; however, he’s been a dominant force for the RIT Tigers who won the D3 Title this year. Shoemay is the perfect blend of size and speed that has become the model for the new wave of NLL defenders.
While it will have been over 600 days between games, this group is very familiar with each other, which will be a huge boon coming into the third season of professional lacrosse in San Diego. Merrill has been able to keep the majority of the team together during the lengthy break. That chemistry should prove extremely valuable come December. “They built a ton of great chemistry and gained a lot of valuable, humbling experiences in 2019-2020. It’s a tight knit group that really plays hard for each other. They play with a chip on their shoulders and feel like they have something to prove this year.”
Being able to hit the ground running when there are only a few opportunities to get ready for the season opener on December 3 is essential.
There’s not much time to get the new faces up to speed, so the veterans and leaders will need to use their voices and experience to make sure everyone is on the same page so that things run as smoothly as possible.
Speed, aggressiveness, physicality, and pressure. Bring these every shift, and there shouldn’t be too many issues limiting quality scoring chances, which will, in turn, spark the transition game and get the ball to the forwards.
But who will those forwards be? Stay tuned.