Winning a championship in any sport is incredibly difficult, a tall task that an unfortunate number of deserving players will never be able to accomplish.
But for those fortunate few that do become the last team in a season to win, a somehow taller task arises: successfully defending that championship title.
It is no different in the National Lacrosse League. Five teams have accomplished this feat in the NLL’s 32 years of existence, and with expansions looming on the horizon, the window to accomplish this task has become noticeably smaller.
Unfortunately for the Georgia Swarm after winning its first-ever title in 2017, the team was unable to repeat as world champions and win the newly designed NLL Cup. The team found itself on the wrong side of .500 at the beginning of the season before winning its final six games of the 2017-18 season to finish as the No. 1 seed in the East Division for the second straight season.
A close and heart-breaking loss to the Knighthawks in the East Division Finals ended the Swarm’s chances at repeating as champions, but it does not overshadow the grit, determination, skill, and character the team displayed to get back to the East Division Finals.
“I give credit to our team and to our leadership group, led by Jordan (MacIntosh), that we dug ourselves a pretty big hole, and through the perseverance of those guys, we were able to get ourselves back to a spot where we thought we should have been,” Swarm head coach Ed Comeau said.
After starting the regular season 1-3, the Swarm would win its fifth and sixth games of the season, playing noticeably better lacrosse. When Chad Tutton, Jordan Hall and Joel White rejoined the team halfway through the season, it could be argued that the 2017 championship team was back in action.
But those reinforcements did not translate into the immediate success Georgia thought it would, and some bad breaks in close games translated into a 5-7 record for the men in blue and yellow.
“It was a collection of things,” Comeau said. “Part of it was we had some guys that weren’t around, so we had some different personnel in, and it takes time to blend in with an existing group …
“Those guys we had early played well, but I think a big part of it was honestly just forgetting to play the season with a target on your back all year long as defending champions. Sometimes as players and as coaches and as an organization, we forget how hard it was to win …
“I don’t want to say we took things for granted, but we made mistakes early in the season that were uncharacteristic, and they hurt us.”
After rallying around the message “11-7, that’s our goal” (full story here), the Swarm won the 13th game of the season. Then the 14th. Then the 15th. Then the 16th. Whatever unknown factor was needed to click into place so Georgia could become the best team in the East had clicked, and it did so resoundingly.
The Swarm catapulted from last to first, but it was tied with Rochester in the standings and had two games left on the docket. Closing out the season was a doubleheader against the Vancouver Stealth and the New England Black Wolves.
Winning one game would clinch a playoff spot. Winning both would clinch sole possession of first place.
Vancouver put up a fight irrespective of its 2-15 record, but the Swarm won its final regular season home game, 11-10. Sharp from the first game of the doubleheader, Georgia flew back to where its season started and handled New England 16-11, clinching first place in dramatic fashion.
Georgia enjoyed the bye week as Rochester and New England met in the East Division Semifinals. The stage was set as Rochester advanced in the postseason. Much like the last time Georgia and Rochester played, it was a very close game, a defensive showdown for the first 45 minutes.
“I thought both teams were capable of doing that,” Comeau said. “Certainly, both goalies were capable of doing that. But I don’t think anyone thought it was going to be a 4-3 game going into the fourth quarter.”
The last 15 minutes saw both teams leave everything out on the floor. Despite the extra effort, the Swarm could not make up that one-goal difference, and Georgia’s incredible season was ended with a 9-8 loss in the East Division Finals.
“The main message was we were proud of where we got to, what we did,” Comeau said about the message to the team following the loss. “Obviously, disappointed with the outcome and recognizing, remembering how hard and how tough it is to not only win in this league, but remember the feeling of if it’s close and you don’t come out on top, that’s something that has to fuel your offseason workout and training. Those are the thoughts that really have to fuel you.
“You don’t have those thoughts when you win. You only have those thoughts when you lose. That’s the lesson in losing.”
Where does the Swarm go from here?
For starters, Georgia has to prepare for the looming expansion. On July 2, the team will have its protected player list submitted to the league. This list will consist of 11 players, and only five forwards and/or one goaltender at most can be protected. Unfortunately, difficult decisions will have to be made, and the Swarm will lose a maximum of two players to the new expansion teams, the Philadelphia Wings and San Diego Seals. Who those two players are and which team they end up on will remain a mystery until July 16.
After that, there will be normal offseason plans. The Swarm is already preparing for the 2018 NLL Draft, and there is always a chance players will be traded, retire, or be lost in free agency.
“It’s going to be a little bit of a change next year,” Comeau said, “but change sometimes is a good thing, bringing in fresh perspective and fresh desire. That’s a good thing for us. We’re excited. Lots of work to do. I know (Swarm Owner and General Manager) John (Arlotta) has a lot of work to do as general manager, but we’ll do what we can to keep our team going in the same direction we are and get back to where we want to be.”
Where the Georgia Swarm wants to be is the undisputed best team in the NLL, having conquered the 10 other teams in the league and proving the expansion means little to it. It will take hard work and total commitment from the coaches, players and front office, but those that stood at the apex of the NLL understand what it took to get there in 2017 and what it will take to return again.
The team will learn from the 2017-18 season and strive to not repeat the mistakes of the season. Despite the changes on the way, the Swarm will proceed with the same strategy as it has, taking skilled athletes with the character requisite to don blue and yellow.
“John’s done a great job of building a team based on character people,” Comeau said. “That’s the No. 1 non-negotiable for our group, and I think it’s served us well and is going to continue to serve us well.”
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