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Field-to-Box: Matt Dunn and the cross-over into the NLL

On the current Georgia Swarm roster, only two players – transition player Joel White and defenseman John Ranagan – are not Canadian or Native. This roster makeup is similar throughout the National Lacrosse League, as most teams are made up of Canadians and Native Americans.

For a league that is expanding rapidly, traditional influxes of talent cannot be the only avenues bringing in fresh lacrosse faces. American players typically do not have as much experience with indoor lacrosse as Canadians, where box lacrosse is the national summer sport.

As the sport and the NLL continue to evolve and spread throughout North America, it’s always exciting to see a field lacrosse star – especially an American – try his hand at box lacrosse, crack an NLL team’s roster, and make an impact.

Enter Matt Dunn, one of the Swarm’s new signings this offseason.

He’s going to need a shorter stick… | Photo Credit: Dallas Rattlers

Dunn’s no stranger to success in lacrosse. He played for the University of Maryland in college and racked up All-American accolades. Dunn currently plays Major League Lacrosse for the Dallas Rattlers. In 2018, the Baltimore native played in the championship game and was named the Warrior Defensive Player of the Year.

That’s an impressive amount of honors to have on a resume, especially at only 24, and the talent is there to match.

It’s all part of why Dunn signing with the Swarm is so interesting, especially when you consider he’s only played box lacrosse for a year. Recently, he participated in the 2018 LASNAI tournament on US White team, helping the team make it to the final round of the tournament. After the tournament’s conclusion, Dunn was named to the US training team for the 2019 FIL World Indoor Lacrosse Championship.

Dunn knows how important his transition from field to indoor is and what he can take from it.

“You see the guys that play box that play outdoor, too, and their stick skills are just on a whole different level,” Dunn said. “You see American guys that have done that successfully, and they just have an advantage in the outdoor game.

“A guy like Tom Schreiber (Toronto Rock), guys that are that athletic on the field and have the skills and field vision, game I.Q. like that, I think that certainly develops from playing different kinds of lacrosse and moving the stick more like that.”

His Rattlers teammate and current Swarm defenseman, John Ranagan, is proof positive of an American succeeding in the NLL. Ranagan, born and bred in New York, also didn’t know much about box lacrosse when he went to the NLL free agent camp in 2013, showing up to camp in cleats and a field helmet.

White and Mike Manley, Ranagan’s teammates on the Rattlers during his rookie season in the MLL, convinced him to come and try out for the NLL that year. Ranagan earned his spot on the Philadelphia Wings and played 17 games in 2014.

“I was very fortunate to get the opportunity in Philadelphia, but I think in the two years of being on the Swarm, I think my game has really taken off,” Ranagan said. “That is attributable to a number of things, but maybe the biggest thing is the coaching staff – Eddie, Chi, Laddy – and then the leadership in that locker room.

“I think coming from the experience of not having so much experience, being around the leadership in the Swarm locker room and the coaching staff has helped me tremendously.”

Getting in place | Photo Credit: Kyle Hess

Dunn’s first true competitive box game was in the 2017 Heritage Cup playing for Team U.S.A., and playing against Canada made him feel like his “head was spinning a little bit.”

Growing up, Dunn was a student of the field game. His indoor lacrosse experience in Baltimore as a kid was unusual, to say the least.

“People played indoor lacrosse, which was basically field lacrosse on an indoor field,” he said. “It was field turf inside, probably about the same size as a box field, I’d say, but with one big goal.”

It wasn’t until he played with the Terrapins that he learned about box lacrosse from players like Bryan Cole.

After graduating, he was drafted by the Rattlers seventh overall in 2016. With Swarm team captain Jordan MacIntosh, Randy Staats, White, and Ranagan on the Rattlers roster, Dunn was exposed to more experienced box players and learned more about the true indoor game.

“I didn’t know much about it,” he said. “I knew it existed, but I had no idea how big it was and kind of what it entailed. It wasn’t until I got playing with those guys and hear their take on all of it and got some experience through them that it piqued some interest for me.”

Experience is the best teacher, and Dunn set out a year ago to get as much as he could while still living in Baltimore. He joined the Rebels in the Baltimore Indoor Lacrosse League (BILL) and played for Team U.S.A. in the 2017 Heritage Cup against Team Canada.

“The first BILL game was fun, but it didn’t feel like it was different (from field), though,” he recollects. “So, it was a good way to go run around. I felt like I was getting a good workout, good stick skill stuff in and kind of just getting my feet moving, but I really wasn’t learning any of the nuances (of box) until I went and did some of the U.S. training camp.”

Dunn found out quickly how much there was to learn. He no longer had the long pole he uses in the MLL and discovered indoor lacrosse is much more physical and intimate, less one-on-one compared to field.

You never stop learning, even after graduating | Photo Credit: Maryland Athletics

“There are picks in field lacrosse, but not nearly to the extent that there are picks in box, so just learning how to open up and find picks, how to play to most of that so you’re not susceptible to the pick and how to play the ball off-ball, cross checking guys on the other side of the field the whole time and how to set your teammate up to play a pick well,” Dunn said about what he was learning about box defense.

“It’s kind of the physicality of the whole thing. That’s not really in field lacrosse as much. A lot of that is kind of hushed up by the refs, like the cross checking all the time is usually a flag. It’s kind of a different mindset to adjust to.”

Ranagan recalled learning similar lessons during his early days of indoor lacrosse.

“The first thing I learned was there was no such thing as a moving pick,” Ranagan said. “You don’t think about a guy coming up from behind and was just destroying your back, so really keeping your head on a swivel was probably the biggest thing you had to remember, and just working in the confines of a smaller space.

“I think a lot of people get carried away with the size of defensemen, but if you look at a guy like (Jason) Noble, who’s a relatively small guy, it’s his footwork that really helps him defend. I think that’s the biggest thing, too. You want to have that strength, but you’ve got to be able to be light on your feet because you’re only taking a few steps here and there.”

As Dunn noted earlier, adjusting to that indoor mindset can pay dividends to one’s lacrosse talent. He’s witnessed it firsthand in the MLL.

“I noticed that John Ranagan from my first year to after like a season with the Swarm, his hands got tremendously better,” he said. “Things like that are important in the cross-over, and I’m excited to experience a different part of lacrosse than I’ve known my whole life.”

Dunn’s familiarity with a number of Swarm players is sure to help him adjust to the newer dynamic. He’ll be able to draw on them and their respective wells of box experience.

Time will tell if he’ll be able to follow in the footsteps of field players who have successfully crossed over from the field game to indoor, your Schreibers and Ranagans. But considering how much he’s learning, the mentors he has at his disposal, and his already immense defensive talent, it’s easy to see why Dunn is generating excitement.

Defensive Player of the Year in action | Photo Credit: Dallas Rattlers

“Matt’s an incredible athlete,” Ranagan said. “Obviously, Defenseman of the Year with the Rattlers last year. I think he understands D concepts. While they may be different (in box), he’s an extremely smart guy. His ability to soak in information is going to be extremely helpful for him.”

Fortunately, Dunn has more than just brains to complement his lacrosse success. His physical prowess and adaptability make him a key component for the Rattlers defense.

“In Dallas, we ask him to cover a lot of different styles of players, whether you have a big, burly attackman or a small, shifty attackman” Ranagan said. “I really do think he has the skill set to change who he’s covering. That goes to the same thing, a strong upper body and really good feet. I think his athleticism and his coachability and his ability to absorb information are going to be three things that really help him as he basically learns a new game.”

The Swarm Training Camp in early November will be where Dunn gets to apply everything he’s learned in such a short time and make his crack at the roster. If he gets to wear blue and yellow, then Dunn gets to be on that special American short-list, an impressive feat given his relative newness to the box game.

“I got so used to thinking field lacrosse was basically lacrosse my whole life,” he concluded, “and now learning about a whole different world of it is pretty exciting for me.”

Another successful American field player learning and making an impact in indoor is good for the NLL. Three more expansion teams are slated for the 2019-20 season – Halifax is getting most of Rochester’s team, and the new iteration of the Knighthawks will operate as an expansion team.

Roster spots will need to be filled, and Dunn being another example of a field player contributing to an indoor team could help entice more Americans to the NLL.

“I think we’re going to start seeing a few more Americans giving it a shot,” Ranagan said. “I’ve been part of the NLL for four years. It’s a really, really fun sport. The more guys get opportunities to play, I think Americans have the athletic skill set. They just need to be able to absorb the teachings and find a good spot.”

A good spot | Photo Credit: Kyle Hess

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