The Georgia Swarm sat in last place in the East Division for nine of the 21 weeks in the 2017-18 NLL regular season. After falling to the Rochester Knighthawks 11-10 in overtime on March 10, the Swarm was 5-7 and preparing to take on the Buffalo Bandits on March 18.
The players had been reflecting and self-examining for the better part of the season, trying to figure out what was different with a team returning most of its roster, but there just didn’t seem to be an answer as to how the team could get some positive traction.
“We were experiencing something we didn’t experience a lot of last year, and that was losing close games and not having those games where we would score 17, 18 and blow teams out,” team captain Jordan MacIntosh said. “It kind of felt like a rut, a continuous rut that we couldn’t really get out of.”
“Those games were frustrating and back-breaking in a sense,” assistant coach Dan Ladoucuer said about the close losses suffered against Colorado and Rochester in March. “When I think back on those ones, I thought we were playing good, but we weren’t playing complete. The O and the D hadn’t quite sunk yet, as far as our transition to D and our getting off the floor and getting onto the floor with speed. Certain aspects of our game were going well, but not the whole package.”
With six games left in the regular season, the defending world champs went out on March 18 and flipped the season narrative from frustration to elation. The Swarm’s 14-10 win against the Bandits began Georgia’s playoff push, and the Swarm pressed on to sweep the last six games of the season and finish as the top team in the East Division for the second consecutive season.
How did Georgia go from last place to first in such a short time?
Part of it was the fact that the East Division was a labyrinthine puzzle until the end of Week 21, with every team in contention for the postseason up to that final weekend.
Part of it is that the defending champs are chock full of talent on the floor.
But the catalyst for the entire turnaround was a team email after that Rochester loss which motivated the team in ways no one anticipated with a simple message: “11-7.”
“It was initially an email, basically a conversation between the coaching staff about the message we wanted to put out about where we were and where we wanted to be and how we were going to get there,” Ladoucuer said. The coaches included the team captains in on that email, asking them to buy into the message Swarm head coach Ed Comeau, assistant coach Sean Ferris and Ladouceur were putting out there.
“Eddie sent a great email to the team,” Ladouceur continued, “and then the first one to respond was Jordan MacIntosh. He was the first one at the bottom of his email to put ’11-7.’ We never said we needed to go 11-7 when we were talking about where we wanted to be. We didn’t put a number on it. It was actually Jordan MacIntosh that started that.”
“Eddie sent that email out, and I was just like, ‘Look, 11-7, that’s our goal,’” MacIntosh said. “‘Let’s go for it. Let’s do everything we can. Let’s just make that our goal, and we want to get out of this season at 11-7.’ It was just a way of setting a goal on things and making it more long-term. You knew the ability, you knew the talent was all there. We just weren’t executing, and I guess it was a way to kind of hold our feet to the fire and get it done.”
The players each replied to that email with “11-7.” And from there, the team went to work with new motivation.
It sounds simple enough. The team rallied behind its leaders and accomplished what it set out to do. But that does not do what the Swarm accomplished in its final six games justice.
Georgia would begin that run against a Buffalo team which handed it its worst defeat of the season on the road. It meant playing a New England team twice after falling to the Black Wolves during the season opener. There would be another game against a Toronto Rock team trying to not get swept, and then there would be a game against a Vancouver Stealth team that was better than its record indicated. Looming largest of all was a road game against the Saskatchewan Rush, Georgia’s Champion’s Cup foe in 2017 that is nearly invincible at home and always looking to exact some measure of vengeance at the team that spoiled its chance at a three-peat.
No one can face an NLL opponent without preparation, and that is exactly what the coaches began to do. Comeau had Ladouceur meet with the offensive players for one-on-one sessions to look at how they were doing, what Ladouceur dubbed “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.”
“Eddie asked me to put together some clips on each guy and have individual meetings with each guy, review their play and review our principles and how they fit in and how they affect our principles,” Ladoucuer said. “In a one-on-one setting like that, you get really good feedback and a good appreciation of how guys are feeling…
“Every bit of feedback was positive, and guys were contributing. It was sometime after those meetings that the guys really started to click and really started getting back to what made us successful last year and what made that group fun to watch, the creativity.”
March 18 arrived and with it the Buffalo Bandits, a team which handled Georgia 18-9 a little more than a month before. The Swarm exacted a measure of revenge, 14-10, and the change in the team’s attitude was palpable.
“It wasn’t like a big physical difference or anything, but I think mentally and emotionally, everybody was just that much more dialed in knowing that goal we had in mind and was a lot more focused,” transition player Chad Tutton said about showing up for that game.
The men in blue and yellow rolled on from there. 85 goals and 130 assists. Outscoring opponents by 22 goals. Holding opponents to only 10 goals for three straight games in the middle of the run. All of it equates to six-straight Swarm wins.
Leading the charge offensively was Lyle Thompson. The 2017 NLL MVP went on a scoring tear and netted 24 balls in that span, an average of four goals per game. Lyle scored more goals in his last six games than he did in his first 12. His inspired play helped the team in obvious and intangible ways.
“The part that I like about it is that over this last stretch, you see guys like (Kiel) Matisz and (Shayne) Jackson and (Randy) Staats and Hallsy (Jordan Hall) chipping in with timely goals,” Ladouceur noted. “If there’s a night that Lyle can’t break coverage or he gets doubled early or whatever like that, you have zero doubt and all kinds of confidence in the other guys taking advantage of opportunities. As much as Lyle went off, it gave other guys the opportunity to get their confidence up, as well. Because of the way he makes defenses adjust, other guys get opportunities, and they started seeing success.”
The success translated into a 14.17 GF/GAME during that span, closer to the 14.77 GF/GAME the Swarm averaged last season and a significant improvement over the 11.75 GF/GAME in the first 12 games of the 2017-18 season.
The offense’s improved play complimented a Swarm defense that had been delivering solid results for a few games already. In the first half of the season, Georgia was averaging 13.67 GA/GAME, but the defensive unit really gelled together in the second half with the return of Tutton and Joel White and posted a 10.22 GA/GAME.
Against Colorado, Toronto, and Rochester in the beginning of the second half of the season, the Swarm defense allowed 29 goals against, but Colorado squeaked out a last-second win, and Rochester won in overtime. Georgia had started the final nine games of the regular season off 1-2.
During the final six games, the Swarm defense kept level and held opponents to 10.5 GA/GAME, enough for the offense to produce and outscore opponents.
The only weakness in Georgia’s game was its power play, which remained an issue all season. Following its historically strong 2017, the Swarm power play unit converted only 34.2% of opportunities, the worst in the league. During the playoff push, Georgia went 9-for-27 on power play chances, an even one-third of all opportunities.
“Blessing and a curse,” Ladouceur said. “We got this far without a strong, dominant power play like we had last year. With some more games in front of us here, we have a chance to get that clicking and going.”
Earning six wins with a weak man-up is, frankly, astounding. It is a testament to how hot the Swarm got during its last six games that it could win without it. And it doesn’t overshadow just how incredible the Swarm’s final run was nor how collected the Swarm was throughout the season.
“If you watch the way our bench goes when we get a loose ball on offense or if you watch the way our team celebrates after a goal, you’ll see that we have a lot of fun,” MacIntosh noted. “You can see everyone smiling and jumping and screaming, and I think that’s what we really got back.”
Six-straight has a way of ingraining that fun back into a team. It’s the ultimate panacea, letting players out both doors play looser, not grip that stick as tight, do the right things born from a lack of tenseness. The players where physically right, but it was the mental and emotional that had to return to being family-centric.
“It speaks tremendous amounts about the type of people that we are on this team,” Tutton said. “It’s a very family-oriented group, especially being able to get behind our leader like Jordan. It really makes it easy for one guy to piggy-back off one another and for everybody to pick each other up …
“It’s the whole family thing. It just speaks tremendous amounts to our Swarm core values.”
11-7, repeating as the 1st place team in the East Division, getting the fam back together, six straight wins in weeks chock full of byes to ruin rhythm and a doubleheader to cap it all off. Mission accomplished, right? The team is good to go?
If you think the team is ready to coast, you must not know the Swarm. This is just the first long leg of the Swarm’s journey in 2017-18. To be the only team to cross the finish line in the NLL Finals and repeat as World Champions requires three more wins.
Not having to play in the East Division Semifinals is a boon after the doubleheader. It would have meant playing in three games within a week’s time and six to seven flights for the players. But now the mission for the Swarm is to rest up, get work in, watch the results of Friday’s game between New England and Rochester, and analyze, analyze, analyze.
“If there’s one thing that we don’t do a lot of, it’s over-scouting opponents,” MacIntosh said. “If anything, we over-scout ourselves.”
The Swarm meets up Friday and Saturday to practice and get the sticks in hand, spend time as a team and family.
“Not only is it important to get your stick in your hand, but it’s important to be around those guys,” Tutton concluded. “Having that camaraderie really helps win games.”
Players and coaches are already working on improving the Swarm’s special teams, particularly the power play unit. They’ll look even deeper into their performances to see what small details can be tweaked for the better, but the team refuses to lose sight of what won them six games and, most importantly, to have fun.
It was an extensive 21-week long regular season. The Swarm started off 0-2, went to 1-3, still sought .500 when it was 3-5, and finally challenged itself at 5-7 in a way that got everybody to buy into the penultimate goal. And it all started with an email and an “11-7.”
“Don’t face our group with a challenge, cause we’re going to get it done,” MacIntosh said. “I think that’s part of what went into my thought process of putting it out there. I know the way our team responds to challenge, whether that’s a challenge from Eddie, a challenge from the coaching staff of the way that we’re playing, a challenge from another team or media or whatever it is.
“If you challenge our group, the chances are we’re going to respond and get whatever that is done.”
Your defending world champion Georgia Swarm is ready to #DefendTheCup and bring Atlanta its second-straight World Championship this postseason!
- The Swarm will host the winner-takes-all East Division Championship for the second-straight year, and will play against Rochester or New England on Saturday, May 12 at 7:05 PM from Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Field at Infinite Energy Arena. The winner advances to the 2018 NLL World Championship (Best-of-3 series).
- Country band Thompson Square will host a 12-minute halftime show and a 30-minute postgame concert in the Atlanta Classic Cars Mercedes–Benz Goal Zone Club.
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Season Ticket Holders: You’re covered! The first playoff game is already built into your season plan, and your seats are reserved.