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The Break-In: Matt Dunn’s first NLL season

How the field star adapted to the indoor game

Last year, the Swarm added an interesting project in Matt Dunn to the team, signing him to a two-year rookie contract.

The intriguing part to the signing was because Dunn, a young and successful long pole defender in field lacrosse, had never played professional indoor lacrosse before the 2018-19 NLL season. The ingredients were there for him to be successful, but time would tell if he would join the shortlist of American field lacrosse stars who made the switch to box.

It would not be easy for him from the get-go, as Dunn attested.

“Right away, I was basically walked right into the top-level of talent,” Dunn recalled about suiting up at the first Swarm training camp, immediately after rattling off half the Swarm’s 2018-19 roster as an example of how many big-name lacrosse players dress in blue and yellow, “so it was definitely a huge eye-opener.

“Here I am using a short stick for – I don’t know, like basically single digits number of times in my life have I played with one at this point, so there are so many things that are new to me, on top of these guys being so skilled at (box lacrosse) that it really felt like I had a long ways to go to be able to hold my own with them. That was right off the bat, I was like, ‘Wow, I have a lot to work on if I want to actually have a chance to play and contribute on this team.’”

It was a humbling process for the 25-year-old. He had already been named the Warrior Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 with the Major League Lacrosse’s Dallas Rattlers and was positively overloaded with All-American accolades after playing for the University of Maryland.

But Dunn revealed how much of a student of the game he is and took this opportunity of “being out there at the bottom of the totem pole” to grow as much as possible. Heck, Dunn practically relished the opportunity.

“In field, there are definitely areas I can improve, but as far as learning goes, I think I’m getting closer to capacity,” he said. “But in the indoor game, there’s so much for me to learn … Definitely humbling, but it was fun for me to see there was so much to learn. Every day at training camp, every practice, every time I watched film, I felt like I learned something else, and it just made me excited to go out there and keep improving a little bit at a time.”

Photo Credit: Kyle Hess

His inclusion on the Swarm’s 21-man Active Roster on Dec. 12 raised eyebrows and generated excitement, especially from Dunn. His best box experience before the Swarm was playing for Team U.S.A. in the 2017 Heritage Cup against Team Canada and some games with the Rebels in the Baltimore Indoor Lacrosse League (BILL).

The Swarm coaches told him they would keep the roster fluid and eventually get a look at the 6-foot-3, 215-pound defenseman, but there was no indication of when that would happen. The first two games, Dunn’s name was one of the two healthy scratches for the Swarm.

An early-season injury to Bryan Cole gave Dunn the opportunity to step in and show what he had learned and could do. Against the Vancouver Warriors on Jan. 5, Dunn helped hold the West Division foe to eight goals, while handing out an assist and collecting two loose balls.

“It definitely helped build confidence and kind of showed that there were certain areas where I felt the gap wasn’t as big as I thought it was,” he remembered about his first professional indoor game, “and there were certain areas in there where I held my own better than I thought I would. But if I really wanted to kind of earn a role and show I could contribute, I’d really have to work on certain things.

“Certain things that translated better in the field game, I felt more natural, and the things that were more unique to indoor stuff I was definitely a little raw with that I was like, ‘This is what I’ve got to focus on to get better for the next game and the next couple of weeks.’”

He got better immediately, netting his first career goal in transition against the Philadelphia Wings. Then he played the doubleheader weekend against Toronto and New England, then Saskatchewan, then New England again, then … well, the season just did not stop for Dunn.

For all the talk of keeping the roster fluid to get guys looks and give the team the best chance to succeed, Dunn dropped down into that roster river like a boulder and refused to budge from the riverbed. He played in the final 16 games of the Swarm’s regular season and the East Division Semifinals.

Photo Credit: Kyle Hess

From a guy with barely any box experience to a regular on the East Division squad with the best win percentage over the last four seasons. That’s not a bad rookie season by any stretch of the imagination, but by Dunn’s own personal measuring stick, did he think it was successful?

“If I went back to a year ago, I would definitely consider that a huge success, because my goal at this point a year ago was I wanted to make a roster,” Dunn said. “I was nervous abut actually cracking a roster, because I knew how difficult it would be … I kept raising my mark, I guess, as the season went on. My goal was always to try and play in games and be a steady force, but I didn’t know how realistic that would be before camp.

“Obviously, once I started playing, it was always to play a little better, and obviously, it’s a team goal to win the championship and all that. But getting in to play my first season I would say was a huge success. I was very excited and thankful for that opportunity.”

Given the role he plays in field lacrosse for the Premier Lacrosse League’s Whipsnakes Lacrosse Club – a close defender who uses a long pole – the box skills Dunn picked up in his rookie campaign did not all translate over.

His field role does not necessitate that he carry the ball often, but all the touches he got with the ball in box increased his confidence in his stick skills. The Towson, MD native also noted his communication had to be different indoors than outdoors, but it was still him having to figure out how to effectively communicate with teammates in a fast-paced environment.

“Doing that outdoors and then doing it in a different environment indoor, your brain is trained to react in different environments, which at the end of the day, I think helps your communication skills and being able to quickly identify what needs to happen and the best way to say that to somebody,” Dunn said.

Photo Credit: Kyle Hess

Swarm head coach Ed Comeau will be the first to say that no roster spot on the Swarm is guaranteed, and all 21 will have to be earned at training camp. With the Swarm returning Joel White, signing the University of Notre Dame graduate and Redwoods Lacrosse Club midfielder Sergio Perkovic, and 11 draft picks for the Swarm at the 2019 NLL Entry Draft, that training camp is shaping up to be the most competitive it has been in years.

Dunn realizes that fact and knows that for all he did right from January to May, he needs to build off the successful foundation he laid and be even better as a sophomore. With that in mind, he has set some personal goals for himself – most notably being part of the defensive lines that finish close games.

“Throughout the season, I really want to develop the trust with the coaches to feel comfortable with me out there in high-pressure situations and not feel like there’s still some inexperience on my end,” he offered.

Dunn’s success in the NLL is as important now as it was a year ago when he was signed. The University of Maryland alum is one of the best and most recent examples of a field lacrosse star effectively integrating himself into the fabric of the NLL, but consistency is the new name of the game for Dunn.

The ability to demonstrate said consistency can entice more players to try playing inside during the winter and spring – evidenced recently by the Swarm’s signing of Perkovic, another field player without box experience.

“I think having these big time field presences switch and play some box, too – kind of from the perspective of a lot of lacrosse fans that only know the outdoor game – it will help them see both parts of the game, which I think is just awesome for the sport in general,” Dunn concluded. “The more people that come play, the better. It makes it more competitive, and it ultimately helps grow the game, as far as fan support and notoriety goes.”

Photo Credit: Kyle Hess

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