“It’s like any other [college] team – you’re only as good as your seniors,” he said. “If they buy in, it comes from the top down.
With guys like Lee Zink and Brendan Mundorf and Jesse Schwarztman, and you bring in a guy like Anthony Kelly, they’ve been in the league for a while and they are at the back end [of their careers], so they know what it’s like and what it takes. They saw an opportunity to be successful and have fun doing it.”
Jim Stagnitta’s approach to coaching the Outlaws found its genesis when he was a post-collegiate club player after his days playing at Penn.
“The thing that I remember back after college when I was playing club, it was just pick up ball and you went out and played,” he said. “I missed the structure and what came from playing on a team that shared the ball and had a system.”
With this is mind, Stagnitta wasn’t just going to settle for running out the best players or the ones with the most impressive pedigree. He was going to put together the best team. That sometimes meant that he had to have long conversations with players in hopes of getting them to adopt roles that they previously weren’t ask to play. Stagnitta singles out guys like midfielders Drew Snider, Justin Pennington and Justin Turri as players that have accepted perhaps a less glamorous role for the betterment of the team.
And there were also guys who just didn’t fit or had a higher trade value than they did in the lineup.
“We made some changes that appeared drastic,” Stagnitta admitted. “And even before I walked through the door, Tony moved some guys for different reasons; they just didn’t want to be out there or they wanted to be closer to home or they had different reasons. One of the first things I said to Tony, and it was even if he was a big-time player, was if he doesn’t want to be here, get rid of him. I wanted people who wanted to be here because it’s not easy to be here. That part helped us early on from a role standpoint.”
Stagnitta admits that his philosophy would have been difficult to implement without the tacit approval from the veteran players on the roster, leaning on an old college coaching maxim to illustrate the point.
It also came down to Stagnitta and his staff, which includes B.J. O’Hara, who coached the Rochester Rattlers to an MLL title in 2008 and coached Hobart for 12 seasons, and long-time college coach Stan Ross, establishing a level of credibility with the players. At the college level, coaches “hold all the cards,” as Stagnitta describes it, so the coaching can be more vocal and, if necessary, punitive, especially with playing opportunities. With the limited amount of prep time – MLL teams usually get one full practice and a walk through per week – it’s less about drilling players on the game plan as it is establishing a belief that they are in good hands.
“You need to be honest and fair and have them believe that your decision-making is consistent and is in the their best interest,” Stagnitta said. “It’s all about credibility. If you have credibility, they will listen to you. We know all these guys. We’ve recruited them as college coaches at some point and they know that we’re going to put the time and effort in and know enough about the game that we’ll do the right thing.”
In many ways, it’s not dissimilar to a college coach making a pitch to stud player during the recruiting process. This fits nicely into to Stagnitta’s concept of bringing a lot of the college game to the pro level – something that seems anathema to the contemporary professional athlete.
“In some ways, we’ve changed the way people approach the league and look at the league,” Stagnitta said, whose Outlaws on Saturday became the first MLL team in the 13-year history of the league to sweep the regular season. “No one really felt like you could do that with a team and have them play in a system and share the ball and do the things our guys do.
“We have great players on our team, but they are selfless when it comes to doing the things you need to do to win. They also understand that if they are going to play for us, they do need to play within a system and they do need to attend that one practice that we have. You can’t just fly in on game day and play. They know their defined roles. Again, I’m not sure if that was commonplace in the league, but we’re successful because the guys bought into the system.”