Joe Sullivan earned NLL Head Coach of the Year honors in 2012. Photo: John McCabe
We’re a little over a month into the offseason, and if you’re like me, you’re literally pulling your hair out and counting down the days until the start of the 2013 season. Here to help our lacrosse fix is none other than NLL Head Coach of the Year Joe Sullivan, who was nice enough to speak with me earlier this week on a wide number of topics including the upcoming NLL Entry Draft, the playoff loss to Edmonton and summer ball.
Schimke: What’s your reflection process been like this past month and have you had some time to look back on the 2012 season?
Sullivan: I feel really happy about what we accomplished this year with the group that we had. We exceeded expectations and we met the goals that we set for ourselves. A lot of really good things came out of the 2012 season. There were a lot of great milestones that were accomplished as well; Ryan Benesch reaching 100 goals in a Swarm uniform; Kevin Ross having a career season; and all of our rookies making impacts and helping us get to the Division Finals. Everybody was rewarded in one way or another, whether it was through a trophy or through recognition from their peers. I’m probably more excited with what I’ve seen in summer ball and how our guys are playing and where we’re going to be after this great draft coming up for the 2013 season.
Schimke: You mentioned summer ball, have you been keeping close tabs on the guys?
Sullivan: I keep tabs on the guys to make sure that they’re keeping their heads on straight, which they are. That’s essentially why we picked and placed the players that we did. All of our guys that are playing in the WLA (Western Lacrosse Association) have latched on to good teams and are having good seasons. And while some of the teams aren’t doing as well as they hoped for, it seems like our players are leading in a lot of categories. Once again, our guys can have an impact wherever they go and that’s a tip of the hat to our organization.
Schimke: In particular, a majority of the Swarm’s younger players are playing big roles on their summer teams. How will that help them heading into next season?
Sullivan: Well, all of these guys are kind of overflowing with confidence in themselves and their abilities. We have a bunch of character guys on this team who have a lot of confidence and are key players. Whenever you find that kind of a makeup in a player, it physically becomes infectious on the team that you are with. These guys are all getting great opportunities, every one of them. I’m looking at Dan Ball for example, who is playing for Brooklin. He played in very limited minutes last year with the Redmen and is coming off a great season with the Swarm. Now he’s on their shortman and is playing a ton for them this summer. The minutes that he’s going to pick up there will be instrumental on his development and putting us one-step closer to that Champion’s Cup in 2013.
Schimke: Stepping back for a second, let's talk about the playoff loss against Edmonton in the West Division Finals. Obviously the end result was not what the team had hoped for, but how can this young squad use that loss as a learning lesson moving forward?
Sullivan: It was a really tough game. I’ve watched it too many times now to even think about it. I believe we were well prepared and I believe that our guys were excited to play. I think everyone felt that we were as well equipped as we could be to play the Rush, a team that we had success against in the past. I have to tip my hat to those guys (Edmonton) and they played us well. When I look back on it, there are some things that I need to change going forward. That’s all part of the learning curve. Unfortunately it came for us during our last game. I’m better for it and our team is better for it. You live and learn, and we now know how quickly a great season can come to an end.
Schimke: When looking back at the entire season, was there a certain moment when you felt this young team really turned the corner?
Sullivan: It's tough to say when it happened, but I think it’s when the guys decided that we were going finish the season at 9-7. We were coming off one heck of losing skid and our guys decided that we were going to be 9-7. That may not seem that lofty, but at the time, that was four wins away from where we were -- and we were at a real stalemate. To see the guys put themselves to that goal and hold themselves and each other accountable… To then get there and watch them listen intently on all directions whether it be during video, practice or shootaround: These guys are just like a bunch of sponges. They’re great, young athletes that are going to be successful in whatever they do in life and hopefully we can all hoist the Champion’s Cup next year because of that experience.
Schimke: In addition to your head coaching duties, you’re also the team’s associate general manager. What are your responsibilities right now in the offseason?
Sullivan: Well, the coaching side is essentially put aside and I have to kind of put on the general manager’s hat now. It’s really incumbent on me to see these young players, see what they’re all about and see if the hype is true. More times than not while you’re watching a key player, somebody else will step up. That’s how we found some great players last year like a Dan Ball and a Tyler Carlson. I’m really hoping that we keep working hard, keep focusing on what our needs are, and we’ll find those guys again. It’s all about scouting right now and all the prep work; booking floor rentals, getting buses and all the equipment set up so that when we have training camp again, we hit the ground running. You really have to take away any obstacles that could possibly become a distraction for these guys so that they can get better. We had a great go-around last year, but hindsight is 20/20, and I’m looking at what we can improve on. There are still opportunities for improvement and that’s a great thing.
Schimke: This past year was your first season in the NLL as both an associate general manager and head coach. On a personal level, how much growth did you see in yourself?
Sullivan: Being a head coach, the big thing is to try and get my message across through my assistant coaches and through my players. That’s a task in itself because if I don’t have the right people on the bus, and if I don’t have that bus going in the right direction, all is for nothing. I’ve surrounded myself with two very capable coaches in Bobby Keast and Aime Caines. Those guys relayed our message clearly and very consistently; I don’t think we ever deviated from that. In doing that, the players knew where they stood through all courses in the season. The lines of communication were always open. As an assistant coach you don’t physically have to do that, you’re passing on someone else’s message. I can tell you from experience, when you’re passionate about something, it kind of rolls into creating passion for other people. When you see that, it’s electrifying. It really starts to make you believe in what you’re doing when you see other people having success with the plans you laid out.
Schimke: Speaking of Bobby Keast, you two are once again coaching together this summer in Peterborough. You guys in addition work for the same company during the workweek. Kidding of course, but do you guys ever get sick of each other?
Sullivan: Bobby and I have known each other since we were kids. We played junior and senior lacrosse together, and we’ve coached together now at every level you can think of. We have our battles, but I think that’s what families do. I respect Bob’s opinion, and he respects mine. I wouldn’t want to go to war with anybody other than the guys that I have now.
Schimke: Sticking with Peterborough, I wanted to ask you about Andrew Suitor, who is in his first season with the Lakers and is getting the chance to play with the likes of John Tavares, John Grant Jr., Mark Steenhuis, and Tracey Kelusky. What sort of an impact will that have on him as a leader next season?
Sullivan: I think he’s realizing that he is a premier player. He’s rubbing elbows now with the likes of Grant Jr., Steenhuis, Tavares; all guys that are probably future hall of famers for sure. He’s really understanding that he fits in and that he’s not so far different from them. He’s a younger version of what they are, just in a different role. He’s a transition, defensive guy that leads by example and plays a smash-mouth type of defense. If he keeps working as hard as he did, we’re going to see Andrew Suitor for a long time, and we’re going to be talking about his name along with the other great players in the league. It’s an invaluable experience for him to see how these guys interact with younger players.
Schimke: Shifting gears to the upcoming NLL Entry Draft in September. The Swarm hold four Top 10 picks in the first round, that’s almost unheard of in any professional sport. How will the team use that to their advantage?
Sullivan: It’s a luxury. I have to credit John Arlotta there to have the foresight to see that coming because I don’t think anybody else did. He worked hard and responsibly to get us in a situation where everybody else would like to be in. To come off the Western Finals and then to have four first-round draft picks, it really is unheard of in any professional sport as you said. It’s a luxury I can’t even put my finger on yet because we can potentially have Jordan MacIntosh, Evan Kirk and two other guys of that caliber with those picks. Now we have the opportunity to get four of those types of players that are going to come in and make an immediate impact. The crazier thing is I love our team and our chemistry. Who do they come in and replace? It’s going to make for a heck of a challenging, opportunistic training camp this November.
Schimke: This draft class has been regarded as one of the stronger ones in recent years. What are some of its strengths as a whole?
Sullivan: The great thing is that I see players in every position; goalies, defenders, offensive players, transition players, lefties, and righties. In the past, the top players were usually right-handed offensive guys. This year it’s spread out really well. It is kind of like a little buffet for a team that’s looking to tweak certain areas. You always want to take the best player and this year there are a lot of best players at their skill sets. That’s going to allow us to fine-tune what I believe is already a great team. But again, we not only have to find the best players, but we need to find the best people. That’s a page from John’s book: finding the right people. Having everybody on the bus is fine, but I want to have the right people on the bus. When you have that, the bus drives itself. We need to find the next Andrew Suitor, Jeff Gilbert, Evan Kirk and those types of players. That’s incumbent on me all summer long and it’s incumbent on Jake Elliott out West and again on John, who oversees everything in the offseason.
Schimke: On a final note, it’s summertime and hopefully you’re also getting some time to relax after a successful Swarm season. What sort of activities do you enjoy with your family during this time of the year?
Sullivan: My son is into hip-hop dance and my daughter is into jazz dance so I devote as much time as I possibly can to making sure that I’m there for them. Tonight I’m on my way up to coach my son’s lacrosse team. My daughter is with me; she’s my assistant coach, and she’s all of five-years-old. I try to keep my family close to me all summer long because as anybody would tell you, they’re so important. If things aren’t right at home, it’s hard to do other things like coach in the NLL and have success.