Joe Sullivan is in his second season as an assistant coach for the Minnesota Swarm. The native of Peterborough, Ontario has been coaching lacrosse for over 20 years. He has served as an assistant coach with the Toronto Rock in 2009 and the Chicago Shamrocks in 2008.
Sullivan is currently an assistant coach for the MSL’s Peterborough Lakers where he has helped lead the team to victory at the Mann Cup Championship. As head coach, Sullivan was awarded “Coach of the Year” in Senior “B” Ontario. As a player, he won a Junior “A” Minto Cup in 1989 and later played in the MSL for the Brooklin Redmen and Peterborough Lakers.
Jessica Baltes from the Minnesota Swarm recently caught up with Joe Sullivan.
Baltes: What do you do for work outside of coaching?
Sullivan: I’m a manager for PepsiCo Canada.
Baltes: How did you get into lacrosse?
Sullivan: A lot of my friends up in Ontario who played hockey got me into it and thought I would like it. I played baseball, I played soccer and then I tried lacrosse at about the age of 15, and I loved it. I loved how fast it was, how it was a little bit different and a little more challenging.
Baltes: You mentioned a couple of other sports that you played. Have you been involved in coaching or playing any other sports?
Sullivan: No, I think for the most part it’s been lacrosse and hockey my whole life. I played football through high school.
Baltes: You have been involved in lacrosse for many years, both as a player and a coach. What keeps you motivated to stay with the sport of lacrosse?
Sullivan: The challenge is still there for me to try and go to the next level as a coach. Almost more than that though is that my son is young enough that he didn’t get to see me play, so it’s keeping him interested by me being involved. I want to be there for him and show him the good things about the game. Show him the ins and outs and what better way to do it then to be surrounded by a bunch of pros and let him see first hand.
Baltes: Having been a player yourself, how would you say the game evolved since you played?
Sullivan: When I played, you played both ends of the floor. Every single player played defense and then you took the ball and went down and played offense. Then you came off the floor. Today, it’s a much faster game, more methodical game and tactical game as far as offensive guys just play the offensive end typically and defensive guys play the defensive end. It allows guys to really strategize systematically on where they should be, whereas before it was you went up the floor, down the floor and off. It was just not as smooth flowing as it is today. That’s for sure.
Baltes: You've had a lot of success as a coach for the Peterborough Lakers in Canada, winning three Mann Cups in the last five years. What elements were necessary for those teams to have that level of success and do you see those elements in this Swarm team?
Sullivan: What I see is as the biggest thing between a winner and teams that don’t have that kind of success is that players need to identify what their role is as a part of that team and everybody has to buy into that role.
Some guys have what seems to be a lesser role, like a Jon Sullivan. His role isn’t to score a goal or even to get an assist, but really to marquee up against one of the best offensive players on the opposing team. Him doing that is going to allow us to get the ball back and move the ball down the floor to Ryan Benesch who is our offensive guy and that’s his role, whereas I don’t need Ryan to come back and play defense.
Really, at the end of the day, if guys understand their role and they buy into it as a team and understand how it helps us, that’s going to be the difference. That’s what Peterborough has been able to do and that’s what I see the Swarm doing now. It’s taken us a couple of years to really find that gel, and although our record right now sits at 7-8, we’ve got something here. We’ve got something real good, and I think it’s going to transpire into a championship.
Baltes: You have coached several of the players on opposing teams. Does it help with the game plan having a more in-depth knowledge of their abilities?
Sullivan: Yeah. We are going to play John Grant, Mark Steenhuis, John Tavares, Shawn Evans, Scott Evans and guys of that caliber. To know what they do is a great advantage for us. Now they are very unique athletes who can definitely adapt their game pretty quickly, but you see their tendencies. So I can at least tell my defensive players or offensive players the tendencies that they are going to see. Doesn’t mean it’s going to happen every time, but more often than not, they go a certain way and we are able to counter that ahead of time.
Baltes: The Swarm has never made it past the first round of the playoffs. Do you think that this team has what it takes to finally break that barrier?
Sullivan: I absolutely do. I’ll go back to my statement about the feel in the room, the desire and the need. We have a lot of guys who have won some great championships in summer ball up in Canada and some NCAA achievements, but nobody has gotten to the pinnacle of where we need to be, which is the Champion’s Cup.
Honestly, we have had a great run with Western Division teams. We are not going to take anybody lightly and either way it is going to be the Stealth, whether it’s in Minnesota or in Washington. We know them better than probably anybody. I believe that we line up and match up against them very, very well. So I would say, yeah, we’re going to get that first round win. We’ll take it one game at a time, but look for us to get out of the Western Division this year.
Baltes: It’s a big game coming up this Saturday against the Mammoth. How important is it to the team to clinch the home playoff game?
Sullivan: Like I said, we’re looking at every game individually. From a coaching perspective, we’re trying to filter down to our players, but we don’t need to. They know the importance of just getting a win. That’s what we want them to play for. For us as a coaching staff, yeah, we want the win, we want momentum going into the playoffs, but more than that we want this for the state of Minnesota, for our ownership and our fans. To get a home playoff game is probably the biggest thing that we will face this year. We don’t know if we will get another one after this. We need to get this one. This is within our grasp to make the difference. We are going to prepare exactly to do so.
Baltes: Are there any specific players who you have been particularly impressed with this season?
Sullivan: Well, I think the feat that Ryan Benesch has achieved, and the points he’s been able to put up on the board has been incredible. He’ll be the first guy to say that it’s the players around him, which shows you the kind of leadership and humbleness that Ryan possesses.
Nick Patterson. He’s allowed us to play a more aggressive defense, because he’s seeing the ball. Just the way the other players have all responded. It’s just been a real good all around season.
You look at a guy coming in with no box experience whatsoever in Matt Kelly, and we’re able to put him in against any team, in any situation and he’s risen up to the challenge. That’s been great. Our rookie group this year has been phenomenal.
Like I said, everybody seems to know their role. They are getting along on and off the floor. They are sharing the ball. They’re enjoying the system that we’re playing. It’s been an overall great year for everybody, but again those three players that I have just named – Nick Patterson, Ryan Benesch and Matt Kelly – have all really opened my eyes up on what they can do.