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Taylor Moreno (left) has drafted fourth overall as the No. 1 player on the leaderboard since Week 2 of last season.

Master Tacticians: Apuzzo, Moreno Talk Athletes Unlimited Draft Strategy

August 14, 2023
Kenny DeJohn
Kait Devir/Athletes Unlimited

Sam Apuzzo and Taylor Moreno have been mainstays as captains for two seasons.

The Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse draft room is illuminated by the league’s four vibrant colors. In front of each color sits a captain staring at enough screens to make an ophthalmologist go mad. They chit-chat among themselves, all while secretly strategizing before the draft begins.

Choosing teams each Monday during the Athletes Unlimited season is one of the perks of being in the top four on the individual points leaderboard. It’s also one of the quirks of the unique women’s professional league that just wrapped its third season.

For the second summer in a row, Taylor Moreno narrowly edged Sam Apuzzo for the league championship. They’ve developed something of a budding rivalry. A respectful one, to be fair, but a rivalry all the same.

You see, in a league predicated on movement atop the leaderboard, Moreno and Apuzzo have become mainstays. Apuzzo has been a captain si9nce week one of the 2022 season. Moreno has been a captain since week two of 2022.

That goes hand-in-hand with their on-field exploits, with Apuzzo scoring the most goals in league history (80) and Moreno setting the single-season save record in 2022 before breaking it in 2023. But drafting is just as imperative to their success. They’ve gotten pretty good at it after so much practice.

“I don’t love doing it, because it is a lot. It’s stressful,” Apuzzo said after Sunday’s finale. “But it’s a fun opportunity for me to put together a team and see how they work. It’s really cool as a coach to see how that works, too.”

Drafting in Athletes Unlimited isn’t as simple as picking your best friends and hoping things work out. That’s part of it, with only two full days between the draft and the week’s first game every Thursday making chemistry a must-have.

But like any fantasy draft done with family or friends, trends develop quickly — and going against them could prove disastrous for your team’s chances. Wait too long for a star attacker and suddenly your offense lacks thump. Sleep on midfielders and your team loses the ground ball battle. Overlook defenders and your team can’t make stops. The snake draft gives each captain two minutes to make their pick, so time is of the essence.

“I think there’s a system to the madness,” Moreno said. “It definitely gets your stress and anxiety going a little bit because you want to create the best team to give you the best opportunity to win.”

Attackers and midfielders typically fly off the board first, followed by defenders around the fourth or fifth round and goalies in round eight. Both Moreno and Kady Glynn, a multi-time captain in charge of her own team during season three’s final week, claimed being a goalie actually hurts their team-building abilities.

Someone like Apuzzo, an All-World attacker and one of the sport’s top players, can take offense early and build a unit entirely around her. Defenders, like week four captain Abby Bosco, can hyper-focus on offense early because they can trust themselves to be their own defensive anchor. The same goes for midfielders who can live in both worlds. Goalies, though, don’t have a building block on any of those three units to use as a starting point.

“It’s about trying to get people on the offensive end first, at least in my strategy,” Moreno said. “I know Kady would probably agree with me on that. It’s really, really hard as a goalkeeper to draft because you’re having to build every side of the field with a group of girls you’re hoping can work well together.

“Once the game starts rolling and we’re in the cage, there’s really not much that we can do. We don’t have that opportunity to really talk through everything with everybody.”

Each captain typically targets “their people,” the collection of must-get players that individual captains work well with and trust. For Moreno, that was often Marie McCool, Ally Kennedy, Caroline Wakefield and Emma Trenchard. That group included Kenzie Kent at times, too, but once Kent started rolling and other captains picked up on Moreno’s tendencies, she was snatched up.

Glynn called Apuzzo the league’s top draft tactician. Apuzzo deflected to Moreno, the only two-time champion in Athletes Unlimited Lacrosse history.

“I think Taylor does a really great job,” Apuzzo said. “She just knows the players that play really well with her. Especially defensively, she always has a really solid unit.”

The reason chemistry plays such a large role is because every quarter — every play, even — matters under Athletes Unlimited’s points structure. Winning a quarter means 20 points to every player on the winning roster. Winning a game means 45 points to every player. That’s why Apuzzo, who finished the equivalent of one goal behind Moreno, places such an emphasis on team building.

“I am very keen on playing with and drafting people that play really well together,” Apuzzo said. “I’m huge on chemistry and huge on connection. When I’m thinking of a team I want to draft, I think about players that are fully surrendering to units and want to play in a fundamental offense and defense and want to play for each other. … It’s all about winning. That’s all I think about.”

Bosco, the defensive player of the year as a rookie out of Maryland, was in a similar camp. For her, drafting was all about targeting “good vibes and energy.” That is, of course, until another captain poaches one of her targeted players.

“You hear it in the draft room. It’s so funny. You’ll hear it under all of our breaths,” said Bosco, who played for both Moreno and Apuzzo before captaining her own teams in weeks three and four. “Someone picks before me and I’m like, ‘Shoot! That’s who I wanted.’ Or the person next to me will go, ‘Shoot!’ after I pick. It definitely happens, but that’s the nature of it.”

Planning can only help so much. That’s when snap decisions and trusting your gut come into play. Some captains, like Moreno and Apuzzo who’ve proven their ability to produce winning teams week after week, just have a knack for putting the puzzle together better than anyone else.

“You usually have plan going into it. But as soon as that draft starts, no plan ever sticks,” Moreno said.

“At the end of the day, I can have my strategy, but it’s a team,” Glynn said. “We want to pick who’s best for the team.”