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Albany rookie Alex Simmons has led the FireWolves' resurgence from worst to (possibly) first.

FireWolves' Youth has Albany Eyeing Worst-to-First Turnaround

May 17, 2024
Jack Goods
Scott Cordaro Photo

Alex Simmons immediately assumed the worst.

“I was scared for my life,” Simmons said. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m cut. What a terrible start. Guys are going to hate me.’ Every possible thing you could think poorly about yourself, I thought that day.”

That rush of self-doubt came after a relatable mistake — the Albany FireWolves rookie missed his first-ever National Lacrosse League flight.

Now living in Chicago, Simmons made his way to O’Hare International Airport for the first time in preparation for preseason activities in the Greater Toronto Area. Turns out, his inexperience at the fourth-busiest airport in the country came back to bite him. He drove to the wrong terminal — a catastrophic blunder, as the former Denver Pioneer describes it. He had to completely reroute, and by the time he got inside, he was five minutes late to check his bag internationally.

“I was like, ‘Alex, you get one mulligan,” FireWolves coach Glenn Clark said with a laugh. “But this is not how we do things. There’s expectations, and the expectation is you’re on time for everything.”

That marked one of the few instances the FireWolves’ youth shown through this season. Set to compete in the NLL Finals starting this weekend, Simmons and Albany are now ahead of schedule.

“This is a hell of a start to a five-year plan,” Simmons said. “[Our coaching staff] had a plan set in motion for us, and it was in five years’ time we would make an NLL Finals, not in six months’ time. So, this is pretty remarkable and shows how well our staff has done with such a young group.”

Albany, which started the season in the 15th spot in USA Lacrosse Magazine’s weekly power rankings, can become only the second team in NLL history and the first since the Detroit Turbos in 1991 to go from the league’s worst record to champion the next season. The FireWolves’ series with the Buffalo Bandits begins Friday night in the capital region, with Game 2 set for Saturday in Buffalo.

If necessary, Albany holds home floor advantage for a deciding Game 3. Pretty good for the youngest team in the league.

“They're not going anywhere,” Bandits general manager and assistant coach Steve Dietrich said. “They're not a flash in the pan. They’re going to be an unbelievably difficult team to deal with for the next five, six, seven years."

The talent was always there, but few expected it to translate on the floor this quickly. With last year’s 3-15 season as evidence, attention was turned to next year and the arrival of generational prospect Dyson Williams.

They're not going anywhere. They're not a flash in the pan. They’re going to be an unbelievably difficult team to deal with for the next five, six, seven years.

Bandits GM and assistant Steve Dietrich on the FireWolves

As for the players and coaching staff, they remained focused on themselves. Affectionately called “The Professor” since his playing days, Clark leaned into the teaching aspect of his profession more than he ever has before.

“It was really void of expectations,” Clark said of his early messaging. “It was more about the business of how do we want to execute, how do we want to play? We really spent a lot of time on game plans, making guys work on their individual skillsets, embedding systems. It was lost in the preparation and the planning; everything was geared toward getting better. There was none of this, ‘We’re underdogs.’”

As the team’s ecosystem solidified, it became clear young players needed to step into critical roles immediately. Simmons and Tye Kurtz, both rookies selected in the first round of the 2022 draft, were tasked with steering a buzzing offense. Clark was confident they could handle it. He saw it in their DNA.

“I wouldn’t use the word pressure,” Kurtz said. “I’d use the word opportunity. That was part of our draft day talks and those leading up to the season. We are such a young offense. There’s such an opportunity for young guys to come in and be successful.”

That success certainly did come early. Kurtz opened with five points in each of the team’s first four games, and Simmons recorded back-to-back eight-point nights in wins against Buffalo and Philadelphia. The FireWolves gained legitimacy each week as they strung together a season-opening six-game streak.

But as quickly as the team collected believers, many fell off the train in the second half of the season. Albany went over a month without a win this spring, falling on five straight occasions from March 9 to April 14. A season-closing triumph against New York was necessary to right the ship and secure home floor advantage in the quarterfinals.

“It might sound crazy, but I think that was one of the best things for us, to kind of learn to lose, learn it’s still possible,” Kurtz said.

Perhaps the weight of expectations started to catch up. Players began gripping the stick a little tighter, understanding they were now contenders.

Clark saw an opportunity to remind his youngest players of an important lesson — you’re allowed to make mistakes, and if you do, teammates like Ethan Walker, Travis Longboat and a bevy of others are there to pick up the slack.

“We spent a lot of time going through that with them, to be honest,” Clark said. “Dialoguing with them that, ‘Hey, you get to be a rookie. You get to navigate this league.’ Especially with Alex, he got all this hype early because he was playing so well. I think he was starting to feel the expectation of almost carrying the team. If things weren’t going well, he put a lot of it on himself. I had to have that dialogue with him, like, ‘You’re a talented and good player on this team, but it’s not your job to carry the success or failure of the franchise. You get to be the rookie, and you’re not on an island.’”

The message sunk in, and at the perfect time. Doug Jamieson shut the door on Halifax in the quarterfinals, backstopping Albany to a head-turning 9-3 triumph. In the ensuing series against a veteran San Diego squad, the FireWolves maintained composure after early Seals goals, earning a sweep.

Entering the NLL Finals, Simmons and Kurtz lead all postseason point producers with 19 and 17, respectively.

And now they get the chance to complete a dream season. They may not allow themselves to think this way, but no matter what happens, this is just the start.

“You don’t want to get too far ahead, thinking about next year or the year after because you never know,” FireWolves captain Colton Watkinson said. “But you can’t help but think about how a lot of these guys are going to be as they progress in their careers.”