Sean Quirk believes you become what you surround yourself with.
If that’s the case, then the Cannons Lacrosse Club will become a blend of veteran leaders who are some of the most recognizable names in the game, arguably the world’s best player and a nucleus of young talent that made waves last summer. That balance is by design.
“I love where we are with the roster and what we’ve built up to this point,” Quirk said.
The 2020 Major League Lacrosse Coach of the Year, Quirk is the man tasked with building off the Boston Cannons’ legacy on the field as the sport enters a new era at the professional level. They are the microcosm for the state of pro lacrosse and the Premier Lacrosse League’s new imperative to expand the game’s fan base while also embracing its history. The league’s eighth team and the only carryover, as of yet, in the wake of the PLL-MLL merger last December that sent shockwaves through the sport, Cannons LC represents the PLL’s clearest connection to the pro game’s past as it embarks on year three.
The Cannons will kick off the 2021 PLL season, which will resume its touring model, on June 4 against the Redwoods at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. “Boston Born,” it says atop the team’s page on the PLL website. “Forged by the Past, Built for the Future.”
The Cannons’ connections run much deeper than any marketing campaign. It starts with Quirk, who ran the Boston Marathon in 2019 to raise money for Boston Children’s Hospital — where he had open heart surgery at the age of 12. He has coached the Cannons since 2015.
“As much as I don’t have a Boston accent, thank goodness, I consider it the greatest city in the world,” Quirk said. He’s lived in the area for the past 25 years dating back to when he took over the Endicott College men’s lacrosse team in 1997 at the age of 24. He can see the Boston skyline from his backyard on the North Shore in Nahant.
Quirk brought over John Klepacki, who’s in his 20th season as the head coach at Western New England University and served as the Boston Cannons’ defensive coordinator the past six years. Offensive coordinator and mastermind Sean Kirwan, who helped Virginia to a national championship in 2019, coached with Quirk during his first year with the Cannons. A 2012 Tufts grad who set the program’s goals record, Kirwan first dialed in his up-tempo offensive approach as an assistant for the Jumbos in Medford.
Then there’s the personnel. Unlike the inaugural six clubs in 2019 who were assigned their initial rosters for training camp, Quirk and his staff built the Cannons through three drafts (expansion, entry and college), plus a league-high nine waiver additions. Unlike Waterdogs LC, last year’s expansion team, there’s more of a built-in bond.
While former NFL wide receiver Chris Hogan’s name drew the headlines during the waiver period, perhaps more telling was that four of the players Quirk added were on the Boston Cannons’ championship squad from last summer.
“It’s not like we’re going to try to go in there and rebuild a brand new culture,” defenseman Justin Pugal said. “We have something to build off of, rather than going in with a clean slate.”
“The fact that he is the coach of the team gives him an opportunity to build some of the identity how he should choose, but [replicating last year’s roster] is not something we’re going to jam down his throat,” PLL head of player experience Brian Silcott told Inside Lacrosse in February. “It’s his roster, his team. Familiarity is a good thing, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he picks up some guys he’s familiar with.”
There were few questions when it came to the entry draft. It became a running joke on social media to ask, rhetorically, whom Quirk would choose with the first pick. Lyle Thompson was a lock.
“That’s a pretty easy answer,” said Cannons LC goalie Nick Marrocco, referring to Thompson when asked who he was most excited to play with. “He’s the most talented player in the world, but he’s also the toughest player and isn’t afraid to get hit out there and leave everything on the field.”
The Cannons’ current roster composition reflects that identity. It includes Zach Goodrich, the 2020 MLL Defensive Player of the Year who’s widely regarded as the best short-stick defensive midfielder in the game, and Cornell head coach and former Atlas midfielder Connor Buczek, who in 2019 dislocated his shoulder during a game and minutes later scored a 2-point goal.
“From my first conversation with Coach Quirk, he was excited about building a team of the right people,” Buczek said. “Similar to what we’re trying to do at a place like Cornell.”
Entering the expansion draft, Quirk was surprised to see Buczek’s name on the unprotected player list along with Ryan Drenner and Brodie Merrill. A six-time MLL Defensive Player of the Year who played for the Boston Cannons from 2014-18, Merrill delivered one of the most iconic plays in pro lacrosse history in 2016 when his full-field heave lifted the Cannons over the Rochester Rattlers. Quirk called his name first.
“I look to him as a leader, certainly, but as an advisor as well,” Quirk said.
The move that made the biggest splash was the acquisition of Atlas midfielder and PLL co-founder Paul Rabil the day before protected rosters were released. Quirk said he engaged Atlas head coach and his former Boston Cannons assistant, Ben Rubeor, about trading for Rabil more than a month before the deal came to fruition. While talks slowed down at one point, Quirk ended up sending the ninth overall pick in the 2021 entry draft, the eighth overall pick in the 2021 college draft and a first-round pick in 2022 college draft in exchange for Rabil.
“I went pretty aggressively to make a trade for him because he’s the epitome of a guy that has won championships at the collegiate level, at the professional level, at the world games level,” Quirk said of Rabil, who was drafted first overall by the Boston Cannons in 2008 and was a part of the team’s first MLL championship in 2011. “He obviously is a phenomenal player, but he’s a veteran and can help us build that culture.”
Quirk had a clear mindset of the type of culture he wanted to build with the Cannons from the outset. He punctuates most of his Instagram posts with the hashtags leadership, culture, respect, trust, accountability.
They’re not just buzzwords. The last three are the core standards Quirk developed with the Boston Cannons.
“It’s not overly complicated,” he said.
He knows the importance of communication. When he got the Endicott job, he wrote letters to each of the 19 student-athletes on the roster that stressed the team would be like a family. He talked with every player that he either drafted or signed on Cannons LC. The thing that stood out to him in “literally” every one of the conversations was that the players were “hungry to compete.”
Marrocco called the Boston Cannons’ ability to weather all the adversity and not only compete but prevail during the MLL’s weeklong tournament at Navy Marine-Corps Memorial Stadium a testament to Quirk’s leadership. The team held a ring ceremony for its former members and staff mostly over Zoom in February to celebrate the 2020 championship and show off the golf ball-sized bling.
“It was a sense of closing that chapter and opening up the next one,” said Marrocco, who attended the event in person with Quirk at the Boston Cannons’ headquarters in Quincy.
“It was a bright spot in tough times and also what we’re looking for moving out of the pandemic,” Goodrich added.
The Cannons will have to dethrone the Whipsnakes and contend with the rest of the stacked PLL to add to their collection of hardware. Despite the new setting, the standards and expectations remain the same.
“If you stay true to the core, good things can come,” Quirk said. “Every team in this league has ridiculous talent. But those teams that really have a respectful, trusting, accountable locker room and on the field are teams that win championships.
“That’s our goal this year — to win a championship. I’ve talked to every player and coach and they agree. Yeah, we’re an expansion team, but we’re not here to build this for two or three years and arrive. We want to arrive in 2021 and compete for a PLL Championship.”