Most young athletes have dreams of making it to the big leagues. As these athletes grow older, their aspirations may begin to change, focusing more on a future academic career rather than an athletic one. One athlete who followed this route is Peyton Smith, who had a post-college job lined up for software sales before getting a call from the Redwoods Lacrosse Club, a lacrosse club for the newly founded Premier Lacrosse League (PLL).
At Marist College, Smith was a huge difference maker for the men’s lacrosse team, where he played faceoff. In his junior year, Smith had an impressive faceoff win percentage of .630, which ranked eleventh in all of the NCAA. His work that season earned him the MAAC Faceoff Specialist of the Year Award and a spot on the All-MAAC First Team. Smith’s success carried over into his senior year, where he had an incredible faceoff percentage of .638, which led the MAAC and again ranked eleventh in the NCAA. He also ranked first in the MAAC and tenth in the NCAA in ground balls per game with nine.
Like countless other athletes across the world, Smith’s spectacular senior season ended early due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “It was really devastating at first because we were just about to begin conference play,” said Smith. “We beat a really good Army team that was ranked top ten in the country and things were going great. So, to have that cut short was pretty devastating.”
Some of Smith’s fellow seniors planned to return for the 2021 season, an opportunity afforded to them by the NCAA, who provided an extra year of eligibility to Division 1 athletes. Since Smith already had finished his bachelor’s degree, had no plans on attending a master’s program, and had a job lined up in software sales, returning just didn’t make sense for him.
So, that was it. It seemed like Smith’s lacrosse career was unexpectedly finished thanks to a pandemic that turned the world upside down. That is, until his phone began to ring.
“Later on, in the spring, I started getting calls and realized that I had the opportunity to possibly play professional lacrosse,” said Smith.
Getting drafted to the PLL is much different than getting drafted into a more prominent professional sports league like the NFL, though. There are no combines or pro-days in lacrosse. Instead – especially because of the circumstances that the pandemic forced – clubs rely heavily on film and discussions with the athlete and former coaches. The Redwoods Lacrosse Club took a particular interest in Smith, talking with him often throughout the spring.
On May 13, 2020, the Redwoods drafted Smith with the sixth overall pick in the PLL College Draft. “To get your name called and to watch NBC and see your face come across the screen was a great moment for sure,” said Smith.
While Smith was preparing to be a rookie athlete in a professional sports league, the PLL was trying to come up with ways to safely have a season in their sophomore year. Early in May, the league announced on the Today Show that it had devised a plan to return to play within a bubble, making it the first professional sports league to do so. Eventually, it was decided that the bubble would be held at Zion Banks Stadium in Herriman, Utah. Here, the PLL would hold a three-week tournament that would feature a 14-game group play tournament followed by a championship series.
“It was a lot of games back-to-back. We had five games within a week and a half. It was very interesting and very different,” said Smith. “You don’t have a lot of time to prepare. But just getting my feet wet and being able to experience that type of play and the speed of it was awesome.”
For many athletes, playing within a bubble is difficult on a number of levels. Not only are these athletes required to play a game nearly every day, but they are also separated from their friends and family. The bubble certainly presented obstacles for Smith but it was also an enlightening experience.
“There were some challenges with it, but at the same time you get to spend a lot of quality time with the best players in the world at your sport,” said Smith. “As a rookie especially, being able to have a lot of time outside of practices and games with the guys on my team, who have been around the league for a long time and have been through this process of how to become a successful lacrosse player, opened my eyes to some things. It gave me some time to be with them and build that team chemistry.”
One of the teammates that Smith was able to learn from was Kyle Harrison. The legendary midfielder played lacrosse for Johns Hopkins University from 2002 to 2005, where he won a National Championship and was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2016. From 2005 to 2019, Harrison had an impressive career where he played in the MLL, the LXM Pro Tour, and even Team USA.
“With his experience in the game and being able to talk with him on how I cannot only be a positive player for this team, but also have a career in this league,” said Smith. “I think some of those conversations is what I took away most.”
Not only did Smith learn a lot from Harrison, he also learned a lot from himself. After all, being a rookie is all about making mistakes and learning how to grow from them. “I think some of those early mistakes, as weird as it may sound, I honestly enjoyed those a little bit because it was like, ‘okay now I know never to do that again,’” Smith said while laughing.
Smith will take all that he has learned into the offseason, where he plans to train so that he may better prepare his body for the physicality needed in the PLL. He also has a better understanding of how different faceoffs are in the professional ranks than in collegiate competition. In the PLL, the ball placement on faceoffs is much higher, which makes faceoffs much quicker. A faceoff could last for about 20 seconds in college, a huge contrast in comparison to the PLL, where they last for about three. This was obviously a big learning curve for Smith to overcome. Now, though, he is confident in his abilities after taking reps all season.
“I feel really confident that I took a lot away from Utah,” said Smith. “Obviously, training camp will be fierce competition and again it’s a pro league where not everybody is going to make that active roster. But I’ll be ready. I’ll be ready for that, for sure.” The Redwoods finished their season on August 6 after losing in overtime to the future champions, the Whipsnakes, by a score of 13-12. As of right now, it is unknown whether the PLL will have to play within a bubble during the 2021 season. Regardless of where they play, Smith hopes to further develop in his second season and make a lasting impact on the PLL.
Edited by Sam DiGiovanni & Bridget Reilly