Ryland Rees in a game back in 2017. Rees is the first Stony Brook graduate to play in the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL). ARACELY JIMENEZ/STATESMAN FILE

For former Stony Brook University Men’s Lacrosse player Ryland Rees, lacrosse has always been special. But taking on the best players in the world at the highest level of competition in a new league took it to another level.

The 2019 America East Defensive Player of the Year is now the first Stony Brook Seawolf to ever play in the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL). The PLL, founded in 2018 by professional lacrosse legend Paul Rabil, saw rapid growth and popularity after its first season. With some of the best lacrosse players in the world joining the upstart league, it has become a sensation seemingly overnight. For Rees, who had spent his first professional season after Stony Brook playing for the Boston Cannons of the longstanding Major League Lacrosse (MLL), the switch over had everything to do with his talent.

“I just thought that I wanted to go to the MLL and, you know, see how I did,” Rees said in an interview with The Statesman. “Once I knew that I could keep up with that league I knew I wanted to play against the best players in the world.”

That, along with the “faster pace transitions” that suits Rees’ game well, made the jump a logical step as he entered into the PLL 2020 Entry Draft.

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Selected with the first pick of the second round, Rees joined the Waterdogs, the PLL’s brand new expansion team that the league announced at the conclusion of their first season due to the league’s positive reception. As an expansion team, many of Rees’ teammates were taken from the other established teams. The team’s motto, “Every game is a revenge game”, showcased the attitude of the franchise: underrated and underestimated.

“It was an amazing group of guys and just the talent over there,” Rees described his team. “And the wonder that these guys had to want to beat their old teams and kind of prove to them, their old coaches, players, and kind of to themselves that like, you know, ‘I belong here, I shouldn’t have been unprotected.’”

The team would get to prove it, albeit under the circumstances of 2020. With the league having to scrap their normal travel plans, the PLL executives took a page out of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) book and staged a bubble setting in Utah where players would quarantine and play a championship bracket season in mere weeks. Despite the sudden change of plans, the league was able to have their season played.

“The PLL did an incredible job kind of making sure everyone was staying safe and all the safety and health protocols that were there,” Rees said. “It made it feel like we were safe for one because it was during the pandemic, but also just kind of the way together felt like a legitimate like professional lacrosse. And that was awesome.”

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The Waterdogs, who were thrown together mere months prior to the season with no offseason programs to prepare, played in their first season in the bubble. This lack of preparation could be seen in their 1-4 record in the bubble, including a first round playoff exit. However, the close scores of their games, with their largest defeat being by 2 points, proved to everyone that the Waterdogs were here to stay. 

And Rees played a significant role in the Waterdogs success as a Long Stick Midfielder (LSM). Rees was fifth league-wide and first among LSMs in 2-point goals (third league-wide and first among LSMs in 2-point goals per game). Rees was also 16th league-wide and fifth among LSMs in ground balls (ninth league-wide and second among LSMs in ground balls per game), and he was 13th league-wide and third among LSMs in caused turnovers. 

For Rees, one of the most important factors in his quick adjustment and success in the league was his teammate Brodie Merrill, who, like Rees, played on the Canadian national team for the World Lacrosse Championship.  

“Whether it’s mid-game or post game, he’s always kind of helping whenever he can,” Rees said of their relationship, which goes back to before his time at Stony Brook. “And he’s always kind of there. And that’s when I was in the MLL, PLL or whatever. I don’t think there’s really a better defender to learn from. And I’m kind of fortunate to have that.”

Rees also believes that his experiences playing on the Canadian National team, in the MLL and the National Lacrosse League (an indoor box lacrosse league where Rees went second in their Collegiate Draft), as well as his time at Stony Brook, all helped him to prepare for the PLL.

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While Rees is the first player from Stony Brook in the PLL, he certainly does not believe he will be the last.

“Tom Haun, Chris Pickel, Mike McCannell, maybe in the future guys like Caleb Pearson, there’s a lot of guys,” Rees said of some of his old teammates, all of which he believes have a chance to go pro after their time at Stony Brook is over. “You know, whether that is the MLL or the PLL, I don’t think there’s a right or wrong choice. I think there’s gonna be a lot of guys going MLL. And hopefully there’s a few more coming to pick up PLL.” 

While it was a new uniform, a new team, a new league and a new atmosphere, it was a different world for Ryland Rees, who now proudly represents the Seawolves as a Waterdog. Rees and other lacrosse players at Stony Brook University should continue to find success in the PLL.

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