Kennesaw, GA If the final days of May are a precursor for what lays ahead, Atlanta Blaze fans will be well pleased heading into the busiest month in franchise history. The Atlanta lineup that likely will hit the Fifth Third Bank Stadium turf for Saturday's 7 p.m. matchup against the New York Lizards is one bolstered by a major player acquisition and the addition of three 2018 Blaze draft picks to its 25-man roster.
Facing a schedule that includes games on five consecutive Saturdays in June, including three home games, Atlanta head coach Liam Banks will have MLL veteran faceoff specialist, Joe Nardella, who was acquired today from the Boston Cannons, and All-Americans Connor Kelly (Maryland) and Kyle McClancy (Albany) — whose teams just finished competing in the NCAA’s national semifinals — available to him. They will be joined by two-time, All-Big East first-team attackman Christian Cuccinello (Villanova), whose team was eliminated in the opening round of the NCAA playoffs.
Like most Major League Lacrosse (MLL) general managers, Blaze GM Spencer Ford is typically very busy at this time every year managing the team's roster when recent college graduates and several players from the indoor league become available as those seasons conclude. Ford, a former MLL veteran who still holds the league’s single-season assist record, said the culture implemented by new Blaze owner, Andre Gudger, since his arrival in April, encouraged him to consider all angles when trying to bring a player like Nardella to Atlanta.
“Our organization is extremely excited about the future because of Andre’s leadership. For the immediate future, we were very enthusiastic about being able to add an exceptional young man to our team who also happens to be one of the best faceoff men in the world, without giving up anyone from our roster,” Ford said. The Blaze (3-2) sent their 2019 first-round college draft pick to Boston in exchange for Nardella.
Nardella, 25, a former Rutgers University All-American from Cazenovia, N.Y. who learned the position as a college freshman, was a favorite of Blaze long-stick midfielder Scott Ratliff when the two played together for the Cannons in 2015.
“He is one of my top three or four favorite teammates. I think really highly of him. I know he works really hard and is very good at his craft,” Ratliff said. “He is a leader, a guy you can count on and I am really excited to have him as part of the Blaze. I think adding a guy like that is a complete game changer.”
Nardella was originally selected in the fifth round of the 2015 collegiate draft by Boston and has played a total of 31 MLL games. His career faceoff percentage is currently at .552 and his first faceoff win Saturday night will be the 500th of his career. He finished his collegiate career with a .622 faceoff percentage and also added 13 goals and 26 assists in 59 games at Rutgers. Currently, he is an assistant coach at Harvard University and operates the Faceoff Factory, an instructional lacrosse academy based in the Boston area.
“I honestly couldn’t be more excited about the trade to Atlanta,” Nardella said shortly after being notified of the deal. “It’s a young team with a great group of core guys. From what I have heard, the team culture is excellent with a very tightly knit group. I am really looking forward to being part of a team that has been winning, is on a roll and wants to compete for a championship ring.
“I was pretty lucky in that I was able to play and live in Boston for two years, and that is very uncommon in the MLL. It was really convenient but I am excited to explore a little, spread my wings and am ready to see myself in a different market,” Nardella stated.
The three rookies also can try out their new wings. Ford is excited about what the trio will add to the Blaze’s already formidable offensive attack.
“We already have a pretty solid offensive group led by Kevin Rice but the addition of three prominent rookies, gives us fresh legs and an exceptional skill set to help us during the next several years,” Ford said. “We have a fantastic group of fine young and talented men leading us on the field. We all are looking forward to seeing the potential come together in June and watching this team make a championship run in August.”
Kelly, the second overall choice in the MLL draft, is an offensive-focused midfielder who finished his senior campaign at the University of Maryland with 46 goals and 36 assists. He was twice named a first-team USILA All-American and is a 2018 Tewaarton Award finalist. Kelly finished his collegiate career with 128 career goals, the fifth-best total in Terps’ history.
McClancy is a versatile two-way middie that contributed mightily at both ends of the field for Scott Marr’s Albany team. The second-team USILA All-American scored 29 goals, added 19 assists and collected 36 ground balls in 19 games during his senior season for the Great Danes, who lost in the NCAA semifinals to eventual champion Yale. McClancy was the 10th overall pick in the draft.
Cuccinello, a two-time All-Big East first-team attackman, made 57 starts in 59 career games at Villanova and finished his career with 97 goals and 71 assists. The native of Mountain Lakes, N.J., and the Wildcats’ leading scorer was taken by the Blaze in the fourth round in the MLL Collegiate Draft with the 32nd overall pick.
As a result of the acquisition of Nardella, Ford traded faceoff specialist Jake Withers to next week’s opponent, the Charlotte Hounds, in exchange for Charlotte’s second-round pick in the 2019 collegiate draft. Withers appeared in eight games for the Blaze in 2017.