HEADING FORWARD: Michael Sowers heads to goal in a 2020 game during his senior season with the Princeton University men’s lacrosse team. Star attackman Sowers, who ended his Princeton career as the program leader in points (302) and assists (181), is currently making an impact on the next level for the Waterdogs of the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL). After being sidelined last summer in his rookie season due to a head injury, Sowers has tallied 18 points on 11 goals and seven assists to help the Waterdog go 3-3. He played in the PLL All-Star game on July 16, tallying three goals to help Team Baptiste rout Team Farrell 33-13 in the contest. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
By Justin Feil
Michael Sowers may be two years removed from ending his Princeton University career and is technically a second-year pro, but he feels like a rookie in the Professional Lacrosse League (PLL).
His debut season in the PLL for the Waterdogs in 2021 was limited by a head injury to two games last year, but he has rebounded this summer to help the club start 3-3. Earlier this month, Sowers played in the PLL All-Star game, tallying three goals to help Team Baptiste rout Team Farrell 33-13 in the contest. Capping the day, the shifty, acrobatic 5’9, 165-pound Sowers won the freestyle competition in the All-Star Skills contest.
For Sowers, getting the chance to participate in the All-Star weekend in Boston on July 16 had a special meaning after his abbreviated 2021 campaign.
“In college, when the PLL first got going, watching the all-star game, it just always was a super cool event,” said star attackman Sowers, who ended his Princeton career as the program leader in points (302) and assists (181). “It’s definitely a cool honor to be a part of it.”
Sowers accrued 15 points on eight goals and seven assists in his first four games this season to earn the All-Star selection. After scoring three goals to help the Waterdogs edge the Chrome 11-10 last Sunday, Sowers now has 18 points on 11 goals and seven assists. The second pick in the 2021 draft after finishing his college career at Duke as a graduate transfer, Sowers has fit in well in the PLL.
“It’s definitely really cool,” said Sowers. “I think it’s exceeded my expectations in terms of how fun it is, just to be able to be out there, and the league does such a good job of making us feel like true professionals in every sense. It’s been a blast. For me personally, obviously last year was unique, but as this season goes along, and we start to develop that chemistry it’s just going to continue to get more fun each week.”
Sowers already is having a lot more fun than he did a year ago. One game into his PLL career, he was hospitalized after a blow to the head. It was a serious enough concussion to keep him out of games all the way until the PLL semifinals, and given a history of head injuries when he was younger and their cumulative effect, he began wearing the FDA approved Q-Collar that has scientific studies to prove it lessens the risk of brain injuries.
“I don’t think I ever missed a game in anything in my high school career, my Princeton career, and then my year at Duke,” said Sowers.
“Then I miss a whole season unexpectedly. I’m definitely grateful every time I have the opportunity to step out there. You never know when something like that is going to pop up. It happened week one. You never know. I sometimes get nervous about it, but I try to be grateful for every opportunity I have to go out there.”
Sowers is still finding his way in the PLL and with his Waterdogs teammates. Each weekend is an opportunity for him to develop his game.
“I played in maybe six PLL games, maybe a little more,” said Sowers. “These last couple games, I was on a minute restriction and in Charlotte I had cramps at the end of the game. I feel like it definitely does feel like I’m just getting my feet wet. For me, that’s what it’s always been about — not necessarily about the stats or the number of games. It’s more so, getting better every week and getting more comfortable.”
His first full season in the PLL has reminded him of his move from high school to Princeton. Sowers enjoyed a prolific college career, becoming the first Tiger player to hit the 300-point mark, including the program-record 181 assists that solidified his ability to make those around him better. Now he’s finding his role with the Waterdogs and making his mark in the pro game.
“What I compare it to is my freshman year at Princeton, where there’s so much talent around you that you just want to go in,” said Sowers. “I think that the chemistry thing is one thing. The more we play together, the better we’re going to be. We have so many great guys on the offensive end — between [former Princeton teammate Zach] Currier, and Connor Kelly, Ryan Brown, Kieran McArdle. The list goes on and on. When you have that much talent, it’s a very role-oriented style of lacrosse and it’s like, what is my role? Play behind the cage, dodge, and hit the open guy if he’s there. If he’s not, turn the corner and shoot. And if not kick the ball forward and keep the offense going. Roles change depending what system you’re playing in, but for me it’s most applicable to my freshman year at Princeton.”
Sowers continues to follow Princeton as well as Duke. He was excited to see the Tigers return to action after two seasons were canceled by the pandemic. Princeton reached the NCAA Final Four under coach Matt Madalon before falling 13-8 to eventual national champion Maryland in the semifinals.
“It is pretty wild,” said Sowers. “Some of those guys, [Alex] Slusher was like a freshman when we were seniors. I get some mixed up with eligibility, but now he’s going to be a senior, that’s wild. It was so cool. All the guys in my class were so happy for those guys. They had been through so much. I think a lot of people were counting them out. People that knew the program and knew the guys in that locker room, we knew they were all capable of something like that and they had awesome leadership in George Baughan and Chris Brown and Coach Mads. It wasn’t a shock to any of us. We were excited and happy to be a fan in the stands for a lot of those games.”
Sowers looks back on his college career fondly, though it didn’t end the way anyone would have anticipated. He acknowledges that his last three lacrosse seasons have come with adversity. The pandemic canceled a Tewaaraton Award possible senior year at Princeton, he and other 2020 Princeton seniors were unable to finish their college career there due to Princeton and Ivy League rules — he had to transition to a new team, Duke, for one final college year — and then Sowers missed most all of his first year of the PLL.
“At the same time, I’ve just always loved playing the game,” said Sowers, who tallied 81 points on 37 goals and 44 assists in his one season at Duke, helping the Blue Devils make the NCAA Final Four and getting named as a Tewaaraton Award finalist.
“I’m 24 now. I still have the opportunity to play. I’m still healthy enough to play. I’m pretty grateful for that. I had an amazing career at Princeton. I wouldn’t change it for the world even though early on we didn’t have some of the success we would have hoped. But the people that I met, the experience I had, I wouldn’t change it for the world. The same thing with Duke. I’m 24 and still get to play, and I still feel great, and I feel like my best days are still ahead of me.”
As he did in college, Sowers has proven equally adept at scoring and setting up teammates in the PLL. His balanced scoresheet reflects an unselfishness and high lacrosse IQ. Coaches and teammates have been complimentary about his playing style and ability to fit into an offense. Sowers recognizes the Waterdogs’ strong attacking pieces that there’s no reason to force the action.
“At Princeton, the offense was shifted a certain way,” said Sowers. “Now you want to make sure you’re taking the right shot. I feel confident when I come around the net, I can usually get my hands free. If they slide, hit the open guy, but if not shoot the ball. But with an offense with that much talent, that’s not necessarily the best shot. So you rework your decision making and redefine what is a good shot, what is an acceptable risk. That’s somewhere I’m growing and I’ll continue to grow.”
Sowers also has had to adjust to some of the other nuances of being in the PLL. The size and speed of players in the PLL is another step up from college. He’s such a quick player that the speed is something that is easier to deal with than the size.
“In the PLL everybody is 6’3, 220 pounds, kind of that football build,” said Sowers. “It’s an adjustment. In college, you can kind of lean on people, even though that was never my game. Now, you have to be moving full speed.”
The PLL schedule too is a change. Sowers works for a private equity firm in Philadelphia during the week, then joins the Waterdogs for practices Fridays and games on the weekends.
“It’s kind of like Princeton with the school/lacrosse balance,” said Sowers. “You wake up early, you work out, you go to school all day, and then you go to practice at night. It’s kind of the same routine now.”
A challenge in adjusting to the PLL game is that there isn’t the same amount of time available with the team to foster the sort of relationships of younger levels. The difficulty is making the most of each moment together.
“Lacrosse is such a chemistry game — and the part of this that’s unique is you only see each other twice a week,” said Sowers. “You really have to develop that chemistry with the guys in the course of those two days. That’s why it just comes with the time and learning how to develop that chemistry and develop relationships with guys in a short time frame has definitely been a challenge.”
The Waterdogs put it all together for an exciting 11-10 win over the Whipsnakes entering the all-star break, handing the first-place squad their only defeat of the season. The win was important for showing the Waterdogs’ potential as they head into the second half of the season.
“The league’s so unique in the sense that anybody can beat anybody on any given day,” said Sowers, who scored three goals in the victory. “The Whipsnakes have been like the gold standards of the league, a lot of Maryland guys, so for us to get that win going into the break, that gives you momentum. And even though it’s only one game, going into that break at 1-4 vs. 2-3, beating the top team in our league, that’s definitely a big momentum swing.”
Sowers is hopeful that he can be a significant factor in helping the Waterdogs continue to climb in the PLL. Happy as he is to rebound that well, he still has big goals ahead.
“It’s that chemistry piece, continuing to grow every week,” said Sowers. “This first half of the season did feel like my rookie year in certain aspects. Now I’m starting to get my feet wet and feel comfortable and continue to get that every single week. That’s going to be key moving forward.”