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Premier Lacrosse League ready to face off amid coronavirus pandemic when tournament opens July 25

The Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) tournament, which opens July 25 in a suburb of Salt Lake City, Utah, will give former Towson attackman Ryan Drenner a chance to demonstrate whether he was successful at maintaining the skills that helped him become the third-leading scorer for the 2019 champion Whipsnakes.

It will also give the Westminster native and graduate an opportunity to dust off his video game skills, which admittedly have been largely dormant since he graduated from Towson in 2017.

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“I’ve tried to get back into it with all of this time at home as a way to pass the time,” he said. “After the little one [3-year-old Beckham] goes to bed, I’ll usually get in a game or two with some of my buddies on Xbox, but the skill is not there like it used to be.”

Playing video games figures to be a popular pastime for players preparing for the PLL tournament as the league attempts to convene a truncated 2020 season in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Co-founder and former Johns Hopkins midfielder Paul Rabil is fully aware of the obstacle in the league’s path.

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“We certainly know – like the other league commissioners and owners – that there’s an inherent risk and that there’s no perfect medical protocol that exists given how cryptic COVID-19 is,” he said. “But we’ve put together a really robust ‘Return to play’ medical protocol and operation plan.”

That plan includes four phases of testing: at home, upon arrival in Utah, before the start of the tournament, and after the tournament. Players will be quarantined to their respective hotels throughout the tournament – hence the reliance on video games – and fans will not be permitted to attend.

“It’s the biggest challenge that any sports league has faced in the 21st century,” said Rabil, who will line up for the Atlas. “But I think we were well-fit to take it on given that we had just built a league from the ground up in 2017-18. So to us, basically pressing re-start was kind of a similar feeling and business process strategy that we had when we built from scratch. … I think we have taken a very conservative, medically-attuned approach to making sure that us getting our players on site and being on as many screens as possible in our network deal [with NBC and NBC Sports] is unlike anything the league or this sport has seen before.”

While professional leagues like the NBA, NHL and MLB have discovered a growing number of positive cases among their players as they attempt to ramp up their seasons, the key difference to Rabil is that the seven-team PLL is much smaller. Each team has 25 players, one head coach, and two assistant coaches, and the league’s operations staffs and NBC production crews will push the total to about 300 people.

Former Loyola Maryland and current Archers long-stick midfielder Scott Ratliff said that players were advised by PLL and medical officials to begin self-isolating themselves July 3 to ensure they were not virus carriers. The fact that players are share holders of league should have been enough to convince players to be smart, he said.

“I just have this perspective of, ‘Look around,’” he said. “There’s so much hardship going on in the world, and to not be willing to stay inside for three weeks … then what does this really mean to you? To each, their own, but I’ve sacrificed a whole lot just to be able to play lacrosse and have put a lot of work into it. So following a different set of rules for a period of time seems like a small price to pay for me.”

Former Duke and current Chaos midfielder Deemer Class said that players are worried about being infected and spreading it to others.

“But I think from my conversations with players, guys have done a really good job of trying to self-quarantine and take those precautions so that it doesn’t happen,” said the former Baltimore native and Loyola Blakefield graduate, who will not play because of a groin injury. “It is a concern. They’re hoping that when they do the self-test at home and show up, that everything is OK. I think the reality of the situation is that it’s certainly possible, but I think guys are just working hard to take the right steps to eliminate any risk.”

The PLL tournament at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, is modeled after the World Cup in soccer with all seven teams participating in a four-game round-robin format. The team that emerges with the best record will earn the No. 1 seed and first-round bye in the subsequent single-elimination tournament, and all seven teams will compete until a champion is crowned Aug. 9.

The season will have a different flavor for Drenner, who was left unprotected by the Whipsnakes in the PLL’s expansion draft in the offseason. He was claimed by the expansion Waterdogs and acknowledged that he and three other former Whipsnakes in attackman Ben Reeves and midfielders Connor Kelly (Maryland) and Drew Snider (Maryland) have enough motivation.

“I think it just makes us hungrier to go out and prove our worth,” he said. “We’re all hungry now to hopefully see those teams that left us unprotected and come together as a new group to prove what we’re all about and make a statement this summer.”

Ratliff summed up the sentiment of many players when he said “guys have been chomping at the bit” to get the season started.

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“Lacrosse is a medicine game for a lot of us,” he said. “So I think just the opportunity to get out there and be with each other and play these games, while it doesn’t take away from the awareness or the importance of everything else going on, I do think it will be healthy for us to have that outlet to do for a period of time.”

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