The Atlanta Blaze launched as an expansion franchise in the Major Lacrosse League (MLL) in 2016 and held its home contests at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw through its first three seasons.
The Blaze, under the guidance of new ownership led by Andre Gudger starting in 2018, moved its home facility to Grady Stadium in Atlanta for its 2019 campaign, bringing professional lacrosse closer to its fans and supporters.
“It's been great playing right in the heart of Atlanta,” Blaze defender Liam Byrnes said. “Last year we were playing in Kennesaw and that’s a long way for a team that calls itself the Atlanta Blaze. You want to be in the middle of the city with Piedmont Park being there, a lot of people coming and going. Attendance has been pretty good. Andre was instrumental in the move in the first place and been great. I enjoy the whole new setup that Grady has for us.”
The Blaze also entered the 2019 campaign, which began with a 14-12 home victory over the Denver Outlaws on June 2, with a depleted roster due to the launch of another pro lacrosse league, the Premier Lacrosse League (PLL) this year. Despite that, Atlanta has won three of its first four contests.
“We’re off to a good start,” Byrnes said. “We had a unique challenge this season with another professional lacrosse league starting up and losing several players from last year’s squad. We had to replace them and got creative recruiting several Canadians and indoor players. Our front office and head coach Liam Banks did a good job in the college draft finding under the radar players who are playing a lot of minutes for us now and contributing.”
Byrnes finds himself in a leadership role with the team.
“This is my fourth professional year and typically I wouldn’t consider myself a veteran but I’m one of the oldest guys on the team this year,” he said. “Early on the season, it was about acclimating the younger players to the league such as the schedule, practices and preparing for matches because we live all over the country.”
Byrnes is one of three players out of 23 on the Blaze roster that live in Atlanta
“Most guys have other jobs, he said.”If the game is on Saturday, everyone will fly in on Friday afternoon, have a practice, review film and have a team meal. We’ll have a practice on Saturday morning and play later that night. Everyone heads home on Sunday and that’s where the weekday communication comes into play. It's important to keep guys engaged and that’s the job of the veterans.”
Byrnes, a native of West Islip, New York and alumnus of Marquette University, just completed his third year as an assistant lacrosse coach at Centennial High School in Roswell.
“I came down here in the fall of 2016 becasue I was drafted by the Georgia Swarm, the indoor lacrosse team, and the team will pay if you stay in the market. Centennial needed a coach and it was great because I could coach during the week and play on the weekends which would be full time lacrosse which is exactly what I wanted to do. I coach with a great staff that works with my travel schedule”
Lacrosse has experienced large expansion in Georgia in Byrnes’ time in the state.
“I’ve seen significant growth and more kids playing every month,” he said. “I’m affiliated with the LB3 Thunder Lacrosse program (based in Marietta) that has more than 1,500 young players which is excellent and incredible. It's a great sport that provides many opportunities to kids. There are more opportunities to play collegiately now than ever. I have a passion and love for the game and excited to inspire kids in the sport.”
The uniqueness of lacrosse has been its appeal on a local level.
“It's a mix of soccer, basketball and even football because of the contact and that draws people to it,” Byrnes said. “Its fast, lots of transition play, hitting, good rivalries between teams. Its called the fastest game on two feet for a reason. The games are high scoring which people like to see. That’s the nature of the sport.”
Georgian lacrosse players are also gaining respect and attention on the national stage.
“I knew about lacrosse in New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts growing up in the Northeast,” Byrnes said. “You’re in a hotbed area and coached by former Division 1 players. During the high school season, you’re facing local teams but in the summer you’re at national events representing your area of the country. The games against southern teams from North Carolina, Florida and Georgia were seen as easier games and not much of a challenge. Since I’ve moved down here to Georgia, we’ve had good coaches come to this area and now we compete well against all teams around the country. Georgia isn’t a region that people overlook anymore and the national reputation is growing.”
The cycle of young players reaching their potential on the collegiate and professional level will help lacrosse expand even more in this area.
“There are good players all around the area and it's going to get better as more guys who have played at a high level give back to the in the community at the youth level,” Byrnes said.
Centennial itself saw five players commit to colleges for 2019; Frankie Cecere (Furman University), Brett Meskill (Sacred Heart University), Justin Wright (University of Mount Union), Ryan Siracusa (University of Maryland) and Gavin Kemp (Salisbury University).
“The lacrosse talent in the Milton, Roswell and Alpharetta areas is the best in Georgia,” Byrnes said. “We’ve sent more than ten players to Division 1 programs the past three years. There are good players all around the area and it's going to get better as more guys who have played at a high level give back to the in the community at the youth level. That will continue to propel Georgia in the national ranks.”
This cycle of player interaction will continue the growth of lacrosse in the state.
“Growing up there were a number of guys who coached me that played Division 1 and became professionals. Having someone lay down the groundwork for others to follow is helpful. That will continue to propel Georgia in the national ranks.”
The Blaze are in the midst of its most active portion of its season.
“The whole season is 16 matches and we play five of them in July,” Byrnes said. “You have to treat it as a professional sport, get to the gym, hydrate and see the trainer if you have injuries. You focus on one game at a time. Staying in touch during the week is the biggest thing, maintaining chemistry. The defenders have a weekly conference call to review matches and prepare for the next contest.”
Atlanta returns to action at the Denver Outlaws on July 11.