By Eric Black
Midway through the spring, 2023 Madlax DC Dogs head coach Matt Rienzo had a conversation with Colin “Mac” Christmas' father. The former Georgetown star wanted to move Christmas from a regular midfielder to a long-stick midfielder. His size and skillset, Rienzo explained, made him a perfect candidate to make the transition. But Christmas was hesitant to make the switch just yet.
A few weeks later, the DC Dogs found themselves down three defensemen due to injury. Christmas, with a long stick in his hands, went on to score three goals against Edge in their third game of the North American Lacrosse Summer Invitational. He finished the weekend with 7 goals and left his head coach shaking his head in awe.
“I coached Kyle Sweeney and Brodie Merrill at Georgetown,” Rienzo said. “Two of the best long-stick middies to ever play in my opinion, and (Christmas) has similar qualities. He’s exceptional.”
Christmas is one of the leaders on the 2023 DC Dogs, US Club Lacrosse’s No. 1 team in the class. Despite playing in just one tournament so far, the Dogs made sure it was a memorable one, going 6-0 in the NAL and finishing the run with a dominant 8-2 win over the No. 2 Annapolis Hawks. Coached by Rienzo, a Georgetown Hall-of-Famer who’s lined up next to by offensive coordinator Charlie Horning and Bob Dunn, the DC Dogs are one of the most impressive teams in the nation regardless of division.
Goalie Declan Monahan also stepped up during the Dogs’ undefeated slate. Thanks largely in part to his play, they averaged just 3.5 goals against per game, including three different contests in which they gave up just 2. Part of that defensive dominance can be attributed to their stellar ball-control, which is solidified by Jackie Weller's play at the face-off X. Rienzo believes Weller is one of the best face-off guys in the country in the age group and won over 75 percent of the face-offs during the tournament.
Colin “Barbecue” Burns is the quarterback of the team’s attack group, which reached double-digit goals in four out of their six games. He mostly plays behind the cage and is flanked by Caulley Deringer, a lefty wing player who has been a great addition to the team and Drew Stahley, a solid complementary player. But the Dogs’ strength lays in its midfield. It runs six deep, allowing for two different lines of high-caliber players on both sides of the ball.
“With our athleticism and depth, we'll find we wear teams out in the fourth quarter,” Rienzo said. “When we get in these tournaments where you're playing three games in a day, you get to that sixth game of the tournament and other teams are tired, we should hopefully still be able to be a little bit fresh because of how many people we play.”
While most teams with a high number of talented players may have trouble spreading the wealth around without getting selfish, that isn’t the case with the DC Dogs. Madlax’s CASE camp is a big reason for that. CASE, which stands for Character, Attitude, Success, and Effort, is taught to everyone in the program during the first week of the summer instead of playing in a tournament. Madlax founder Cabell Maddux has received his share of criticism for the decision, but he’s found it’s consistently paid dividends for his players on and off the field.
Now in its ninth year of existence, CASE has made teams’ play more fluid and recruiting way easier, Maddux said. While in the past some players believed that playing for Madlax meant they automatically were going to get recruited, that thought process is no longer allowed in Maddux’s program. If a player isn’t a good person off the field or isn’t doing the right thing, they’re cut from the team.
“There's plenty of good players, we had to start developing kids besides players,” Maddux said. “We know we're always gonna have enough athletes around here to develop the athlete, (but) let's develop the person too.”
In addition to the CASE camp, Madlax employs positional experts to coach players’ specific skill sets. For 30 to 45 minutes during each practice in the fall and early spring, Madlax players are split up into groups and coached by experts on face offs, goalies, shooting, dodging, and defense, among other areas.
The camps and coaching have also helped to prevent players from burning out. Past Madlax teams potentially played as many as 60 games a year, but are now down to about 30. For the 2023 Madlax DC Dogs, one of the best teams in the program, Maddux said, the new format is paying off.
“We won our first tournament because we were fresh. Some teams have already played in three or four tournaments,” Maddux said. “Those are the two things that differentiate us. One is our character piece, two is our emphasis on positional work, especially in the fall and winter.”