On Liam Byrnes’ recruiting visit to Marquette, he had a meeting with strength coach Todd Smith, who head coach Joe Amplo described as a “mean-looking, snot coming out of his nose, saliva everywhere, strength coach type guy.”
Byrnes was one of Amplo’s first recruits on a team making the jump to Division I, and Smith was taking him through the weight-lifting program. When Amplo returned to ask how it went, Smith paused and then said, “he fell asleep in my office while I was talking to him.” Within the next year, however, Byrnes was Smith’s go-to guy, and they still keep in touch to this day.
“So that’s Liam,” Amplo scoffed after recalling the story. “The initial impression of Liam is not so great, but once you get to know him and rip off that facade, he’s the best that ever was.”
On the flip side, the team’s first impression of Amplo was so intense that nearly half the players didn’t make it through one game-less year. But once that facade was replaced by a full season, the results were immediate. Byrnes and Amplo built a Big East champion in just five years, and now they’re reunited on Team USA. While the talent level is at the opposite end of the spectrum this time, their goal remains the same: To build a championship unit from scratch.
20 players were recruited for Marquette’s first season, and only 12 remained on the roster come the team’s first game in 2013. They were all from top high school programs, but didn’t get starting opportunities until after the main recruiting window had closed. For Byrnes and many others, it was their only D-I offer.
During that first year, Amplo said it was “probably the worst environment imaginable… I mean, we kicked the living crap out of them.”
He did this partially to see who was willing to put in the work without the incentive of playing time. But, he also knew the players he scraped up at the end of the recruiting class were not ready to compete in the Big East. Despite not playing a single game, the team lifted and worked out every day of the week. And as they didn’t fall under the NCAA rules that season, Amplo abused his lack of limitations, Byrnes said.
So when the weekend rolled around, and the boys were… rowdy. It got to the point where they had to repair their image on campus before they even played a game. “We were just going bananas,” Byrnes said. That’s when Amplo signed the whole team up for Habitat for Humanity on Saturday and Sunday mornings.
Originally, the players took it as a punishment. But eventually, the team embraced an identity that centered around hard work and gratitude for the opportunity they were given, Amplo said, and that message was encapsulated by the work they did giving back to the Milwaukee community.
Anyone who didn’t prize those values was free to go, and many did.
“They gave me a reason to make their lives hell, truthfully,” Amplo said.
And, “it was absolute hell, to be honest with you,” said Byrnes.
Those who survived the fire of that 2012 year had to lean on each other, Byrnes explained. In the process, they developed a bond that transferred inside the white lines and helped them grow a supportive, winning culture from day one.
“Through shared suffering, I think we saw a few things happen where the guys fell in love with each other and fell in love with the place that cared about them,” Amplo said. “They made working together ‘the thing’ and they didn’t really care about the results, they just cared about doing the best they could. That set a great foundation for our future.”
Now, on Team USA, Amplo works with the best players in the world, but he’s still trying to help them connect as people. Just as he did 10 years ago, Amplo said he leans on Byrnes’ “captivating” personality and leadership by example to help build chemistry in the defense. But this time, winning is expected.
Because the lacrosse community is so concentrated and intersecting, all the players knew each other before games started. But despite being competitors in the PLL, they’ve started to act like true teammates, Amplo said.
After Sunday night’s final pool play game, Amplo started to notice that the defensive players “don’t want to let each other down.” He told them that after the game, expressing his satisfaction that they had all come together so quickly. They created a mentality where disappointing their teammates is a “cardinal sin.”
“We’ve got a bunch of individually great players on this team, but to us, we’re trying to build a team and trying to build a defensive unit,” Amplo said. “Everyone had to buy in and being a team had to be the most important thing to them, and I think we’re close to seeing that.”
Amplo did the same exact thing at Marquette, but with a group of overlooked late bloomers rather than the world’s greatest athletes: He built a unit. And once the Golden Eagles started playing games in 2013, their trajectory soared.
They went 5-8 in a promising opening season, then finished 6-10 in 2014 before jumping to 10-6 in 2015.
“Amplo, he just set the mentality early that we’re going to be a grinder team, blue collar, anything that we get is going to be scrappy, hard-fought and probably an ugly finish, and that’s how things went the first couple years,” Byrnes said.
As they clawed their way through a few arduous seasons, the program gathered steam. Amplo added transfers and got more high-profile recruits once the team started winning, and they all fit the same mold – scrappers who did whatever it took to win. And Amplo milked every ounce of potential from them before it came to fruition in Byrnes’ senior year.
In 2016, Byrnes captained Marquette to their first Big East title and the No. 20 scoring defense in the country, earning conference Defensive Player of the Year honors. The Golden Eagles beat No. 1 Denver 10-9 in the conference championship game behind Byrnes’ 6 ground balls, two caused turnovers and one surprising goal.
“There’s just something about building something new from the start where you have to go through the trials and tribulations of getting your a** kicked by Duke every single year and saying to yourself, ‘is this going to be worth it at the end of the day?’ And to actually see everything come to fruition was… What’s better than satisfying? That’s what it was,” Byrnes said.
Before Amplo’s call, Byrnes had resigned to play at Division-III Connecticut College, but a mere five years later, he was selected in the third round of the MLL draft. Byrnes expressed a deep gratitude for Amplo helping him become one of the best defensemen in the world, and cemented that title by earning the 2019 MLL DPOY.
On Team USA, there’s less intense yelling from Amplo and more persistent tweaking. But with the significant implications of the World Championships, Amplo is bringing back the intensity.
“He’s coaching it like a college team again, which is nice,” Byrnes said. “I think the guys like to be coached and hammering home the little technique things, where your feet have to be where your stick has to be… It’s just nice to get back to the basics and get yelled at by him again.”
As a captain on the Waterdogs and leader on the Team USA defense, Byrnes still follows Amplo’s winning template with his hard-nosed, collaborative mentality and constant communication. From the jump, Amplo implemented a “take no prisoners” approach, and Byrnes hasn’t taken one since.
He doesn’t make speeches, said Waterdogs head coach Andy Copelan, and he doesn’t need to. Byrnes’ cerebral nature combined with his relentless pursuit on the field make him a magnet in the clubhouse. He and Kieran McArdle both lead by example, and that’s enough.
Byrnes and Amplo have both won championships since their Big East title. Yet, Amplo said that Marquette’s 2016 run will always be his greatest coaching achievement.
The victory marked MU’s second win over a No. 1 overall team in any sport, and that accomplishment set the foundation for two elite careers. Seven years later, Byrnes and Amplo are employing the same work-oriented unity to try and become world champions.
Down 7-3 at the half, Byrnes and the MU defense held the fifth-best scoring offense in the nation to just two second-half points.
With under a minute left to play, Denver had one last chance to tie it. But on a dodge from Connor Cannizzaro, Byrnes jarred the ball loose and Marquette picked up the ground ball to capture its first-ever conference championship.
“[It’s] the most satisfying, the most rewarding, the most enjoyable because it’s unlike any other experience I could duplicate,” Amplo said. “As good as everything else gets, even if we are fortunate enough to win on Saturday, that will be the moment I’ll point to as the best moment of my coaching career.”