The Phoenix Rise are much less a Cinderella Story then they are a Sir Edmund Hillary story. The parallels become clear when you look at the journey of the team and its head coach, Mike Lee. A journey that ended this season with Lee being named the 2016 NPGL Coach of the Year.
Hillary, as you may know, was the first to summit Mount Everest in 1953. He had a number of preparatory expeditions that might be considered warm-up climbs to Everest. One, a simple Everest expedition in 1951 then a practice run up a nearby mountain called Cho Oyu in 1952. After some setbacks and reconnaissance, he ultimately scaled Everest successfully, becoming the first man to do so. Close, closer, then success.
The Rise have followed a similar path to victory in their three-year franchise history. In 2014, they faced the San Francisco Fire in the semifinals, leading most of the way until the Fire overtook them in the Race 11 Sprint Relay. The expedition was stopped at base camp.
“We knew going into to every match if we stuck to our plan, then the rest would fall into place. I continued to stress NOT looking at the other side of the GRID, to stay within their own jobs and only worry about what they can control.”
— Mike Lee
In 2015, they charged through the Fire in the Western Conference Final to face the then-undefeated DC Brawlers in the championship, match but DC won the Pinnacle Trophy. With 300 vertical feet remaining before the summit, Phoenix had to return down the mountain and regroup.
In the 2016, however, they left no doubt as to their tenacity and power as a team. The knocked down every team in their path in the regular season, picked off the San Francisco Fire in a blowout in the Western Conference Final, and then scaled the last obstacle, the Boston Iron, in the championship match to win the Pinnacle Trophy.
All the while, one thing remained a constant. The solid, steady leadership of coach Mike Lee.
Lee was named head coach of the Rise at the inception of the team, and then he and the team operators began assembling a group of solid players including Danny Nichols, Jessica Phillips, Emily Loeffler, Jamie Hagiya and Marcus Filly, to name a few.
Along the way, the Rise have always been a team that knew how to win. The only variable has been the degree to which they have collected the “W’s” and how far into the season they have gotten.
Lee, for his part, has always been smart, scientific and visionary. He applies the science of the OPEX Fitness training program of which he is a part to things like athlete recovery, offseason programming, and match-day rep schemes per athlete. He has a quiet, understated leadership style that his players trust, and to which they are very dedicated.
“You never see him get thrown off his game plan or worried during a match,” said Blaine McConnell, Rise player and NPGL MVP for 2016. “That trickles down to each of us while we are out on the GRID. You look at Mike at any time during a match and he always has that, ‘We got this’ look on his face regardless of the score.”
And “got this” they did. Even when they seemed up against the wall, as in their regular-season match against the Fire when the teams were tied at 15 points with one race left, Lee never backed off the confidence. He did what he knew he had to do, and put together a lineup for the Sprint Relay that delivered Nichols, the 2015 league MVP, to the 9 clean and jerks with enough time to overtake his adversary and win the match. If you look at Lee’s coaching style, Nichols’ come-from-behind performance was a direct execution of his plan — do your work, do not worry about what is happening next to you.
“Our team is a family,” Lee said. “But the individuals on the GRID (are) why we succeed. They have to execute. We knew going into to every match if we stuck to our plan, then the rest would fall into place. I continued to stress NOT looking at the other side of the GRID, to stay within their own jobs and only worry about what they can control.”
That particular win stood out for Lee as an indicator of what was to come
"After the second match of the season, I knew we had something special,” Lee said. “It was more than the epic finish from Danny Nichols, the team fought the entire way. They never let up and kept finding opportunities to keep themselves within the match. That is a championship team. They never looked back. Every practice precise, every conversation about what they can do to WIN and be best prepared, every pre-game in silence visualizing their tasks, everyone dedicated to the goal — win.”
Lee’s confidence is also tempered by humility and he credits much of his success to others.
“I was fortunate to have Assistant Coach Matt Bryant and GM Jon Callahan supporting this team’s evolution every step of the way,” he said. “My success and our team’s [success] is not had without recognizing them as a major part of what we built, and will continue to build in the future.”
What Lee has absorbed from others, however, he filters through to his team.
“Mike has taught me a lot about myself as an athlete,” said MVP McConnell. “Working with him through the offseason, Mike had high expectations of me as an athlete and as a person. He built confidence in me as an athlete and what I could be capable of. That transitioned very smoothly into the season and allowed me to have confidence in tackling a larger role for the team.”
In addition, Lee is a highly respected coach not only within his organization, but league-wide.
“I couldn't be happier for Mike,” said Josh Plosker, head coach of the Boston Iron and 2015 NPGL Coach of the Year. “He's an amazing coach and more important, a great guy. What's amazing about him as a coach is that he's got an enormous amount of passion not only for his players but for all of the players in this league. He truly wants each and every one of them to be successful.That passion is present in his coaching and you can see it just by the way his players play for him. It's the reason they are the champs.”
It’s all about teamwork. The summit is always achievable if the team works as one.
“Every good coach has an even better team pushing them to be the best,” Lee said. “That is exactly what the Rise did for me. This team will always be greater than any one individual.”