Major League Pickleball (MLP) capped off Season One in style with its Super Finals championship matches immediately following MLP San Clemente. In the Challenger Level, the Chicago Slice took down the Bay Area Breakers and claimed the title of MLP Champions.
We had the opportunity to chat with Slice players Connor Garnett and Emily Ackerman about their perspectives on playing in the biggest event in pro pickleball. We discussed what it was like for them to come together as a four-player unit with teammates Ryler DeHeart and Susannah Barr throughout Season One and about how they strategized going into the final event.
Congratulations on your big win in the Super Finals. Before we get to the details of the championship match, let’s start with the big-picture takeaways from Major League Pickleball. How did you enjoy MLP Season One?
Emily Ackerman (EA): Looking back at the different teams in all three of the events, as far as ownerships and teammates, I definitely realize how lucky I was to have owners that care a lot about it and wanted our experience to be top notch. They took care of us as far as housing, we did team dinners a lot of times at all the events, and the Saslows were at every event. It was just fun having them around all the time.
On top of that, credit to the owners for drafting such a sweet team. All of my teammates were very down to earth, easy to get along with, and even on the court, wanted what was best for the team. There’s a lot of humility and camaraderie on our team; we all really just became friends and wanted to do well together.
I think looking across the board of teams as well, I don’t think every team can say that as far as both teammates and owners go. We really just as a whole got really lucky and were super fortunate to be a part of a group of players and owners who care a lot about each other.
Connor Garnett (CG): MLP is a lot more fun, a lot more pressure with more fan engagement. It’s a cool format, and having it sprinkled in with the PPA’s contrasting events is pretty awesome.
I had an amazing time, the events were run super well; nothing but great things to say about it. It was really exciting, and it’s where you can get the most hyped and have the most fun.
Let’s start with MLP San Clemente. What were some of your stand-out moments from San Clemente, and who did you enjoy playing against most?
EA: As much as the Super Finals win probably felt the best, I think our win against Bay Area in the Semifinals was a little bit sweeter in a sense. No one had beaten them, and we had lost to them twice, so I think just being able to turn things around and Friday was one of the days where I think all of us played well at the same time.
Being on center court was really awesome. There were a lot of people there, my whole family was there pretty much all weekend, so being able to play in front of them and get that win was a blast. Again, we all played super well; and as much as Monday was a team win as well, Friday was a team win where everyone stepped up when they needed to.
I enjoyed playing the Ranchers too, partly because I train with Scott Doerner. We got to play against them and to beat his team 4-0, I’m taking that one back home to So Cal with me.
CG: Definitely the end of the Dreambreaker will be one to remember. I think we rattled off 9 of the last 10 points collectively, which we were down and came back and really solidified the win. That was awesome. The Super Finals men’s dubs, just the last two points of being decisive, Ryler hitting some great drives allowing me to move and cross, was pretty incredible.
Getting through to the semis was another big moment for us because regardless of how we did against the Breakers in that semi, that solidified us into the Super Final. Having a good win over Miami which was a team that played us close in Daytona, those were definitely big.
One of the funnier moments that I’ll remember for a while is I think I was a little too amped after men’s doubles during the Super Final and caught Ryler by surprise by giving him a chest bump that I don’t think he was ready for. He took a couple steps back, and then we did a proper chest bump.
How did the Slice build team chemistry both on and off the court during MLP Season One?
EA: I had never played with any of my teammates going into MLP Mesa, but our owners had put us all up in an Airbnb, so we were spending a lot of time together. Wednesday night before our first matches in Mesa, Connor, Susannah, and I got to spend a lot of time together with the owners and get to know each other.
I think getting to know each other off the court and just seeing that we are humans and getting to the bottom of who we are as people made us appreciate playing with each other a lot more. When you’re in a sport and you see people all the time, if you don’t know them well, you just know them as a pickleball player.
When you get to spend even just a couple of hours together outside of that atmosphere of playing, you really get to see that ‘they’re a lot like me.’ It was just fun to get to know them and go into it with an open mind, which made us more focused the day before Mesa about what would be best for the team.
CG: I think with chemistry, it definitely comes down to being willing to make sacrifices. If you have people that have strong opinions, being able to go with that and just building a cohesive plan. It’s better to have one thought that’s 85% right than multiple thoughts, even if you think yours is better. So it’s just having that strategy and being a team that can draw from our team’s experience.
One of the things I tried to do is just be loud. On both the mixed and men’s dubs court, I was trying to make my calls as loud as possible so that there wouldn’t be any confusion. I think that was one thing that really helped me and being very talkative with my partners and always making sure that whatever they’re thinking too, I’m taking into account.
What’s it like playing with your respective partners in doubles?
EA: When I play the right with Susannah, it’s super nice because I know that I can sit back and trust that Susannah has the middle. It’s great just having someone like Susannah, who’s super solid and can create a lot on the left side and can be aggressive, but also knows my strengths and what shots I was looking for.
So, she was either encouraging me to go for my shots or helping me understand how to get the shot I want to get. Her goal was also to be aggressive and set the point up, but also let me look for my backhand in the middle and kind of close that gap as well.
That was really fun, and having a veteran on your side is a breath of fresh air too. It gave me a little bit of freedom to play loose and give myself chances to prove how good I can be.
Playing with Ryler on the left – As the tournaments went on, I got a lot more comfortable on the left. Ryler has one of the best drives I’ve ever seen in pickleball, it’s just super solid, he rarely misses, and it’s super low. So having someone to be able to take a lot of those middle balls and me just being able to crash and be solid. My whole goal was to build him up and set the point up for him.
As far as a teammate goes, he’s one of the most calm partners. He doesn’t say much, which to some people might not work, but to me, being as loud and feisty as I can be, I didn’t ever have to worry about being too much and he grounded me a lot of times.
CG: I think it was Rob Cassidy, after he and Spencer Smith of the Black Diamonds beat us in Daytona, he mentioned that when Ryler and I played them, we weren’t working together as a team. So, that was a big focus that we took on board and just tried to talk a lot, share ideas, and get psyched together, and I think we did a great job of that afterward.
With Susannah, it was kind of a balance of she’s seen a lot of this stuff before so listening to her on the strategy side. I think for me, that theme of grit was something I really wanted to focus on, and when I make things physical and sweat a little bit more on the doubles court, I tend to play better. So I just wanted to make sure, especially in that Super Final, that I wasn’t walking off that match knowing that I didn’t slow it down and make it as physical and mental as possible.
How were you able to adjust from playing in the MLP San Clemente regular season event to going right into the Super Finals?
EA: I was excited to play another match because, for me, I feel like our match on Saturday was almost not even pickleball. How good Dallas was playing and how fast they were playing, they weren’t playing the slow game at all, it was kind of a shock, and we never quite got our footing.
So we had another chance to play how we want to play and play a team where we had a general idea of how they’d play, and that was exciting. Losing in the finals at San Clemente fired us up for the Super Finals.
I don’t know if we really had to do a lot of regrouping, as much as just understanding that we’re all on the same page. We know the strategies and how we want to play, we just have to execute it and hope that Monday’s our day; thankfully, it was.
CG: I think everyone was super eager to practice the day after, which was awesome. We got some good reps in, we just came out together as a team and that was super instrumental to our success. Just really, as a team, try and build that hunger – I felt like we could get a little hungrier for that Super Final, so that was something we tried to make sure we had and definitely had a good result in the actual event.
The more reps you get with the team, the better you’re going to feel. It was just awesome to kind of share some thoughts, you learn a lot more from a loss than a win. So, just having that opportunity to get everyone’s perspective on that rest day in between was awesome and everyone had some clear takeaways on what they noticed they could improve on going into the Super Final. I think that was super key to it.
During the Super Finals, how did you guys stay focused on the team and strategize to your opponents’ game plans on the fly?
EA: Every time we had played them before the Super Finals, we had won the coin toss, meaning that those were the doubles matchups we always wanted. On Monday, they won the toss, and I think if they had won the toss more often, those were the matchups in mixed that they wanted every time.
It goes to show you that you fight until the last point, you never know until the last point is played. That’s the reason I think why our team, their team, and Dallas were at the top every event, because every single match was close. They won some of them that mattered in other events that mattered more than this one, but we eventually got the one that mattered also, so it all worked out in the end.
CG: I think in the men’s dubs we were down on the switch, and so we were just trying to find better targets. The shake and bake was one thing we wanted to capitalize on; Ryler’s drive is gnarly if you’ve seen that thing it stays right on the net, so I gotta make sure after he hits a drive like that, I’m capitalizing.
Playing smart targets and slowing it down. One of the things for me coming from tennis is that I just need to be in the rally longer, slow it down and not go for the speed up. There was a point in that doubles match early on, where I went for a speed up and it just got smacked down right through the middle.
With the team format, having teammates on the sidelines being able to give you advice – that’s one thing I love. When I’m on the sidelines, I’m getting a different perspective from them, when they’re on the sidelines they’re getting a different perspective from me. It’s all about sharing that information.
The Super Finals came down to an incredible Dreambreaker. Tell us a little bit about your experiences in the match’s final game, with Emily going up against Ewa Radzikowska and Connor taking on Christian Alshon.
EA: I played Ewa when we went to a Dreambreaker in Daytona, and I think it was pretty 50/50 last time too. Looking back on it, I probably didn’t play at all like how I was hoping to play.
In a Dreambreaker, any singles strategy in my opinion, especially for the girls, is almost useless because it’s only four points. Players who don’t play singles can start playing out of their minds because they have nothing to lose. So, I did have a strategy going into it playing against Ewa, but I was pretty nervous so I don’t think my execution of that strategy ended up being where I was hoping it would be, but I think I ended up doing enough.
It all just goes so fast, but I mean Susannah, Connor, and Ryler all played out of their mind in our Dreambreaker, and you can’t really ask for much more as a teammate.
CG: Every point in MLP matters, going into a Dreambreaker every point counts that much more. One of the points that I will always remember is the one against Christian. I was playing in the last of my final series against him and I have a tendency to sometimes in big moments under-hit my serve, and so all I thought about was ‘hit the serve.’
In MLP, the thing that’s so important is just trust yourself – whatever it is you’re going to do, do it. Don’t second guess yourself, just make a plan and go for it. That is something super key, and the less you’re thinking and second-guessing yourself, the better it’s going to be.
First one, got it done 3-1, then he went 3-0 on me in our second bout until I got the last point. I really wanted to go for solid balls, nobody wants to put away a ball in the MLP format because there’s a lot of pressure. So if you can hit an 85% shot, it’s going to do the job because there are a lot of factors with a 100% shot.
In that final matchup, all I was trying to do was just hit aggressive passing shots, not do too much, and stay poised. Then that last point, I don’t know what it is, but when you have 3 points, that final point always feels like a 5% win rate.
So in my head, I just wanted to set myself up to start the point the best because it’s going to be the toughest point. That’s why I hit the big serve and came away with the point.
What are your thoughts looking forward to MLP Season Two?
EA: I’m just excited about the draft coming up, and even just the switch of Premier and Challenger teams will be interesting. I will forever be grateful for the Chicago Slice, so whoever’s going to be on their team will be a lucky bunch of players. I’m just excited to get into the second season already.
CG: This was a fun first half of the season. It’s going to be exciting to see what happens with the draft coming up, so I’m just excited to see everything involved with the second half of the season.
This was my first full-time six months of pickleball, so it was just a whirlwind of traveling everywhere. It was just so fun to be out in the world, doing all this stuff; it’s definitely a lot more freeing than having a day job.
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