August 25, 2012

No Muney, No Problem: Denver Rallies Behind Bocklet to Beat Lizards

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter 

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — Brendan Mundorf rose to his feet, and the Denver Outlaws surrounded him in a huddle. The first half of Denver’s playoff matchup against Long Island hadn’t gone according to plan — the top-seeded Outlaws trailed 8-2 — and the recently minted Major League Lacrosse MVP wanted to speak his mind.

“He reminded us how much heart we have. How all season long we’ve never given up, and how we couldn’t do it now. We came all this way, and we couldn’t go down that way,” said rookie attackman Chris Bocklet. “He reminded us, ‘Look, we’ve gotten here. We’ve done a lot of things right this season. Let’s go back to those things. Don’t look around and point fingers. Let’s get back and do this together.’”

Rookie Mark Matthews tallied five points while fellow first-year pro Chris Bocklet scored six times in place of injured MLL MVP Brendan Mundorf in Denver's 13-12 comeback win over Long Island on Saturday at Harvard Stadium.
© Bryce Vickmark

The postseason snake-bitten Outlaws had been stung again, and the door was more than cracked open for the fourth-seeded and upstart Lizards, who had nothing to lose after backing into the playoffs.

Only the funny thing was, “together” didn’t include Mundorf. The league’s second-leading scorer suffered an apparent foot/ankle injury in practice Friday and was unable to play in Saturday’s Major League Lacrosse semifinal at Harvard Stadium. He was relegated to the sidelines, where he constantly coached and instructed the Outlaws’ offense, which usually runs through him.

But Mundorf’s passionate halftime speech gave Denver the spark it lacked in the first half, and the rookies rose to the occasion. Bocklet, who started in Mundorf’s place, scored five of his game-high six goals after intermission, while Mark Matthews tacked on five points, as the Outlaws erased a nine-point deficit, scoring the final 10 goals to defeat Long Island, 13-12, in an epic comeback effort.

“Mundorf’s speech was something I can’t repeat, obviously, but he was getting everybody hyped and real emotional,” Matthews said. “He couldn’t be out there, and we knew that. We knew we had to take care of it.” 

And Denver did, propelling itself into Sunday's MLL championship (3 p.m, ESPN2), where it will meet Chesapeake, which beat Boston in the second semifinal. The Outlaws’ seventh straight win is an instant classic, and one that will be remembered for years.

“That has to be the best comeback game I’ve ever played in,” Bocklet said.

It certainly didn’t look that way just three hours earlier, when it became clear Mundorf wouldn’t be able to play. The Outlaws’ final roster was due at Noon, one hour before the opening faceoff. Minutes before, Mundorf tried going through drills with the team’s training staff. 

Brendan Mundorf injured his lower left leg in practice Friday and couldn't play Saturday. With the Outlaws down 8-2 at halftime, he delivered a passionate speech to his teammates.
© Bryce Vickmark

“We knew it was touch-and-go, and we knew right then and there he couldn’t play,” Denver coach Jim Stagnitta said. “He couldn’t run. So it was a pretty easy decision, honestly. Believe me, if he could’ve moved at all, we would’ve had him out there.”

As word spread that Mundorf wouldn’t dress, a soft-spoken buzz spread through the stadium while the teams went through warm-ups. A Long Island staff member whispered the news to a group of fans in the crowd, while Denver went through the motions in a state of disbelief. The Outlaws’ staff gathered together, somewhat shellshocked.

From the opening faceoff, Long Island rode the momentum and Denver had its tail between its legs.

“Certainly [not having Mundorf] impacted our guys early on,” Stagnitta said. “The first half we were flat, we were pressing. We didn’t handle Long Island’s pressure and intensity. We didn’t match it.”

Ryan Young scored roughly five minutes into the game for Long Island, and the Lizards kept the pressure on. Stephen Peyser buried one past Jesse Schwartzman running down the left alley, and then ripped a 2-pointer from the left side that beat Schwartzman high. Rookie Matt Gibson, who had the flu and barely slept Friday evening, converted a fancy dive-shot after dodging along goal line extended.

“At halftime, we just said we didn’t play in the first half. We really didn’t. It’s not about the sets, or strategy. It was simply that they were out-playing us. They beat us to the ground balls. They had more intensity. We didn’t slide well. We didn’t shoot well. We didn’t do anything well,” Stagnitta said. “We just said, ‘We’ve got to show some self-respect. Regardless of the outcome, we’ve got to play at least 30 minutes.’ And we did.”

Long Island scored four of the first five goals in the second half to take a 12-3 lead with 12:32 remaining, and it seemed like the Lizards were more than on their way to the title game.

Then Denver went to work. Somewhat unbelievably, the Outlaws scored the next 10 and held the Lizards scoreless for the final 27 minutes. It was a monumental rally.

“We just couldn’t get that next goal to stop their run, and it’s a game of runs,” Long Island coach Joe Spallina said. “You start looking in the rearview mirror, and things happen in a hurry.”

Denver locked down defensively by slowing its slides and winning individual matchups, as defensive player of the year Lee Zink put the clamps on whomever he was guarding. 

“We became a standing-around, iso offense,” Spallina said. “We were very predictable on that side of the field.”

Meanwhile, Denver started initiating offensively with Matthews, and ran two-man games behind with Jordan McBride. That opened lanes for crease-feeds to Bocklet, who made his college career finishing on the interior on crisp passes from Steele Stanwick.

“Kid is a stud, man,” Schwartzman said of Bocklet. “He’s a rookie for us, but he hasn’t played like a rookie all year. He’s awesome. When he plays well, it really inspires our team. Chris got off a couple good ones. The way he scores, it’s unreal. He just finds a way.”

Long Island’s defense “tired out” in the second half, Spallina said, and it can’t be overlooked that the Lizards’ gameplan also changed significantly without facing Mundorf. Brian Karalunas was going to cover Mundorf, but instead spent most of his time away from the ball.

“It changed what we were going to do,” said Long Island goalie Drew Adams, who made 14 saves. "Obviously he’s their top player, one of the top players in the league. A lot of what we did this week was focused around him. Without him out there, we made the adjustments. We moved some guys over. 

The Lizards appeared to have one final surge before time expired. Brian Langtry missed wide on a pair of shots in the final minute. Max Seibald created for himself but missed wide coming out of a timeout. On a second effort after the restart, Zink knocked the ball loose.

Controversially, Stagnitta called timeout as Zink gained control in the defensive end. After clearing successfully, the Outlaws ran out the final seconds, then celebrated around Schwartzman, who made nine saves — not unlike how they surrounded Mundorf minutes before the second half started.

“We were a little tight at the beginning without having Mundorf out there. It was tough on all of us. But we just buckled down,” Schwartzman said. “When we buckle down and play together, we’re a pretty damn good team."

And Mundorf makes them even better. But his status for the championship game unknown, as Stagnitta said it would be a wait-and-see situation. Call it a game-time decision.

Like Saturday, everyone — on both sidelines — will be watching.


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