August 1, 2013

MLL Week 13: Charlotte Controls Playoff Destiny

by Phil Shore | LaxMagazine.com

Charlotte can write its own ticket for the playoffs, controlling its destiny for the fourth spot with two games remaining.
©Peyton Williams 

Charlotte Hounds, meet the biggest game of your two-year existence. After beating the Ohio Machine in Week 12, the Hounds sit in sole possession of fourth place in the league standings. They are one game ahead of the Boston Cannons with two weeks remaining.

The Hounds control their own destiny.

"The fact that we're in sole possession of fourth is a great motivator," Hounds coach Mike Cerino said. "All season we've been really trying to take it one step at a time. Week to week we've made some nice runs. We're continuing to be a team that develops."

With a victory and a Boston Cannons loss, Charlotte could earn its first postseason berth. That's easier said than done, however.

The Hounds need a win, but they will square off against Hamilton Nationals, a team that clinched a playoff spot last week.

Hamilton is on a roll, winning three consecutive games and four of its past five. Despite the secured playoff spot, Nationals coach Dave Huntley says his team will not be letting up."We're going to approach this game like every other game," he said. "We still have a lot of work to do."

Making things even more difficult is that the Nationals already beat the Hounds once this season. Back on May 17, Hamilton outlasted Charlotte 16-15 in overtime. Four Nationals had four or more points, led by Joe Walters with three goals and two assists.

"We're very excited. You want to play games that matter," Cerino said. "If we're going to be a playoff team we have to beat a team that's already in the playoffs."

Against the teams ahead of them in the standings, the Hounds are 1-3. They have also lost twice to the Boston, which would hurt Charlotte if it came down to a tiebreaker situation.Not only would a win help solidify Charlotte's playoff push but it would also be the first time the franchise ever had winning record. Twice this season the Hounds have gone into a game with a .500-record only to lose and go back under.

Winning records and playoff appearances would be a huge moment in the short Hounds history. Is there too much pressure, however, on a team that prominently plays seven rookies and had the third worst record in the league just a year ago?

"I think opportunity is a better word than pressure," Cerino said. "I think we felt pressure earlier in the season getting our season back on track. I think we felt pressure against Boston for the tie breaker. ... Here we feel more like its opportunity."

Is this the best rookie class in league history?

The talent level of incoming players has continuously grown since the league's inception in 2001. But this year's crop of new talent might be the best we've ever seen. What's really impressive is the effect the rookies are having on the playoff race.

Nationals rookie Garrett Thul has nine goals in four games and was named MLL Offensive Player of the Week for Week 12 with a six-point, five-goal performance in the team's 17-12 win over the Cannons.

"Garrett is a natural leader. ... He did go to the finest leadership institute in the world," Huntley said. "He's really learning how to play with so many great players. He's figured out how he fits with that group."

The Cannons have gotten huge contributions from rookies Will Manny, Cam Flint and Scott Ratliff. Manny and Flint have scored a combined 19 goals to go with 17 assists.

The Hounds play seven rookies regularly, including long-stick midfielder Mason Poli, who is tied for the league lead in points for defenders with 10.

"First of all he's playing with a lot of confidence. ... He felt he blended in right away," Cerino said. "He's very dynamic in person. He becomes an immediate impact on our defense."

The Rochester Rattlers have stayed alive thanks in part to its duo of rookie midfielders Dave Lawson and John Ranagan. The two have combined for 28 goals in only 14 games. Last week, Lawson was the league's Rookie of the Week thanks to his five goals in the team's 13-12 win over the Lizards.

"[Lawson's] a very poised offensive player," Rattlers coach Tim Soudan said. "He's got a quick first step. He also gets down in the corner and posts up. He brings a lot to the table. That's exactly what we wanted from the draft."

Boston needs to improve on defense

When Nationals goalie Brett Queener scored against Boston in Week 12, it was the second time this season Boston allowed a goalie to score against them; Charlotte Hounds goalie Adam Ghitelman scored in their July 6 contest.

The Cannons are more known for their offensive talent, but coming into the season the concern was how the defense would hold up. With two games remaining, that unit still needs some consistency.

"Our defense and especially our transition defense was not very good," Cannons head coach John Tucker said about the team's 17-12 loss to the Nationals. Tucker said part of the issue is reassigning roles to some of the players.

"I think we have, even when I took over, we have a lot of the same kinds of defenders. We've been having to mix and match players out of position," he said. "Kyle Sweeney, Scott Ratliff, P.T. Ricci, we have a lot of guys that are more or less long-stick midfielders. We're trying to stop top attackmen with guys who are playing out of position. We have to get back to basics."

A player Tucker hopes will be the missing link for the final two games is Ricky Pages. Pages was acquired at the trade deadline from Charlotte along with goalie Kyle Feeney in exchange for a 2014 second-round supplemental pick.

Pages made his season debut last weekend and picked up two groundballs.

"I thought Ricky was very good," Tucker said. "He brings a lot of energy and enthusiasm. He's a tough kid who is used to playing in this league. He was one of our better players."

Week 13 Preview

Ohio Machine (1-11) at Boston Cannons (5-7)

4 p.m. Saturday | Broadcast: YouTube.com/MLL

After reaching double-digit goals once in the Ohio Machine's first eight games, the team has scored 10 or more goals in all four games since Bear Davis was named the team's new head coach. After losing seven games by an average of nearly seven goals per game, Ohio has lost its last four games by an average of only two goals a game, essentially one possession.

Still, Davis said there is no place for moral victories.

"We all step on the field prepared to win," Davis said. "Our goal was to learn how to compete. We need to get to a point where we're over that point where we win some games. We're disappointed we haven't gotten to that point."

Hamilton Nationals (9-3) at Charlotte Hounds (6-6)

7 p.m. Saturday | Broadcast: ESPN3

As written above, there is potential for a couple big milestones for the Hounds as a whole with a victory over the Nationals Saturday. There's also the possibility of an impressive individual achievement as well. All-Star midfielder Peet Poillon is only two goals away from reaching 100 goals for his career. He also needs only four points to reach 150 for his career.

Both milestones could absolutely be met at home against Hamilton. In the teams' first meeting, Poillon was Charlotte's leading scorer with three goals and four points.

Rochester Rattlers (5-7) at Chesapeake Bayhawks (7-5)

7 p.m. Saturday | Broadcast: ESPN3

The Chesapeake Bayhawks gave the undefeated Denver Outlaws, in Denver, a scare. The Bayhawks ended the first quarter up 4-1 against the Outlaws and scored just 58 seconds into the second quarter to take a 5-1 lead. The lead evaporated from there.

The Bayhawks went into halftime with a one-goal lead, and went into the fourth quarter even before losing 14-12.

It was close, but close wasn't good enough for Bayhawks head coach Dave Cottle.

"I think the most important thing is to have a lead in the fourth quarter," he said. "We felt like we left some scraps on the table."

He doesn't think that the performance from Week 12 will linger, however.

"I think these guys as professionals, they have this quarterback mentality that they move from one week to the next," Cottle said. "I think these guys understand the big picture."

Denver Outlaws (12-0) at New York Lizards (3-9)

5 p.m. Sunday | Broadcast: CBS Sports Network

The Lizards have officially been eliminated from playoff contention. Moving forward, it's time for the coaching and ownership staffs to evaluate players for next season. Lizards head coach Joe Spallina said the team will bring out some fresh faces for their meeting with the Outlaws.

While different players will get increased opportunities, one guy that has risen his level of play after a slow start is midfielder David Earl. After scoring only six goals in the first eight games of the season, he has five in the previous two.

"David Earl and I sat down a couple games back and he's been in a position where he's deferred to other guys. We want him going first. I almost feel like he can score at will. He goes by people and makes people miss," Spallina said. "You're getting a glimpse now of how he's producing at an All-Star level. It's just a matter of confidence. He's been one of the bright spots moving forward and he's one of the guys we're definitely 100-percent moving forward with."


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