August 29, 2013

McLaughlin: My Favorite MLL Championship Weekend Moments

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

The second semifinal of 2011 MLL Championship Weekend Saturday was played in the driving rain and howling wind of Hurricane Irene, ranking among the most memorable moments of MLL playoff history.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

I put together a list last year of my favorite Major League Lacrosse Championship Weekend moments, and figured why not add to it while it's fresh in mind. The Chesapeake Bayhawks just won their third Steinfeld Trophy in four years on Sunday at PPL Park in Chester, Pa., just outside Philadelphia.

I've been fortunate enough to cover five such weekends since 2008, including the last four. While the teams, players, coaches and circumstances change, the games never fail to disappoint in terms of storylines and great moments. Here are some of my favorites, in chronological order.

Note: This list only includes games I have attended, and not all MLL playoff games.

2008 - Queener Steals the Show as Rochester Takes Title

The Rochester Rattlers went with a first-half, second-half goalie rotation most of the season. Mike Levin played the opening half and Brett Queener would come in for the second. The trend held in the 2008 title game at Harvard Stadium, and Queener stole the show in Rochester's first ever MLL title-game win.

This was early on in my lacrosse reporting career, and I hadn't seen a goalie come out of the net that many times, much less assist on a goal, or snap a between-the-legs pass in the 16-6 win over the Denver Outlaws. Of course, had I seen Queener play in high school, Herkimer Community College, or at Albany, I would have known what to expect.

His post-game interaction with fans was almost just as exciting. Queener threw pieces of equipment into the crowd to nearly everyone who asked. He gave position-specific directions after asking kids what positions they played. He told others to friend him on Facebook, and this was 2008, before everyone and their parents were on social media. This went on for nearly an hour and he was the last to leave the field. Queener became the main subject of my feature for Lacrosse Magazine. He provides plenty to write about, even still with the Hamilton Nationals and as an assistant women's coach at Syracuse.

2010 – Bayhawks Back on Top, Goettelmann Retires?

After taking a year off from attending Championship Weekend in 2009, I was back at it Annapolis, Md., at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for 2010. The Bayhawks and Lizards met in the championship game in an old-school MLL rivalry renewed. Long Island beat Denver for the first time ever to make the final and the fourth-seeded Bayhawks ousted top-ranked Boston in an upset in the other semifinal.

It was a year of change for the Bayhawks. New team owner Brendan Kelly took over coaching duties from John Tucker in the middle of a five-game losing skid, and in the second half of the season, Kelly brought on Dave Cottle as a consultant. By championship weekend, Cottle was on the sideline, still as a consultant, for the first time since being forced out at Maryland. The Bayhawks beat Long Island 13-9 in the final.

The story for me though was more about the MLL's recently anointed all-time leading scorer, Lizards veteran Tim Goettelmann, the 10-year-pro and last remaining player from the original Lizards roster in 2001. Nicknamed the "Monster" for his 6-foot-4, 215-pound size, Goettelmann was considering retiring and, after the game, said he was leaning that way. He later changed his mind and came back for an 11th and final season. These were my first interactions with Goettelmann, who was and is one of the nicest people in lacrosse I have ever met. He ended up being Lacrosse Magazine's 2010 Person of the Year for his charitable work for sick children "Monster's Kids," along with becoming an MLL record holder and is as genuine a person as there is. Yesterday, he sent out invitations to "Monster's Kids" annual holiday fundraising party, to benefit Cohen Children's Medical Center in New York.

2011 – Quinzani's Last-Second Goal Wins First "Hurricane Game"

Lacrosse Magazine editor Matt DaSilva and I headed down from Baltimore to Annapolis, Md., despite a State of Emergency in Maryland and Hurricane Irene approaching. That cone of uncertainty you see on TV predicting where the storm will head? We were certainly in it, but Championship Weekend went on. If it didn't happen this weekend, there was a good chance it wouldn't happen at all because of scheduling and logistics.

The ride down wasn't all that bad, but it was the calm before the storm. Rain picked up during the first semifinal that Saturday between the Bayhawks and Boston Cannons. And with the outer bands of Irene serving as the backdrop, Max Quinzani sent Boston to the championship game on last-second goal. You hear play-by-play man Joe Beninati's call of the goal on many of MLL's promotional videos.

2011 – Hurricane Irene Really Gets Going for Second Semifinal

Ask most people who were there and they will tell you the first semifinal wasn't really that bad, just like playing in the rain. But just as the Hamilton Nationals and Denver Outlaws took the field for warmups for the second semifinal, the wind picked up and the rain went from vertical or nearly horizontal. I was down in the tunnel between the locker rooms and the field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium when then transition to hurricane status seemingly officially happened. Then I decided to head for the dryness of the press box, although it was the highest point in the venue.

We stayed dry, but as the storm intensified, the rain covered the windows of the press box like a coat of clear paint and it was nearly impossible to see what was going on the field, much less blog about it. I ended up watching most of the game on a TV above me, hearing analyst Quint Kessenich mention something about the possibility of lawn furniture flying across the field. That wasn't far from the truth. Advertising banners on the sides of the field knocked over and were threats to go airborne. The turf field was waterlogged to say the least. Splashing with every step on the field, every shot or ground ball, intensified everything. Hamilton ended up winning.

There is a passage in the new book "Take a Shot!" by MLL co-founders Jake Steinfeld and Dave Morrow in which Steinfeld talks about a moment during this game when he and commissioner Dave Gross were just about ready to cancel it, but soon after the weather let up just enough to finish the game. "The stadium was rattling like it was made out of tin. That minute felt like ten hours," Steinfeld writes. I think I know exactly the moment he's talking about. I think it was when the wind howled so hard that I wanted to head to the car. "But then," he writes, "the rains eased up a tiny bit. The winds went from howling to just plain nasty."

Think of the wettest you've ever been. Multiply it by 25 players, coaching staff and other team personnel, throw in the drenching rains and wind of a HURRICANE for about two hours – and then walk in to the post-game locker room.

Surprisingly, many players said they got used to the conditions during the game. Maybe I asked the wrong guy to expect a negative reaction, but six-time MLL Defensive Player of the Year Brodie Merrill was unfazed, but soaking wet sitting on a stool in front of his locker.

"In all honesty, it wasn't as bad as it probably looked out there," he said. "It was certainly very wet, but it wasn't cold. It wasn't too windy. [Assistant coach] Gary Gait said to us before the game, 'Let's make this something we can really rally behind and have fun out there and enjoy it.' It's not very often you have the opportunity to play in those types of conditions. We made the choice to have fun with it."

We drove back to Baltimore. The rain come down, trees snapped over and there weren't many cars on the road. The storm lasted all night. After finising up a championship game preview, I walked around in the rain and wind a little bit that night just to see what it felt like. I got soaked, and I could not tell you how I would have done trying to play lacrosse in that weather.

2011 – Rabil, Powell Collision in Final Moments of Cannons First Championship

The next day was a beautiful one. Blue sky, no rain and the outer bands of clouds from the back end of Irene passed through that morning. Boston jumped out to a lead on Hamilton and held the Nationals off 10-9, despite a four-goal MVP-type effort from Casey Powell.

In the waning moments, Powell was attempting to give possession back to the Nationals and Paul Rabil had the ball in the middle of the field, looking to kill clock. Rabil split a double team of Brodie Merrill and Kyle Rubisch and Powell was in his path, and didn't give ground. Powell and Rabil collided and Rabil spun clockwise in the air like John Elway in Super Bowl XXXII.

I couldn't help but think that the proverbial "faces of lacrosse" had just collided. The sound was like a thud from my point near the substitution box. Powell clutched his right knee and lay on the field until the final horn blew. As the Cannons went out to the field to celebrate their first MLL title in franchise history, Powell managed to get up and limped off the field gingerly to the tunnel and the locker room.

Rabil, when told of this, said "Is he all right?"

We didn't know, and neither did Powell. After he left the locker room, Powell said he may have torn his ACL and his future playing career was in question. Turned out he chipped his kneecap and is still able to play. But it was the last time we'll see Powell in an MLL Championship Weekend. Powell recently announced his retirement from the league, although he will seek a spot on Team USA.

2012 – Denver Mounts Historic Comeback Minus League MVP Mundorf

Watching MLL MVP Brendan Mundorf limp around the field after getting injured in Friday practice was a sign no one associated with the Denver Outlaws wanted to see the day before they were to play in the MLL semifinals. There was some confusion as to how Mundorf injured his left ankle and the severity was unknown, but it didn't look good. After practice, Mundorf said he was "fine" and it was "just a bruise," but you had the feeling he was hiding something or at least didn't know the severity just yet.

He went through pre-game tests the next day, but couldn't run without pain. He was ruled out an hour before game time. The Denver coaching staff looked stunned and no one talked much. Nobody ever actually told rookie Chris Bocklet that he would be in the starting lineup in place of Mundorf until it happened.

The Outlaws played like they were stunned in the first half, going down 8-2 at the break and looking like they just weren't going to show up with Mundorf out. But at halftime, Mundorf gave a passionate speech to light a fire. Long Island still scored four of the first five goals of the second half and led 12-3. But Denver scored 10 straight goals to win 13-12. Long Island's defense ran out of gas as the attack unit of Bocklet (six goals), Mark Matthews (five points) and Peet Poillon (three goals) orchestrated the offense and Lee Zink and the Denver defense rendered the Lizards offense scoreless.

"That has to be the best comeback game I've ever played in," Bocklet said.

Mundorf tried to play in the next day's championship game by taking pain-killing shots in his ankle, but he couldn't go past midway through the second quarter. He said after the game he tore ligaments in his ankle (see, it was serious) and the pain was too much. Denver lost 16-6 to Chesapeake, and left the MLL playoffs without a championship for the seventh straight time, while the Bayhawks took their second title in three seasons.

2013 – Charlotte Spoils Denver's Perfect Season

Geoff Snider's faceoff prowess played in a big role in the Charlotte Hounds spoiling Denver's historic 2013 season.
© Kevin P. Tucker

Denver rookie attackman Eric Law pumped in a playoff-record nine goals for the Outlaws, but it didn't really matter as the Charlotte Hounds jumped all over Denver early and won 17-14 in Saturday's first semifinal game at PPL Park in Chester, Pa.

The Outlaws won all 14 regular season games, becoming the first team in 13 years of MLL history to complete a perfect regular season, but it all went down the drain with an eighth straight playoff exit without a championship. If not now, when? That was my thought sitting in the press box in the fourth quarter. Outlaws coach Jim Stagnitta said the team that took the field in Chester, Pa., didn't resemble the one he knew all season. I'd agree. They lacked poise and the scoring balance that had defined the team all season long.

Like its 2012 semifinal comeback win against the Lizards, Denver trailed by six at halftime, but this deficit was too much to overcome. Lasting memory: Denver goalie Jesse Schwartzman breaking his stick across a pipe after allowing a second-half goal to the Hounds' Mike Sawyer. Denver went from being in the running for the best MLL team ever to wondering, once again, what could have been.

Geoff Snider, in just his third game of the 2013 season, dominated faceoffs for Charlotte, winning 17 of 25 against Anthony Kelly and Stephen Robarge. Snider put Team USA's selection committee on notice for the 2014 World Games, that he would likely be Canada's primary faceoff taker again.

It was a huge win for the Hounds, in just their second year of existence as a franchise, but they would lose the next day in the title game to Chesapeake.

2013 – The Bayhawks Dynasty

Come to think of it, my MLL coverage has largely been dominated by the Chesapeake Bayhawks winning championships. The franchise won its third title in four years, all under owner Brendan Kelly, with a 10-9 win over the Charlotte Hounds at PPL Park. Well, really 10-7 aside from a Matt Danowski 2-pointer as time expired.

The biggest takeaway for me was two legends of the game, 37-year-old Casey Powell and 39-year-old John Grant Jr. pulling the strings on the Hounds in the first half of the championship game. Powell, lured out of MLL retirement by Grant, his teammate and roommate with the NLL's Colorado Mammoth, had a goal and two assists in the title game. Grant was named MVP of the weekend after scoring four consecutive goals to give Chesapeake a 6-2 lead early in the third quarter.

The 2013 Chesapeake team was largely the same one that won the title in 2012 — with one significant addition, Powell, and a few notable subtractions, faceoff man Alex Smith and attackman Danny Glading. Coach Dave Cottle has won nothing but championships since he became the team's head coach before the 2012 season, after serving as a consultant the previous two. Because the franchise so was laden with talent, it had to manage salary cap issues throughout the regular season and post season, much like in 2012. Some players, like veteran defenseman Nicky Polanco, took pay cuts just to keep the roster intact.

The Bayhawks became the league's second dynasty. The Philadelphia Barrage won three of four titles from 2004-2007. The Bayhawks have now done the same. Defenseman Brian Spallina was part of both, and has won an MLL-record six league championships.


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