Sieverts Strikes Late to Lead Denver to MLL Finals
DENVER - The single goal that decided an incredibly intense power struggle between the New York Lizards and the Denver Outlaws on Saturday stemmed from a series of gutsy plays by the Outlaws who were just slightly superior to their counterparts.
Michael Simon kept a ground ball alive at midfield long enough for Justin Pennington to scoop it up and call time out with 1:53 remaining in the tied game. The grand old man of the game, 39-year-old John Grant Jr., bobbled the ball, seized control, backed toward the goal against powerful defender Steve Holmes, and then flicked a pass across the field to Jeremy Sieverts who buried it against the Lizards' outstanding goalie Drew Adams for a 14-13 lead.
Despite a throbbing Achilles' tendon injury that sidelined him the past two games, Anthony Kelly managed to win the ensuing faceoff against the Lizards' impressive X-man Greg Gurenlian, enabling Denver to call time out with 62 seconds remaining. The Outlaws stalled until a shot clock violation cost them possession with 2.5 seconds left when New York's ensuing Hail Mary was intercepted, sealing Denver's fifth trip to the Major League Lacrosse championship game.
"The first half was okay, but the second half I was hurting pretty good,'' Kelly said. "That could have been the last faceoff of my career, so I gave it all I had. Luckily we were able to come up with it.''
Kelly wouldn't reveal any change in strategy against Gurenlian, who took all but one faceoff for the Lizards in the high-90s heat on the artificial turf at Barton Stadium on the University of Denver campus. In contrast, Kelly split the draws with rookie teammate Brent Hiken.
"It was pure heart I guess,'' said Kelly. "I gave it everything I had. It is always a battle with Greg. I have a ton of respect for him.''
Kelly credited winning eight draws in his 17 attempts to his wing men, primarily Simon, Pennington, Chris Bocklet, Drew Snider and Jeremy Noble. "I give those guys a ton of credit. We really communicated about where they needed to be.''
He was also indebted to his massage therapist Anna Castellano, who guided him through three hours of daily therapy in his determination to play after missing the past two games, including last week's regular season finale overtime loss to the Lizards in New York.
"She loosened it up,'' Kelly said. "Without her I wouldn't be standing here right now.''
Kelly also credited the fans, a sold-out, Orange-clad crowd of 2,488, who were displaced by a scheduling conflict from their usual home at Sports Authority Field, where they average a league-leading 10,383.
"We have awesome fans,'' he said. "They are the best in the league. Everyone says that, and it is a cliché. And everyone has great fans, but we have the most, great fans. That says a lot about the organization, how they run things and how they treat people. I am so proud to be a part of this family. Hopefully we'll get a title. We deserve it, our fans deserve it, and our organization deserves it. I'd be proud to walk off the field next week holding the Steinfeld trophy.''
If that is the case, it will be a first. Denver has reached the playoffs in all nine years of its existence, and has never captured the title.
"The whole season we're looking to get back to the championship,'' Pennington said. "Last year was devastation and it is over. This is a new team, and a new year. We feel great, we are going into next week and we want it all.''
A change in playoff format has slotted the championship game following a week's rest and recovery, rather than the day after the semifinals. Kelly is likely to greatly benefit from the additional rest, along with the ageless Grant Jr., who said he might skip one of his midweek Canadian box lacrosse games to prepare for the matchup against Rochester at Fifth Third Bank Stadium in Kennesaw, Georgia.
"The extra week is going to mean so much,'' Pennington said. "Junior's having one of the best seasons he's had in a long time. He's a great leader and we feed off that, and Train [Kelly] is playing through that injury, fighting to the end, and it inspires us. We want to keep going and win that championship.''
Along with the game-winning assist, Grant Jr. scored four goals and made two other assists, for a personal post-season record of seven points.
"The orange jerseys really helped, I could see open teammates,'' Grant Jr. said of the team's decision to wear bright orange for the first time, matching the fans in an Orange-Out.
Sieverts, who scored two goals, including the game-winner, tried to be ready to catch-and-shoot every time he saw Grant Jr. draw defensive attention. "I set a pick away from the ball and curled,'' he said of the set up for the final goal. "I didn't think he had any way he could get it to me, but John Grant Junior being John Grant Junior, he was able to get it to me and I made sure to catch that one and put it away.''
Scoring against Drew Adams was no easy feat. One week removed from a 22-save effort against the Outlaws, Adams made 13 saves to keep his Lizards in contention.
After New York rallied to close the gap on Denver's largest lead, 4-1 late in the first quarter, the score was tied six times.
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