August 22, 2009

Nats' Vagabonds, Outlaws' Veterans Set to Clash

by Andy Krauss | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

MLL Semifinals

No. 1 Denver 11, No. 4 Boston 10: Blog | Story | Boxscore
No. 2 Toronto 14, No. 3 Long Island 13: Blog | Story | Boxscore

MLL Championship Game

No. 1 Denver vs. No. 2 Toronto - Sunday, 1 p.m. Eastern (ESPN2)

ANNAPOLIS, Md. -- John Grant Jr. followed his Toronto Nationals teammates Geoff Snider and Shawn Williams onto an airplane that took off at 12:30 on Saturday morning. They were coming from Peterborough, Ont., where they helped their Lakers pull within a 2-1 deficit to Brampton in the Ontario Lacrosse Association Championships.

They arrived at BWI Marshall Airport in Baltimore for their semifinal game against the Long Island Lizards two hours later and checked into their Annapolis hotel at 3 a.m.

On Sunday, they will play against the top-seeded Denver Outlaws for the Major League Lacrosse championship, hope to kiss the Steinfeld Cup, head back to BWI for a 5 p.m. flight and land in time for Game 4 of their box lacrosse series in Peterborough on Sunday night.

He does it all for the love of lacrosse.  

"If we can win both games, it will be well worth it," said Grant. "This is why we play the game."

That task won't be easy for the second-seeded and expansion Nationals (8-5), as the MLL's top seed awaits. For the third time in their four-year existence, the Denver Outlaws (10-3) have returned to the MLL title game.

This time, they plan to bring back the Steinfeld Cup to a fan base in the Rocky Mountains which the players feel richly deserves it.

"The support from Denver has been amazing," said veteran midfielder Josh Sims. "The fans have earned this title as much as anybody else. It would be special for this town. They don't take high-level lacrosse for granted."

Sims has played with the Outlaws through the team's entire four-year run after playing four years with the Baltimore Bayhawks, with whom he won titles with in 2002 and 2005.

Fellow midfielder Jeff Sonke played with Sims on both of those teams and has also spent the last four summers in Denver.

When looking back at championship game losses in 2006 and 2008 as well as a semifinal loss in 2007, Sonke remembers what was most difficult for him. "The history of us losing this game really hurts, because we know how special it would be to the fans of Denver and how much they really deserve it," he said.

Outlaws fans accounted for the most potent attendance figure in the MLL this season. INVESCO Field, a stadium created primarily for the NFL's Denver Broncos, saw an average of 10,127 fans come through the gates in Denver's six home dates.  On the Fourth of July, the team set the world professional (indoor and outdoor) all-time attendance record with a staggering mark of 21,900.  It was the fourth consecutive season that the team had set the record.

Although the Outlaws finished the regular season three games ahead of their semifinal opponent, the Boston Cannons, Denver found themselves down 9-7 entering the fourth quarter on Saturday.  That's where Sims went to work, scoring three consecutive goals in just over six minutes, giving the Outlaws a lead they would not relinquish in the 11-10 win.

"The veteran presence on this team has been invaluable," said Sonke.  "Today was a perfect example when the old, washed-up man (Sims) stepped up for us when we needed him to."

The Outlaws have won 10 of their last 12 games overall. They did drop a 16-10 decision to Sunday's opponent, the Nationals, in the regular season finale. In that game, Grant returned from a series of offseeason knee surgeries to score five goals against the Outlaws.

"The Denver defense left me open a couple of times," said Grant. "It's tough on any one guy on our team, because everyone can put the ball in the net."

Had he not been playing for the opponent on Sunday, Denver's No. 1 fan might have been Snider.  He played in the Outlaw midfield for three seasons before being traded to the Nationals the offseason.

Snider has great memories of his time as an Outlaw, but looks forward to the potential of beating them and hoisting his first Steinfeld Cup.  After helping his Nationals score a 14-13 semifinal win on Saturday, things have come full circle for Snider.  "It was an honor for me to play in Denver," said Snider.  "It was a great place to play, but I feel that my style of play fits in better here than it did in Denver."

Toronto head coach Dave Huntley knows that his regular season-ending victory over the Outlaws has to be put into perspective, especially when considering that Denver beat the Nationals 15-8 and 20-16 in back-to-back weeks in June. "We won't see the same team on Sunday that we saw two weeks ago," said Huntley. "We'll see the team that spanked us twice. They have so many weapons. We'll have to move the ball better offensively and keep the ball in transition."

After Denver's semifinal win, Sims tried to sum up the balance of his team.

"This is the best team we've had since I've been here," he said. "It's a great combination of veterans and young players. For me, I don't know how much longer my career is going to last. Every year, I make a decision as the season goes along."

Maybe on Sunday, he will finally get that chance to walk off as a champion in a Denver uniform.

It's all for the love of lacrosse.

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