August 19, 2010

Reese on Outlaws' Title Hopes: 'If Not Now, When?'

by Theresa Smith | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Denver GM and head coach Brian Reese is well aware of the Outlaws' struggles come MLL Championship Weekend, but thinks this team might be best equipped to win it all.

Brian Reese acknowledged the elephant in the room Wednesday.

Reese, the general manager and head coach of the Denver Outlaws, openly acknowledged that the Outlaws eagerly await the chance to close the deal on the Major League Lacrosse playoffs.

Three times in the last four years, Denver has played in the championship game for the Steinfeld Cup. All three times, the Outlaws walked off the field in frustration.

Reese stopped short of declaring this MLL title or bust.

“The guys are fired up," he said. “They want to win this thing. It is almost like, if not now, when? It is not a do-or-die thing, as much as, let’s take advantage of opportunities. And first thing's first. We have to beat Long Island first, and then we take it from there."

Denver, the No. 2 seed, takes on the Lizards at 3 p.m. Eastern at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md. Long Island might be the MLL's hottest team, ending the regular season on a five-game winning streak.

The Outlaws, 15-10 winners over Long Island on June 5, have never lost to the Lizards in seven previous meetings. On paper, Denver is deeper and more talented.

Top-seeded and heavily-favored Boston meets Chesapeake in the other semifinal at noon. Due to league limits on practice time, none of the teams were allowed to practice prior to their arrival in Annapolis, but the importance of the postseason was evident in increased communication between coaches and players.

“There’s definitely more communication among the guys via e-mail, etc.," said Boston coach Bill Daye. “As a staff, we’re reaching out to guys as well, individually discussing the weekend and our expectations."

The Cannons feature a pair of MVP-caliber players in midfielder Paul Rabil, the 2009 MLL MVP and 2010 FIL World Championships MVP with Team USA, and attackman Matt Poskay, newly minted Thursday as the 2010 MLL MVP.

Rabil, known for his 111-mile-per-hour shot and two-point prowess, has the opportunity to win his third lacrosse title in a four-month span on the heels of the National Lacrosse League crown with the Washington Stealth and Team USA's gold medal.

Poskay, a converted attackman, led the league in scoring with 45 goals -- an astounding 20 more than second-ranked Matt Danowski of Long Island. He's the finisher and Ryan Boyle, boasting a league-leading 25 assists, is the consummate feeder.

That superb trio is surrounded by unselfish, complementary players who are also adept at dodging, passing and scoring.

“They’re a tough team because they play so well together," Reese said of the Cannons.

Boston's defense is backstopped by Kip Turner, the MLL Goalkeeper of the Year.

“When we’re playing our best, we’re managing the game, playing smart, making good decisions and executing in the half-field, 6-v-6 set," said Daye. “Offensively, we’re sharing the ball, getting everyone involved and getting multiple scorers on the board. Defensively, we’re communicating, helping each other out and playing as a cohesive unit. When we play this way, we’re a hard team to beat."

After three losses to Boston this season, including a humiliating 16-5 pasting on July 31 in Denver, the Outlaws are suitably respectful of the top seed.

“We have to play our best game against them and if they play their best game, we’ll have to wait and see," Reese said of a potential championship game showdown Sunday with the Cannons. “They’ve beaten us three times and we haven’t put our best foot forward, so it is kind of a wait-and-see thing.

“If we play our best game and we lose, I’m fine with that. But I definitely don’t want to go out and say, ‘Why didn’t we play good? Why did we do that?' Let’s do what we do best and see what happens."

At its best, the Outlaws’ defense is quick and disruptive, opportunistic in starting speedy transition and expert in moving the ball to an open shooter.

Balance and depth are strengths. And there is star power galore, beginning with attackman Brendan Mundorf, the leading scorer for Team USA in the world championships and the fourth-leading scorer in the MLL with 22 goals and 16 assists. Midfielders Dan Hardy and Max Seibald are accurate from the perimeter, posting shooting percentages of .333 and .308, respectively, and combining for 25 goals.

Defenseman Lee Zink gunks up offenses, teammate Matt Bocklet wields a long pole like an extension of his hand, and fellow defender Eric Martin is a proven winner. Like Rabil, he has been fitted for championship rings with the Stealth and Team USA.

The intensity of championship weekend often produces stellar goaltending performances, boding well for Denver. The Outlaws boast 2009 MLL Goalkeeper of the Year Jesse Schwartzman, a powerful, athletic stopper who built a reputation for big-play capabilities at the NCAA level while helping Johns Hopkins claim national championships in 2005 and ’07.

“Jesse is the biggest big-game goalie we’ve had, in college and the playoffs of MLL," Reese said. “I don’t think he had the best regular season, but when the lights come on and it is time to make plays and saves, he can do it. He’s a guy I definitely want on my team."

Will Schwartzman step up against the aptly-named Cannons? Or will Boston continue its dominance of Denver? Will Long Island or Chesapeake have a say?

The uncertainty is tantalizing as the MLL prepares to crown its next champion.

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