August 24, 2011

Outlaws Hope Momentum Carries Them to Title

by Mark Medina |

Peet Poillon, who won an MLL title with Chesapeake in 2010, has been Denver's most reliable midfielder since being acquired in a trade for Dan Hardy.

© Rich Barnes

Slumped shoulders and fallen heads entered the locker room.

The Denver Outlaws just lost their third consecutive game, including back-to-back losses to the Rochester Rattlers, who most teams treated like a doormat they scraped with their lacrosse cleats. Denver allowed a 5-0 start to blemish by failing to win a signature game against the Boston Cannons followed by the Rochester letdowns.

It didn't stop there. Another loss the following week against Boston pushed Denver to 5-4. General manager Brian Reese believes, however, that a team meeting that occured after the second Rochester loss served as a turning point in the season.

"Coach [Tom Slate] talked to them about dedication and what it takes to be successful," Reese said. "The guys took it to heart. For the players, you have to be all in. This isn't a 'when it's convenient for you' kind of league. You have to put the work in. It's got to be, 'You're in all the time.'"

Denver won two straight after the Boston loss, including a 15-9 victory Aug. 13 in the regular season finale against the Chesapeake Bayhawks in which the Outlaws scored 12 unanswered goals. That propelled them into the Major League Lacrosse playoffs 3 p.m. Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis, Md., against the third-seeded Hamilton Nationals (7-5) on what Slate called a "high note."

It remains to be seen if that will prove to be the needed ingredient for Denver (7-5) to secure its first MLL championship in its six-year history. Reese said he feels "absolutely ecstatic" on the state of the franchise, as it set the MLL single-season attendance record (73,989) at Mile High Stadium and has appeared in three Steinfeld Cup finals. But the Outlaws are just 3-5 in the playoffs, including three championship game losses, prompting Slate to say, "We owe the city something." Should the Outlaws fulfill that promise, Slate can trace it back to that fateful team meeting.

"It forced us to come together closer as a team," he said on the team's four-game losing streak. "I really feel it's going to help us [this] weekend in understanding strengths and weaknesses and how we can help each other out on the field."

Denver has understood that in various ways.

Its emboldened confidence about its depth quickly sapped when it lost six defensemen to season-ending injuries. The Outlaws' ability to withstand those losses, though, showed their resilience. Despite losing the services of Eric Martin and Steve Holmes, namely, the Outlaws remain the league's top defensive team in goals allowed (9.87), thanks to Jesse Schartzmann's effective goalkeeping and a disciplined unit.

"It's a system," Slate said. "You need great individuals. But you need to have all seven guys down there understanding what to do, being able to slide and recover and understand and be efficient and communicate with your goalie."

Midfielder Peet Poillon has proven to be a model of consistency with 25 goals. He provides continuous wisdom from winning the 2010 Steinfeld Cup with Chesapeake and an unyielding work ethic, according to Slate and Reese. He's also been Denver's lone reliable threat from the midfield.

"He's one of those guys who's 100 percent committed all the time," Reese said of Poillon, whom the Outlaws acquired in a trade for Dan Hardy. "Lacrosse is kind of his life. He wants nothing more than to be a good player in this league and to win. He's exactly what we asked for. We want guys to commit and want guys to be 100 percent in. He's a lifer. He's stepped up as a leader for us. He came off a championship team where he has that experience. He was slow to get adjusted. But he's taking on a leadership role right now."

And though Denver sees its attack unit of Brendan Mundorf (45 points), Drew Westervelt (32) and Billy Bitter (16) as its biggest strength, Mundorf went through a three-game stretch this season during which he only scored two goals. He has responded with 11 goals in the last two games, however.

Who knows how that will translate once postseason play starts? But with Reese's mantra that winning a title "comes down to playing your best lacrosse at the right time," it's an encouraging sign.

"This is a good mental boost that the team needs to get into the playoffs," Slate said. "There's absolutely value in it. But I'll let you know after Saturday night."

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