August 27, 2011

MLL Championship Weekend Played Through Hurricane Irene

by Corey McLaughlin | | Twitter

MLL Semifinal Saturday

* Five Things to Watch in the MLL Championship Game
* Hamilton Sends Denver to Another Early Exit
* Quinzani Goal with 1.2 Seconds Left Lifts Boston
* MLL Championship Weekend Played Through Hurricane Irene

ANNAPOLIS, Md. - While many events along the East Coast were cancelled or postponed in advance of Hurricane Irene's approach, Major League Lacrosse went ahead as planned with its championship weekend in Annapolis with semifinals Saturday. The decision, judging from fan comments on the league's own website, was questionable given concerns about heavy rain, wind and flooding normally associated with hurricane conditions.

Before the storm, a state of emergency was called in 10 states, including Maryland, and the Annapolis mayor declared a state of emergency within city limits. Several city events were cancelled. Residents of low-lying areas were urged to pack sandbags. Not far north, the Orioles cancelled a doubleheader with the New York Yankees in Baltimore.

But at noon Saturday, with heavy rain falling on players and coaches on the turf field at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, located slightly more inland, the Boston Cannons and Chesapeake Bayhawks played in front of a few hundred diehard fans and a live television audience on ESPN2.

MLL Commissioner David Gross said midweek he expected games to be played as planned, and that start times could be adjusted if needed. As forecasts continued to paint a bleak picture for Saturday afternoon and night, the noon start time remained in place, and late Friday the league announced that the second semifinal between the Denver Outlaws and Hamilton Nationals would start 20 minutes earlier at 2:40 p.m. Eastern.

Gross said Saturday that the league considered moving up Saturday's start time to 10 a.m., when weather would have been less severe, but he said the MLL could not secure a TV slot with ESPN for that time. He also said the championships could not be moved to next weekend because Navy has its home football opener scheduled against Delaware Sept. 3.

Plans for pregame events outside the stadium Saturday, like entertainment and vendor tent areas, were scrapped. The games went on in deteriorating conditions. The Cannons and Bayhawks played in steady rain, but afterward players said wind wasn't much of an issue. But in the roughly 30 minutes between the first and second semifinals, wind and rain intensified considerably with the strongest bands until that point rolling in around the opening faceoff of game two.

Standing water filled the turf field, making it difficult for players to cut and making ground balls an exercise similar to scooping soup from a bowl. Still, about four minutes in Jarett Park executed a behind-the-back assist on a Drew Westervelt goal for the Outlaws.

A Jeremy Thompson bounce shot that put the Nationals up 6-1 with 5:40 left in the first quarter hit the turf and exploded water in all directions. It was even noticeable on real-time TV replays. And TV did not do game conditions justice, with pictures appearing brighter and less rainy than it really was.

Players subbing out near midfield gingerly slowed down as they approached a pool of water covering the substation box. Most fans sought dry seats underneath an overhang at the stadium. A scant contingent sat in the first row behind the benches.

"The water is not seeping in as well [on the field]," said Boston attackman Max Quinzani, who scored the winning goal for the Cannons with 1.2 seconds left in the first semifinal, before the real deluge began. "Luckily there was no wind. The rain was coming straight down. This game is going to have some problems, especially when the wind comes blowing through these sections of the stadium. At least we didn't have the wind."

Annapolis resident and Bayhawks coach Brendan Kelly, who saw his team rally to tie the score at 13 before losing in the final seconds, said he enjoyed the atmosphere.

"In a hurricane? It was great. It was fun," Kelly said, standing in a dry area outside the locker room at Navy-Marine Corps Stadium. "Why not? Last year it was 105 degrees, a hurricane now. It was a great game to be a part of."

At halftime of the Outlaws-Nationals game, reported sustained winds of 17 miles per hour, gusting to 28 mph. Adverstising billboards around the field were flattened by operators for safety reasons. At times, standing water was pushed around the turf by wind gusts. But the game was played to completion, with Hamilton holding off Denver, 11-9.

"In all honesty, it wasn't as bad as it probably looked out there," Nationals defenseman Brodie Merrill said. "It was certainly very wet, but it wasn't cold. It wasn't too windy. It made making exchanges harder and slowed things down a little bit. When it's bad weather like that, we really want to focus on doing the little things well like ground balls and exchanges and possessions."

"[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," Merrill said. "We made the choice to have fun with it."

Top-seeded Boston and third-seeded Hamilton are expected to play for the championship as scheduled at 3 p.m. Sunday. Rain or shine -- or hurricane.

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