April 27, 2012

Unleash the Hounds: New MLL Franchise Debuts

by David Scott | LaxMagazine.com

Attackman Jeremy Boltus, the 2011 MLL Rookie of the Year with the Hamilton Nationals, looms large in plans for the expansion Charlotte Hounds to win now. Its first season begins Saturday against Denver.
© Peyton Williams 

On a drizzly Saturday morning in late March on the lacrosse field at Charlotte Country Day School, Charlotte Hounds' attackman Devan Spilker tried to call out instructions to a teammate.

But Spilker hesitated.

"Hey, 12, what's your name?" Spilker asked attackman Craig Dowd, who was wearing jersey No 12.

"Craig!" Dowd shouted back.

That's probably how it is going to be for a while for the expansion Hounds, one of two new Major League Lacrosse franchises this season. They had little practice time and a lot of ground to cover before their season opener Saturday against the Denver Outlaws in Charlotte's Memorial Stadium.

Hounds midfielder Stephen Berger could hardly conceal his enthusiasm for his new teammates and surroundings. Like most of them, Berger doesn't live in Charlotte. They flew into town from various geographic outposts March 30 for their first weekend of practice, team-building and conditioning.

"I love it here," said Berger, a five-time MLL all-star who was acquired by the Hounds along with attackman Matt Danowski from the Long Island Lizards. "We've come in here in shape because we love this game. Now it's just getting out there and getting to know each other. We've played against each other in a lot of cases, too, so we know each other's behaviors. And things aren't going to be as stale here as with a lot of other teams.

After taking physicals Friday afternoon, the Hounds' long camp weekend began in earnest that night at a Charlotte training center, where about 30 prospective players went through an NFL-style combine of drills that measured strength, agility and speed. Defenseman Ryan Flanagan watched his new teammates work out at the combine and counted several whom he played with and against in college at North Carolina – and more that he knew even before that.

"I had to cover Danowski at Duke," Flanagan said. "He's a really good guy and it will be great playing with him. Although I still hate Duke. The [Virginia] and Maryland guys, I know all of them. I played little league football with [rookie midfielder] Justin Turri. He was quarterback; I was center."

Flanagan is one of a few Hounds players who will live in Charlotte fulltime, and he is anxious to get back on the field. He played his final two seasons at North Carolina with broken bones in both his feet, and then suffered a sports hernia early in his senior season.

After being drafted in 2011 by the Hamilton Nationals, Flanagan elected to sit out the season to fully recover (he also had his wisdom teeth removed last summer). He moved to Charlotte, where he works as a salesman for a lacrosse equipment company.

Neither Danowski (still playing indoor with the Philadelphia Wings of the National Lacrosse League) nor Turri (who will join the Hounds when Duke's season ends), were with the team for their first training weekend. That – along with the limited practice schedule — means the Hounds will be a patchwork project.

But on paper, Charlotte looks as good out of the gates as any team in the MLL.

In addition to Flanagan and Danowski – who is the NCAA's all-time leading scorer and led MLL in two-point goals last season – the Hounds acquired attackman Billy Bitter, midfielders Jovan Miller and Brian Carroll, defenseman Joe Cinosky and goalie Adam Ghitelman. Attackman Jeremy Boltus, the 2011 MLL Rookie of the Year with the Hamilton Nationals, came to Charlotte in the expansion draft.

Coach Mike Cerino, who built an NCAA Division II power at Limestone (S.C.) College, joins Dave Cottle (Chesapeake), Joe Spallina (Long Island) and Jim Stagnitta (Denver) as current or former college coaches making their pro debuts.

"With the college game, you're still dealing with 18- to 21-years-olds, and a lot of time it's their first time away from home," Cerino said. "So you're often a father figure. With this, it's nice to come out and treat them like men and then assume the best. It looks like we'll have a good locker room and good team chemistry. You win with good people and we drafted some good people."

Cerino saw that chemistry start to surface during Charlotte's first training weekend. With no team-issued gear yet (except for practice jerseys), the varied backgrounds of the Hounds were apparent by the different helmets on the players' heads: Virginia, Syracuse, Long Island Lizards and several other pro and post-collegiate club teams. Berger, who gave his Lizards helmet to a young fan when last season ended, had to borrow one of Cerino's bright yellow helmets from Limestone.

MLL Opening Weekend

SATURDAY (Times Eastern)

Rochester Rattlers at Boston Cannons, 7 p.m.

Chesapeake Bayhawks at Long Island Lizards, 7 p.m.

Denver Outlaws at Charlotte Hounds, 7 p.m.

Follow the MLL all season at: laxmagazine.com/mll

As the team went through its drills, players became more comfortable with each other. There were the usual minor injuries, like when goalie Joe Marra suffered a bruised left hand after a hard shot managed to avoid the padding in his glove.

"Don't rub it!" teammates shouted.

As that morning's practice neared its end, Cerino gathered his players and urged them to go hard one last time before lunch.

"Let's empty the tank on this," he said.

The players broke for about two hours – lounging under the roof of a rest area near the field. The Maryland-Virginia game was on TV. Several players watched on their smart phones.

"Everybody says expansion teams can't be competitive," Boltus said. "But I think we can change that here in Charlotte."

Boltus, who came to MLL last season after a standout career at Army, just graduated from West Point and has been working as a graduate assistant for the Black Knights. He will be stationed in Oklahoma this summer – with weekends off. That means he should be able to get away to play lacrosse.

"I haven't heard directly from [the Army], but they know what I did last year," Boltus said. "It's not like I'll be going off on weekends and screwing off. I'll be promoting West Point and Army lacrosse, and that's a great thing. I hope we can see eye to eye and things will work out."

The Hounds returned for a Saturday afternoon practice. That night, the team went bowling (Carroll scored the highest) and had wings for dinner. Sunday morning, they wrapped up the weekend with a scrimmage against High Point University at Country Day. With Berger scoring two first-quarter goals and defenseman Ricky Pages getting another on a field-long rush, the Hounds won easily.

"I was thrilled with the way they supported each other," said Cerino. "They all wanted to do the right thing, rather than just your thing."

Under the direction of former Charlotte Bobcats marketing executive Jim McPhilliamy, the Hounds want to win right away. They have already won over fans with engaging social media campaigns to pitch and vote for team names (the other finalists were Legion and Monarchs) and see logo prototypes. In early April, Charlotte had sold the third-most season tickets among MLL teams (behind perennial attendance leaders Denver and Boston) after also signing a local TV deal with WMYT to broadcast seven games.

Wade Leaphart, the director of sales and marketing, was not shy about expectations of the on-field product either.

"We're eying championship weekend," he said.

A version of this article appears in the May issue of Lacrosse Magazine, the flagship publication of US Lacrosse. Don't get the mag? Join US Lacrosse and its 400,000-plus members today to start your subscription.

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