August 23, 2012

Overhauled Denver, Long Island Square Off in MLL Semifinals

by Matt Forman | | Twitter

Lizards coach Joe Spallina said he's texted one word "Mundorf" to Long Island defenseman Brian Karalunas (above) "about 500 times in the last two weeks," referencing his matchup with Outlaws attackman Brendan Mundorf.
© Lee Weissman

Semifinal Game 1:
No. 4 Long Island (8-6) vs. No. 1 Denver (11-3)
1 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2/ESPN3)
Harvard Stadium, Cambridge, Mass.

Long Island and Denver split their pair of regular-season matchups, with each team winning at home. The Outlaws took the first meeting, 19-11, in the second week of the season, behind hat tricks from Josh Sims, Jeremy Sieverts, Brendan Mundorf and Peet Poillon. But that was before the 2012 college class started contributing, of which both teams had significant members — most notably Mark Matthews, Drew Snider and Chris Bocklet for Denver, and Matt Gibson, Tommy Palasek and CJ Costabile for Long Island. The Lizards won the rematch in mid-June, 14-8, as they rattled off eight straight goals to close the game.

The 2012 storylines for Long Island and Denver aren't all that dissimilar: Both have a first-year head coach — Joe Spallina of Long Island, Jim Stagnitta of Denver — and both underwent significant roster overhauls in the offseason, which led to doubts about their postseason aspirations. But they enter Championship Weekend riding distinctly different streaks: Denver has won six straight, and is considered the trendy pick to win its first title; Long Island dropped consecutive games to end the season and backed into the playoffs.

Long Island Not Afraid to Play Underdog Role

So what does it all mean? Well, not much, if you ask Spallina, recently named the MLL's Coach of the Year over Stagnitta, who had an equally strong case for that honor.

"We're the fourth seed, we know the deal. But guess what? If we were 14-0, we'd still be playing in the 1-4 game," Spallina said Wednesday on the MLL media teleconference. "We're in a position where we won enough games to be in the playoffs. We've been brow beat. But you know what? No one is tougher on our guys than we our on ourselves ... No one gave us a chance early in the season. Really, honestly, I don't know if we thought we could get here. But we're here. And no matter what, every team is in the same boat. It's a new season."

And that's what should — and usually does — make Championship Weekend exciting.

The Lizards proved they could play with anyone in the league during a five-game win streak after starting the season 0-2. They swept reigning champion Boston, and they also happen to be the last team to beat — you guessed it — Denver.

But Long Island lost back-to-back games against Chesapeake and Hamilton to close the campaign, the latter of which was an 18-8 thrashing that seemed like a must-win entering the weekend. That was before Rochester, holding a 7-6 record and the tie-breaker, lost 15-14 to Charlotte.

"We gave our guys the end-of-season eulogy after the Hamilton game. Things weren't looking too good on the out-of-town scoreboard. We were kind of dead and brought back to life," Spallina said. "We took it personally the way we finished, but we also were brought back to life from basically handing our stuff in and wrapping it up."

Spallina joked that he hopes the Lizards' off-the-field momentum, in the form of postseason accolades, can "catapult our lack of on-the-field momentum the last two games." Attackman Matt Gibson was named Rookie of the Year, while Drew Adams was named Goalie of the Year for the second straight season, in addition to Spallina's award.

"I would trade every one of our awards, and I know our guys would too, for an opportunity to win a world championship," Spallina said. "That stuff means — it's nice. My wife was more excited about it than I was. We just want to win. I just want to win. We just want to win. That's it. That other stuff is nice. It's good PR for the Lizards. I told our guys, the only reason we got these awards is because everyone thought we would stink at the start of the year."

Spallina said the two-week break since the end of the season came at a perfect time for the Lizards, though he didn't want the playoffs to be "out-of-sight, out-of-mind." He talked to every player on the team and sent video clips for film watching.

And he didn't shy away from sending an inspirational text message, or two. "I sent [Brian] Karalunas a one-word 'Mundorf' text about 500 times in the last two weeks, which I'm sure he's getting sick of," Spallina said.

Meanwhile Spallina, who is neighbors in Rocky Point, N.Y., with "unflappable" Palasek, said the rookie is "jacked up" for the playoffs, especially considering he never made the final four with Syracuse or Johns Hopkins. Palasek's production this year has been inconsistent, but he could play a key role in Long Island's success, particularly if Denver puts the clamps on Gibson with Defenseman of the Year Lee Zink.

Faceoff specialist Greg Gurenlian, the MLL's leader at 60.2 percent (230-for-382), will play a critical role Saturday. (Gurenlian is also taking pledges for each faceoff he wins to raise money for former Lizard Tim Goettelmann's charity, Monster's Kids: Spallina also suggested the Lizards' experience having played a two-day home-and-home against Rochester during the regular season and their overall youth "could be advantageous if we're able to shock the world in beating the No. 1 seed."

"We will not at any time apologize for being the fourth team in the playoffs," Spallina said. "Our guys are excited. We've got nothing to lose. We've played our best when people have counted us out."

Denver revamped its offense in the offseason, adding Mark Matthews (right) and Jordan McBride (left) and others around veteran Brendan Mundorf. Will the changes pay off in the form of the Outlaws' first MLL championship?
© Trevor Brown

Denver Trendy Pick to Take the Title

So too has Denver, Stagnitta said Wednesday, when asked about his team's mentality as the prohibitive frontrunners to win it all.

"The tide turned for us, but only in the last couple weeks. We went through the season as everyone questioned: Can this team compete?" Stagnitta said. "People picked us to not even make the playoffs earlier in the year. We were a tweener. I don't think our guys have lost that mentality, honestly. I don't think you go from being the big underdog that we were to legitimately being a big favorite."

Seemingly the only thing that could get in the Outlaws' way: themselves, or more specifically, their own roster health. Faceoff specialist Anthony Kelly has been battling a hamstring injury for most of the season, and he will play an important role in slowing Gurenlian, though Kelly (when he was with Ohio) won only 2-of-15 against Gurenlian earlier in the year.

Stagnitta expects Kelly to be ready for the weekend.

"I have not heard anything that would make me think that it's not fine," Stagnitta said. "Anthony is a veteran, and he's been around a long time. In my conversations with him, he's pulled up short of doing any type of serious damage to it. He and the trainers both felt he would be fine. Obviously he's had a couple weeks to rehab and work on it. My expectation, and all the information I've gotten, is he should be fine."

Denver also activated earlier this month rookie Stephen Robarge (VMI), who went 17-for-30 against Gurenlian in early May before sustaining a "broken high thumb between his wrist and thumb." Stagnitta suggested the Outlaws would dress Robarge on Saturday.

"Anthony is a big boy. But it's two days, a lot of faceoffs," Stagnitta said. "We just felt like, if we have him there with us that weekend, one way or the other, he would be that safety net for us, just in case. Also, just to give Anthony a break and let him catch his breath, and not have to take 50 faceoffs over a weekend."

Stagnitta has preached all year playing balanced team offense, and balanced team defense. But he knows the importance the center of the field will play against Long Island.

"I can't say that one part of the game, one side of the field over another, will make more of a difference," he said. "But I will say this: We've got to compete at the faceoff X, because it doesn't matter what happens at the other end of the field if we don't get some possessions — that's going to be a key on Saturday."

Meanwhile, in other injury news, Stagnitta said, "We're not sure. We really aren't," when asked about the status of long-stick midfielder Matt Bocklet, who suffered a broken thumb in early August and opted to avoid surgery for a natural recovery.

"Our option was to wait and find out what would happen in Friday's practice," Stagnitta said. "That'll be a game-time decision between Matt and the trainers and our doctor and myself."

Accordingly, Stagnitta suggested the Outlaws might need to use an additional roster spot or two on a defenseman, just in case Bocklet starts but can't play the entire game.

Even with the injury questions, many pundits and prognosticators think the snake-bitten Outlaws — who have made Championship Weekend in all six years of existence but never won the title — have the inside track for their first-ever championship.

Denver's well-rounded and talented group starts with Brendan Mundorf, arguably the game's best offensive player who finished second in the league in scoring to Paul Rabil. (Mundorf was named the league's MVP on Thursday.) Running mates Jeremy Sieverts, Peet Poillon and Jordan McBride give the Outlaws four of the MLL's top-10 scorers, and the unit has a strong dodger-finisher dynamic. Not to mention rookie Mark Matthews. On the defensive side, Zink and goalie Jesse Schwartzman form a dynamic duo.

Now it's a matter of playing a full 60 minutes, and Stagnitta said he doesn't think Denver has played its best game yet. The Outlaws haven't lost since June 23 (to Long Island, in the middle of a weekend rainstorm that made travel difficult.)

"Certainly, the goal wasn't necessarily to be the No. 1 team coming out of the regular season, but the goal was to have all the pieces in place and be playing our best lacrosse down the stretch. We've been able to do that," Stagnitta said. "Our approach is the same: Our guys don't feel any better or any worse about themselves than they did earlier in the year. They continue to stay focused, and focus on the little things, and play as a team. Hopefully we'll continue to do the things that have made us successful down the stretch."

Check back to for a preview of Saturday's second semifinal between the second-seeded Chesapeake Bayhawks and No. 3 Boston Cannons.

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