August 28, 2012

Shore: What the 2012 MLL Season Taught Us

by Phil Shore |

Kyle Dixon scored an MLL record 15 2-pointers this season and the Bayhawks distanced themselves from the rest of the league shooting from beyond the arc.
© Bill Danielewski

After living the hype of Major League Lacrosse season since the December expansion draft for the Charlotte Hounds and Ohio Machine, it's hard to believe the MLL season has finally come to a close with the Bayhawks 16-6 win over Denver on Sunday.

Before the excitement of the 2012 season leaves us and we start looking forward to the prospects for the 2013 season, let's recap this year and take time to examine what this season taught us.

1. The 2-point shot is a game-changer

One big way the Chesapeake Bayhawks separated themselves from the rest of the pack this season was the 2-point shot. The team set an MLL record with 28 2-point goals scored, 13 more than second-place Ohio, and 15 more than four other teams. In the playoffs, the Bayhawks scored a pair of 2-pointers in the semifinals and championship game, compared to zero for either opponent.

While record-setting Kyle Dixon did not score any game-winners he did have 15 2-point goals. The Bayhawks won four games this season by one or two goals. They scored 11 2-pointers to their opponents' seven in those games (three of which were coincidentally against playoff teams Boston, Long Island and Denver). Every point matters, especially in close games of that nature.

What you see in professional sports is when one team wins the championship with a very specific style or tactic, the rest of the league begins to follow suit. Thanks to coach Dave Cottle's theory and Chesapeake's success behind the arc, teams may start to work on getting outside shooters that can be successful beyond the arc.

That's not to say we'll see guys shooting, let alone scoring, 10 2-pointers a game. But it will become more of an in-game tool.

2. Rookies can succeed immediately

In 2011 the MLL runner-up Hamilton Nationals sported rookies Kevin Crowley, Jeremy Boltus, David Earl and Stephen Keogh. All four were immensely talented players that played pivotal roles in the team's success.

This year, two playoff squads were heavy on rookies: Denver (Mark Matthews, Chris Bocklet, Colin Briggs and Drew Snider) and Long Island (Matt Gibson, Tommy Palasek, CJ Costabile, Tim Henderson and Will Mangan).

Both Denver and Long Island were criticized in the offseason for their personnel and not much was expected from either team. But both teams made it to Harvard Stadium and their rookies played huge roles in their success. Bocklet scored six goals in Denver's record-breaking, Brendan Mundorf-less comeback over Long Island in the semifinals.

Add in Rochester's Mike Manley, who helped to vastly improve the Rattlers' defense as well as the Ohio Machine's Steele Stanwick and Joe Cummings and rookies are coming into the league ready to play, which is unlike most other pro sports leagues in America.

3. The Denver Outlaws are an elite franchise

Sure, the Outlaws may be snake-bitten, without a championship in seven tries and with their best player, and league MVP, going down to an ankle injury during MLL Championship Weekend. But think about what Denver has done since it came into the league. The Outlaws have played in MLL for seven years and have made the playoffs in every single one of those seasons, breaking an MLL record for consecutive trips to the playoffs.

They were successful this season despite a new head coach and a major roster overhaul (gone were top talents Max Seibald and Drew Westervelt). The scouting and player personnel teams in Denver, lead by general manager Tony Seaman and coach Jim Stagnitta, are doing a good job.

The Outlaws came into the league as an expansion team in 2006—when there were 10 teams—and went 10-2 and made the playoffs in their first season. Ask the Charlotte Hounds and Ohio and Chicago Machine how difficult it is to succeed as an expansion squad.

They constantly do well in attendance. They broke an attendance record this year—one they set themselves last year—when 30,128 fans at their July 4 fireworks game against Ohio.

And ask the players. Outlaws players rave about the professional facilities and management teams they have access to. Opposing players always list Denver as a favorite place to play on the road because of the fans and the atmosphere.

Denver may not have a championship yet, but they do have a top-class organization that has put together a very good product.

The movement of 2010 MLL Goalie of the Year Kip Turner from Boston to Chesapeake last offseason added another talking point to the Bayhawks-Cannons rivalry.
© Bill Danielewski

4. Boston-Chesapeake is the best rivalry in the league

The Bayhawks and Cannons have faced each other in the semifinals each of the past three seasons. Each time the winner of that game has gone on to win the MLL Championship.

The games are physical duels. They are often close, for example their first match-up this season (one point) and the semifinal matchup last season (Max Quinzani's last-second goal in Hurricane Irene). Adding to the storyline, Kip Turner—the 2010 Goalie of the Year for Boston turned 2011 back-up—was a major reason for Chesapeake's success this year.

These two teams are very successful and have a lot of respect for each other. They bring extra intensity every time they play and it is becoming a classic match-up each time they face each other.

5. Paul Rabil is still getting better

The 27-year-old is often considered the best lacrosse player in the world these days. And despite the fact he did not win his third MVP award in 2012 he may have had his best season this year. That's due to the emergence of his passing game to compliment his shooting.

Rabil was never a selfish player, but he obliterated his career-high in assists this season, tallying 38 in 2012, 20 more than the career-high he set last season. Pundits around the league have complimented Rabil on his ability to draw defenders and find the open guy. Rabil has shown that he knows when the game calls for him to dish the ball and get his teammates involved or when to totally take over, a la Michael Jordan in his heyday.

In the past two seasons Rabil has gone about changing observer's perceptions of him. After leading the Cannons to the 2011 title, he is no longer a guy that can hit triple-digits on the radar gun who has underachieved in the playoffs. He's a guy that delivers in the clutch and has developed a passing game.

Fans should be anxious to see what new wrinkle one of the most talented players to ever play the game develops for next season.

6. There are good defenders other than Brodie Merrill

Before this season, Brodie Merrill had won MLL Defensive Player of the Year six straight times. While he still led all non-faceoff specialists in ground balls (96, third overall) and was named to the All-MLL team for a seventh consecutive season, Merrill was dethroned by Denver veteran Lee Zink, and the league saw an emergence of talented long-poles.

With the Bayhawks, previous Defensive Player of the Year Nicky Polanco was strong along with Brian Spallina, who won his MLL-leading fifth title. Other youngsters received a lot of credit for their work this season including second-year pros Brian Karalunas (Long Island) and Joel White (Rochester), who were both All-Stars and Defensive Player of the Week winners, and All-Stars Ryan Flanagan (Charlotte) and Brian Farrell (Boston), rookie CJ Costabile (Long Island) and All-Star and Chesapeake's Michael Evans, named All-MLL for the second straight year.

Some of these guys have been put in a position to guard some of the league's best players such as Ryan Boyle, Paul Rabil and Matt Danowski and have shined doing so.

There's a new crop of defenders and they're showing that they can hang with the big boys in the league.

Ohio Machine All-Star Kyle Hartzell is one of a few players who chronicles weekly travel woes on Twitter. It's part of the life of many MLL players.
© Ron Modra

7. Travel is tough on players

Since MLL players don't earn salaries comparable to stars in other leagues like the NFL and the NBA they have to work other jobs to earn a living. This often necessitates travel to and from practices and games and commercial plane flights are common. Also, because of different schedules, many players don't travel to away games together.

On an MLL weekend during the summer, check out the Twitter profiles of some of the players in league. Follow guys like Jovan Miller and Kyle Hartzell, and you'll see a lot of thoughts about delayed flights, crazy red-eye schedules, and what to do with all that time in the airports.

While it may not be too much fun for the players, they still go through it so they can play the game we all love. That shows great commitment.

8. Major League Lacrosse is only getting bigger

This season was huge for the league. The league expanded by two teams, had a national TV deal in place with two networks (ESPN and CBS Sports Network) and all games could be seen on television or streamed on the Internet. A record 312,007 fans came to the games this year.

The Long Island Lizards stabilized their franchise with a new ownership group that features NFL Hall-of-Famer Jim Brown. Brown brought Lizards player Greg Gurenlian with him to ESPN's ESPY awards show, where Gurenlian was even spotted on TV. Jovan Miller and Chazz Woodson dazzled fans with plays that wound up on SportsCenter's Top 10.

The league's exposure grew as did its accessibility. Now people want more. Fans are excited for next season already. Everyone wants to know what cities are going to be next in the expansion plans.

The sport is growing in this country and Major League Lacrosse is proving to be a viable source for great, entertaining lacrosse.

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