August 23, 2013

Washburn: Who to watch at Championship Weekend

by Evan Washburn | | Twitter

Jason Noble is one of several unsung players who could play a big role this weekend in Philly.
©Bob Markey II 

Success at Championship Weekend often comes down to which team can manage the physical demands of the two-day tournament, and the key to doing that is having a deep roster. Yes, the star power of the weekend is obvious, with the league's top four teams in attendance. While the headliners do have a major impact on who hoists the Steinfeld Cup, role players have been known to steal the show. Just look at the last three-championship weekend Most Valuable Players.

Ben Rubeor was your man in 2012, scoring eight goals over the weekend's two games. He had just 16 goals the entire regular season. In 2011, Jordan Burke started the year as Kip Turner's backup, but finished it as the most important player in the Cannons championship run. Kyle Hartzell is now a household name, but back in 2010, he was just one of the guys on the Bayhawks roster, until his breakout performance during championship weekend.

So here are four players, one from each of this season's participants, that could have a huge effect on the weekend's results.

Denver Outlaws – Terry Kimener, Midfield

Kimener is an MLL All-Star, but on this version of the Outlaws he is often over shadowed. With Brendan Mundorf, Jeremy Sieverts and Drew Snider having monster seasons, it is easy to forget just how valuable Kimener has been. The seven-year pro has 32 points this season, and has been at his best the last few weeks with Mundorf out of the lineup due to injury. Kimener has four goals and six assists in his last three games.

His strength is as a passer, especially in the invert game. The Outlaws lack a dodging threat behind the cage with Mundorf on the shelf, and that is where Kimener has done his damage. Mundorf will be back in the lineup this weekend, but most likely not 100% while he fights an abdominal strain. With Sieverts and Snider drawing the pole, Kimener will have ample opportunity to make an impact.

Chesapeake Bayhawks – Jeff Reynolds, defensive midfield

Reynolds has had a tough season. He missed nine games in the middle of the summer with lingering concussion symptoms. Reynolds is now back and has immediately provided a much-needed dimension and punch to the Bayhawks defensive midfield, scoring two goals in his first two games back in the lineup.

To defend their title, Chesapeake is going to have to go through Hamilton and most likely Denver - two teams that rely heavily on midfield scoring and transition offense. These are areas where Reynolds will be able to make an imprint on the game. I wouldn't say Reynolds is a dark horse for the postseason MVP award, but players and coaches have mentioned his name as the possible missing piece to a repeat performance.

Hamilton Nationals – Jason Noble, Long-stick midfield

Noble is starting to come into his own in Major League Lacrosse. In seven games, he has 16 groundballs and looked very good in the Nationals regular season finale, a loss to Denver. Noble was taken with the 10th pick in the 2013 draft for one reason: Hamilton head coach Dave Huntley saw him as a mini-Brodie Merrill. Those are lofty expectations to put on the 5-foot-10-inch, 165-pound long stick midfielder, but there are moments where the comparison looks to be appropriate.

Hamilton needs Noble to be a monster on the wings this Saturday. Nationals faceoff man Mike Poppleton struggled in his two meetings with Chesapeake this season, winning only 40% of his attempts. Against the Bayhawks Adam Rand, nearly every draw ends up being a 50/50 situation. This leaves Noble a great opportunity to pick up ground balls and spark early offense for Hamilton.

It may be a bit early to expect greatness from a rookie in his first Championship Weekend appearance, but Noble has shown the ability to rise to the occasion and embrace the moment.

Charlotte Hounds – Eric Lusby, Attack

If history is any indictor, Lusby loves a Championship Weekend format. In 2012, he scored nine goals over two games, leading the Loyola Greyhounds team to the school's first NCAA Championship. This weekend is going to be a bit different for Lusby, but there is no reason he can't go on a goal-scoring run once again.

Lusby has been solid in his second season of MLL action, scoring 16 goals while shooting 31% from the field. He has show flashes of greatness, like a five-goal performance in week six against Ohio. Lately though, Lusby has struggled, with only four goals in his last eight games.

The main reason the Hounds have crashed the Championship Weekend party has been the play of their two big guns at the attack. Matt Danowski and Ryan Young have combined for 89 points and draw most of the attention from opposing defenses. This leaves Lusby with great chances to get off his lethal lefty shot. Much like Rubeor a year ago, Lusby will be a forgotten weapon. Will he make defenses pay?

Evan Washburn, the CBS Sports Network and NBC Sports Network commentator and host of CBS Sports Network's "Inside the MLL," provides weekly MLL power rankings throughout the season for LaxMagazine.comFollow him on Twitter @EvanWashburn.

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