August 23, 2013

Breaking Down the Field: MLL Championship Weekend

by Phil Shore |

Players like Drew Snider - voted the league's most improved - have Denver riding high at 12-0 entering this weekend.
©Mark Piscotty

The Major League Lacrosse Championship Weekend (presented by Smartlink) is upon us - with four teams battling on Saturday and Sunday for the Steinfeld Cup and one team gunning for a perfect season. Denver, Hamilton, Chesapeake and Charlotte all have the firepower to take home a title if things fall their way, but who has the inside track?

Denver in-line for firsts

The Outlaws have been the talk of the town all season, and rightfully so. The team finished the regular season undefeated, the first time an MLL team has done so. It has impressed fans, media and fellow players and coaches because of their dominance in seemingly every aspect of the game.

"Jesse Schwartzman is outstanding. They have an outstanding team defense. They are a deadly team in transition. There aren't any holes in this group," Charlotte Hounds head coach Mike Cerino said of his Saturday opponent.

Denver has the opportunity to close out its impressive run during Championship Weekend, with pair of wins standing between it and the league's first undefeated championship. Winning the title is what's on Outlaws head coach Jim Stagnitta's mind and he believes it's what his players will be focused on as well.

"We accomplished what we wanted to during the regular season," he said. "The guys have been playing with motivation to go undefeated but not the motivation they had earlier in the season. I'm excited to get everybody back with something truly on the line."

The Outlaws have now reached the playoffs all eight seasons they've been in existence. It's an impressive feat. Still, the Steinfeld Cup has eluded them. The team has reached the championship four times, losing in all those contests including last year against the Chesapeake Bayhawks.

Stagnitta is not too concerned with that past, however.

"I wasn't here until last year and I know why we lost last year. History doesn't mean a whole lot to me," he said. "Most of our guys just played here last year. That doesn't impact me at all. It doesn't bother me. It's not an issue with our guys. They want to win like everyone else does."

"I know why we lost in the finals last year and we did everything we could as a staff and a general manager to make sure that wasn't the case this year," he added.

Part of the reason was that 2012 MLL MVP Brendan Mundorf had to be pulled from the Championship game before halftime because of torn tendons in his ankle.

The additions of Zack Greer, Jeremy Boltus and Eric Law on attack along with the emergences of Drew Snider and team points-leader Chris Bocklet as scoring threats have provided enough depth where the offense doesn't solely rely on Mundorf.

Add Brian Megill to provide some muscle on defense and Justin Turri and Will Mangan as two-way midfielders helping to create a dominant transition game and Denver may be in its best position to win a championship than ever before.

"This team is focused and built for this weekend," Stagnitta said. "We're healthy right now and that's a big difference from where we were last year."

Still, two games need to actually be played to see if the Outlaws finally reach the ultimate goal.

Chesapeake looks to successfully defend title

Chesapeake may not be the top seed, but they have plenty of championship experience.
©Bryce Vickmark

Denver has a chance to go undefeated and win the first championship in franchise history. They're winning most of the post-season awards and getting a lot of attention.

But they aren't the defending champions.

That's the Chesapeake Bayhawks, who are still alive and looking to win once again.

"Inside our locker room we're confident. We have a lot of guys that have had success, a lot of guys that have won multiple championships," Bayhawks coach Dave Cottle said. "The Bayhawks will be ready this weekend."

Chesapeake enters the 2013 Championship Weekend in a similar position as 2012. Last year the Outlaws went into the postseason as the No. 1 seed and the Lizards were taking home most of the individual awards. It was the Bayhawks that won it all, though.

Cottle once again isn't concerned with awards; he's concerned with championships and he has lots of guys on his team with several of those. Defenseman Brian Spallina has won five championships, John Grant Jr. has won three championships, and Nicky Polanco, Michael Evans, Ben Rubeor, Ben Hunt, Matt Abbott, Kyle Dixon, Michael Kimmel, Casey Powell and Kip Turner have won two championships.

All that big game experience can greatly help the team as they know what to expect this weekend and they know how to win. But like Stagnitta said about his franchise's not-so-successful Championship Weekend past, Cottle doesn't want his team to rely on nice resumes alone.

"We're confident we're going to bring what we bring to the table. We'll find out if this year's team is good enough to win the tournament," he said. "We're not arrogant about it. What you've done yesterday has nothing to do with what you'll do today."

Charlotte veterans relying on coaching experiences

Veteran leadership from players like Matt Danowski - who coaches at Duke during the rest of the year - has proven key for second-year Charlotte.
©Lee Weissman 

The Hounds have gotten a lot of attention this season thanks to an impressive rookie class. First-year players Mike Sawyer, Matt White, Jake Tripucka, Mason Poli, Josh Hawkins, Michael McCormack and John Haus have all played significant minutes and made a great contribution to get Charlotte to its first playoff appearance in its two-year existence.

It's a tall task to get rookies to adapt quickly enough and gel into playoff form, something that got Hounds head coach Mike Cerino consideration for the Coach of the Year award. Cerino also chooses to give credit to his coaches on the field for helping the youngsters find their way.

"We're lucky to have the kind of leadership with Matt Danowski and Adam Ghitelman we have," he said.

Hounds points leader Danowski and defender Joe Cinosky were assistant coaches for NCAA champion Duke and starting goalie Adam Ghitelman was an assistant coach at Harvard this season.

Having guys who have experience on the sidelines – and in Danowski and Cinosky's cases actually coaching Tripucka this season – has helped Charlotte continue to grow and get better throughout the season.

"Where real strength comes form is there sideline demeanor and their calming effect in the locker room," Cerino said. "You have a top assistant at Harvard and two top assistants at Duke at both ends of the ball. It helps when you're trying to pull a group of young guys together."

Cerino also gave credit to defenders Ryan Flanagan and Brett Schmidt, who aren't college coaches but still show the great leadership ability expected of seasoned veterans.

Hamilton got it right from the start

A hot start and strong play from Offensive Player of the Year Kevin Crowley has the Nationals looking for a third title.
©John Strohsacker/ 

Coming into this season, the Nationals have gotten used to slow starts. The past three seasons they started 0-5, 1-3 and 0-3. Only in 2011 did they bounce back to win more than four games and make the playoffs.

The biggest reason for the slow starts is that a lot of the roster also plays in the NLL and misses the first few games because of the overlapping seasons. Star players like Joe Walters, Brodie Merrill, Cody Jamieson and Stephen Keogh aren't available, the remaining players struggle to compete and integrating everyone once the NLL-ers return makes for a disjointed offense.

This year however, partially thanks to a bye week in Week 1, the Nationals got out to a 5-0 start, putting them in prime position to make the playoffs this year.

"I think it started with [Nationals GM] Stu [Brown] and [Assistant GM] Jody [Gage] getting more players that were capable of playing at the MLL level. We started with a deeper player pool than in the past," Hamilton head coach Dave Huntley said. "We have a lot of really good players that want to be part of a team, that sacrifice personal goals for team goals."

One of those players is Kevin Cunningham. The 2012 draft pick finally seeing his first action this season played in all 14 games, scoring 17 goals and adding 22 assists.

"He has been a great pickup," Huntley said. "He's the perfect guy to play the 'X' position the way we needed it to be played. He's a guy who's had a lot of fun playing. He's a guy all our guys love."

A knock on Hamilton in the past was that its offensive players all played too similar of a style of lacrosse. Cunningham helped make the offense more versatile and makes it a more dangerous one going into Championship Weekend.

MLL Championship Weekend Preview

Charlotte Hounds (No. 4) at Denver Outlaws (No. 1)

1 p.m. Saturday | ESPN2

Denver may be the class of the league right now, but MLL Coach of the Year Jim Stagnitta sees a lot of similarities with his team and a young Charlotte Hounds team.

"They're the team in the league that plays the most like us," Stagnitta said. "They're good going from the defensive end to the offensive end. They have the ability to score goals."

"They're very athletic. They run the field well," he added.

Denver put up a lot of goals in both meeting with Charlotte this season, winning 21-16 and 17-11 this season. That being said, the Hounds did put up competitive efforts in both games.

"No one is looking past Saturday. Charlotte has given us fits the two times we've played them," Stagnitta said. "I think they're playing their best lacrosse down the stretch."

Hounds head coach Mike Cerino praised what the Outlaws have accomplished this year, but didn't sell his team short, either.

"On any given day the Hounds are tough to beat too," he said.

Hamilton Nationals (No. 3) at Chesapeake Bayhawks (No. 2)

4 p.m. Saturday | CBS Sports Network

Both teams finished 9-5 this season and this matchup figures to be a close one. Both coaches see that big contributions, and maybe the difference makers, could come up the middle with their face-off units.

Hamilton's rookie Mike Poppleton finished the season winning 50 percent of his face-offs while Chesapeake's Adam Rand wasn't too far off, winning slightly more than 48 percent of his face-offs. Rand did get the best of Poppleton in their two games this season, however. Whoever outperforms the other could provide the advantage needed in these two comparable teams.

"Mike [Poppleton]'s got to do his job at the X but our wing guys have to do their job, too," Huntley said. "Their wing guys were better than our wing guys."

But the Nationals do have the legendary Brodie Merril on the wing, something Cottle is very wary of.

"They're improving on face-offs," he said. "They have the best ground ball guy and defenders of all time."

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