August 21, 2014

Familiar Storylines for Rochester-Denver MLL Championship

by Phil Shore | | Twitter

The top two teams in this year's Major League Lacrosse standings – the Rochester Rattlers and Denver Outlaws – meet head-to-head in the final game of the season. Outlaws coach B.J. O'Hara and attackman John Grant Jr. will work together to try and bring their team its first MLL Championship.

That was the scene in the 2008 MLL season and history is now repeating itself.

In 2008, the Rattlers – with O'Hara its head coach and the league's MVP Grant – defeated the Outlaws 16-6 for Rochester's first (and so far only) Steinfeld Trophy. In 2014 O'Hara is on the Denver sideline and he made sure to bring in Grant, who had another MVP-worthy season, to hopefully lead the team to the championship that has eluded the Denver franchise since it debuted in the league in 2006.

The setup is similar, but O'Hara said that times have changed and there isn't much thought about that 2008 game going into this contest.

"It's definitely not a rematch," he said. "There's very few people on either side that were involved in that game. This is an entirely different scenario, two different teams. It's more of a rematch of two teams who played each other twice this season and split and now get to break the tie."

There are only two others that were a part of that 2008 game that will be partaking in the festivities in 2014: Denver goalie Jesse Schwartzman and defender Lee Zink. Schwartzman played 52 minutes making 13 saves and allowing 15 goals while getting the loss. Zink did not register any statistics.

Grant agreed that his first championship won't be on his mind in preparation for this game, but he did admit that his previous relationship with O'Hara has motivated him this season, a year with 28 goals and 26 assists.

"I felt more like me, playing the game I'm accustomed to," Grant said in response to why he's been so productive this season. "[O'Hara's] allowing me to do that. I never wanted to come in and take over but we have similar philosophies and the team has taken me in with open arms."

MLL Championship

Denver Outlaws vs. Rochester Rattlers

When: 7 p.m. ET Saturday
Where: Kennesaw State, Ga.
Tickets (25 percent off for US Lacrosse members): Here
TV: CBS Sports Network
Live blog and post-game coverage:

Denver has the experience on its side but the Rattlers youth has propelled the team back on top of the standings and into the championship game.

"We have four rookies that are significant members of the squad," Rattlers attackman Kevin Leveille said, referring to Jordan Wolf (21 goals, 12 assists), Mark Cockerton (24 goals), Miles Thompson (12 goals, seven assists) and John LoCascio (three assists, 39 ground ball pick-ups). "Everyone was so tight we were worried about affecting the team but those guys came in and contributed right away."

When the Rattlers traveled to Denver to meet the Outlaws for the first time in the 2014 season on May 17, Rochester was 2-1 but was without those four rookies and Leveille (17 goals, eight assists). The Outlaws dominated the Rattlers 14-8.

The Rattlers regrouped and won seven of their next eight games, including a 19-14 home victory over the Outlaws on June 29.

"We're two evenly matched teams from top to bottom," Rattlers head coach Tim Soudan said. "I think the way Eric Law is playing and how John Grant Jr. is playing, it's our defense vs. their offense."

The Rattlers defense allowed the fewest goals in the league this season (161) and was led by Goalie of the Year John Galloway and Defender of the Year Mike Manley. Meanwhile, the Outlaws had three players in the top 10 in scoring: Grant, Law (36 goals, 16 assists) and midfielder Jeremy Sieverts (23 goals – including a league-high seven two-point goals – and 18 assists for 48 points).

The matchup of the game figures to be between Grant and Manley, two of the best at their positions.

"Obviously we're going to see their best. They have a great coaching staff. There are no weaknesses," Grant said about Rochester. "It's a one-game take-all, for whoever can put it together and execute the game plan. We all know what we need to do. You play for one game and you've got 60 minutes to do it."

Leveille said the Rochester offense has been so difficult to cover this season because of the amount of weapons they have on the field and match-up problems that creates. Having a front row seat to watch what his defensive teammates do, however, has Leveille optimistic that the Rattlers defense can hold its own against the high-powered Outlaws offense.

"They're outstanding and don't get enough credit," he said. "Watching our defense operate, they really are a machine."

With the teams splitting home games this season it's fitting the rubber match will be played on a neutral field in Atlanta (7 p.m. ET at Kennesaw State University, and airing live on CBS Sports Network with coverage on as well).

While O'Hara and Grant may have come out victorious when the Rattlers and Outlaws last squared off in the championship game, Denver is 0-4 when playing for the Steinfeld Trophy.

Either way, O'Hara said history will have no bearing or importance on the 2014 championship game. He said the winner will be decided by whoever can fight through adversity and execute in the moment.

"The team that can keep the most poise," he said of the key to the game. "It's a game of runs. Each team is going to have their moments. The team that's struggled at one point in the game, if they can collect themselves and right the ship, that's going to be the key thing."

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