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"> They Played On: How The MLL Season Reflected America in 2020 | US Lacrosse Magazine

They Played On: How The MLL Season Reflected America in 2020

This article appears in the September/October edition of US Lacrosse Magazine, available exclusively to US Lacrosse members. Join or renew today! Thank you for your support.

Americans were sent home from work and school in March. There was nowhere to go, no one to see. Days blended together, yet flew by with flurries of news as the coronavirus pandemic took hold and people entered quarantine.

That feeling of being stuck in the middle of a maelstrom did not change for Major League Lacrosse players even after they traveled to Annapolis, Md., and played in the condensed 2020 season July 18-26 at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

“It felt like the Denver game was three months ago,” Connecticut Hammerheads goalie Sean Sconone said just two days after the conclusion of the season and 10 days after Connecticut’s first game.

MLL’s 20th-anniversary season was already going to be hectic. Teams were scheduled to go from just two days of training camp straight into a schedule of five regular season games in the span of seven days. To win the championship, a team would have to play seven games in nine days.

The jam-packed schedule wasn’t the only nuance players encountered over the course of 11 days. Add in a heatwave, positive COVID-19 tests and social justice demonstrations, and the 2020 MLL season represented in many ways a microcosm of 2020 in America.

“It was tiring physically and mentally to play that amount of lacrosse in a short time. By the end, it was wild,” Boston Cannons goalie Nick Marrocco said. “It was the mental aspect, pushing through and essentially leaving everything on the field. Credit to those guys, especially the ones who are running up and down the field in that heat. It was an unreal experience, overall.”

“It was tiring physically and mentally to play that amount of lacrosse in a short time. By the end, it was wild.” — Nick Marrocco

Extreme heat in Annapolis during July isn’t unusual. Last year, a game between the Chesapeake Bayhawks and New York Lizards was pushed back an hour because the temperature in the air was supposed to hit 98 degrees at the originally scheduled game time of 7 p.m.

This was worse. On-field temperatures rose to as high as 120 degrees and the condensed format that had the Philadelphia Barrage, for example, playing four straight days at the onset of the tournament.

One player on whom the heat took a particularly heavy toll was Denver Outlaws faceoff specialist Max Adler. The MLL All-Star was removed from the team’s second game of the week and sent to the hospital due to complications from the heat.

“Against Philly, I was having a pretty good game. I scored a goal,” Adler said. “I didn’t feel tired. It was just so hot, and I couldn’t cool down at all. On that one faceoff, I cramped. My right leg cramped, then my left leg, and then my arm started cramping.”

Adler attempted to get intravenous fluids and go back in the game, but when he started cramping in his abs, the doctor on-site said that was a sign of kidney failure and shut him down. He sat in the ice tub, received an IV and started to feel better, but the athletic training staff advised he go to the hospital. Adler said he was hesitant because of COVID-19 concerns, but the staff said if he wanted to play in the team’s next game two days later, it would be best if he went to the hospital to receive more fluids. He acquiesced.

“They took my blood,” Adler said. “My blood levels came back, and they said I had a mild form of rhabdomyolisis. It’s what Scott Rodgers had last year in training camp. Mine was very mild. My kidney function wasn’t good. They kept me overnight, gave me a bunch of IVs and fluid. I didn’t have to stay overnight, but my best bet of playing was to stay overnight. I said I’d sleep at the hospital. Just keep giving me these fluids so I can play. I didn’t leave the hospital until 5 p.m. I wanted to wait until all my levels were completely back to normal and better than when I got there.”

Adler’s actions made one thing clear: He was going to do whatever it took to get back on the field. He wasn’t the only player looking to make a statement about what was important to him, however.

Chesapeake’s Isaiah Davis-Allen, Connecticut’s Kris Alleyne, New York’s Mark Ellis and Philadelphia’s Chad Toliver were excited to get back to playing lacrosse. But winning a championship wasn’t the only thing on their minds. As MLL’s only black players, Davis-Allen said they wanted to take a stand for the Black Lives Matter movement and express solidarity as the outliers in a predominantly white sport.

“It was definitely strange,” Davis-Allen said. “There were a lot of conversations, and some not so cordial, just trying to create an open dialogue and to change our sport for the better.”

During the playing of the national anthem before games, Davis-Allen, Alleyne, Ellis and Toliver stood separate from their teams at midfield. Davis-Allen said the players discussed kneeling, an act professional athletes in other sports have used to protest police brutality, but they stood because of the symbolic nature of playing at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium and to ensure there were no ways to misinterpret their message.

The “MLL Four” were disappointed by the league’s muted response to Black Lives Matter and grew frustrated in meetings with commissioner Alexander “Sandy” Brown. They questioned why MLL did not do more to promote images and videos of their demonstrations on social media and felt disrespected.

“Our league did not support us,” Ellis told US Lacrosse Magazine’s Matt Hamilton. “It wasn’t a priority for them.”

Toliver walked out on the first meeting in anger. “I was frustrated and pissed off,” he said. “As a league and commissioner, once you did Blackout Tuesday and sent out a letter giving a stance on George Floyd, you put yourself in a boat to use your resources and platform to support the African American players. ... You let us down. You let the league down. More importantly, you let the little black kid watching at home on TV down.”

In contrast to the icy reception from league officials, Davis-Allen said he felt very supported by his teammates, coaches and opponents. Sconone, who is teammates with Alleyne, said they had nothing but respect for the MLL Four, and he and his teammates would do whatever they could to help support them.

“Kris is the best teammate anybody can ask for,” Sconone said. “He put out a message Sunday [before the games]. ‘Hey, guys. I want to let you know, me and a few other players are going to stand at the midfield line during the national anthem. I hope you guys support me on this.’ We were 100-percent supportive of him. We were happy for him.”

Tensions eased recently, as the newly named Black Players Coalition released a statement vowing to hold the MLL accountable. Brown released a statement of his own not long after, expressing his support.

“I am committed to being part of the positive change and look forward to working with our newly established Black Players Coalition, as well as our Players Council, to enable, empower and ensure our players and our league are leaders in the fight to end racism in this country,” he said.

What Davis-Allen, Alleyne, Ellis and Toliver did prompted other players and coaches to join them. When news circulated that the Iroquois Nationals would not be allowed to compete in The World Games in 2022 due to eligibility criteria set forth by the Olympic charter — the reaction to which has since caused both World Lacrosse and the International World Games Association to commit to finding a solution — players like Lyle Thompson and Randy Staats wrote about the anger, disappointment and disrespect they felt in their exclusion. Davis-Allen, wanting to help bring light to the situations of all people of color, invited the Haudenosaunee players to stand with the black players.

Before the July 26 championship game between the Cannons and Outlaws, all players on both sides stood at midfield.

“We don’t have any African American players on our team, but we had them talk to our team and share their stories and perspectives. It’s really powerful,” Adler said. “We saw Philly go out to support Chad Toliver. It was a split-second decision for us. We didn’t want to take away from what they were doing. It was something I was trying to debate, but you have a second to decide. I was like, ‘Yeah, it’s good. We should do this.’ Chad said how much he appreciated that support.”

Davis-Allen said he hoped the demonstrations would create a conversation that continued beyond the games.

“A big thing is education,” he said. “There’s a clear issue in our society but also in our sport. People can’t fix something they don’t know is wrong or something no one has ever checked them on. I let a lot of things slide growing up. Now, guys are starting to call things out, and it’s uncomfortable, and it’s sparking conversation. That’s a good place to start.”


MLL also had to deal with players that tested positive for COVID-19. After the final regular season games, a player approached medical staff expressing he did not feel well. He tested positive for the virus. The next day, the league tested all the other players and coaches. In total, three players — all on the same team — tested positive for the virus. 

Both the Bayhawks, the defending league champion, and Hammerheads withdrew from the playoffs. MLL canceled the semifinal games and announced the Cannons and Outlaws would meet for the title. While players awaited results of the tests, the uncertainty of the moment weighed on their minds. “You’re trying to focus all week on winning games and doing your part to make sure everyone is ready,” Marrocco said. “Mix in this, and you’re trying to figure out where guys minds are at. It wasn’t easy.”

Despite the challenges, MLL put on a good show. Nine games were decided by a single possession. Highlights routinely made ESPN’s “SportsCenter.” New stars emerged, like Denver’s Dan Bucaro, Chesapeake’s Nate Solomon, Philadelphia’s Tyson Gibson and Connecticut’s Ben Martin.

Bucaro, who scored 13 goals, was due for a breakout campaign after missing his rookie season due to injury in 2019. “He scored way too many goals on me in high school,” said Sconone, Bucaro’s adversary growing up on Long Island. “I knew he was going to be a star at the next level.”

In the championship game, the biggest moments in the fourth quarter, when Marrocco made three doorstop saves on the 45-year-old legend John Grant Jr., the two-time MLL MVP playing in his final game. Boston defeated Denver 13-10 to claim their second-ever MLL title.

“He’s a beast,” Marrocco said of Grant. “He’s arguably the best player to play the game. He’s still doing it really well. To make those stops, to me, was huge. After that last save, I knew we were going to win the game.”

Marrocco made 10 saves, John Uppgren scored five goals and Mark Cockerton added three goals. Newly acquired attackman Bryce Wasserman added a goal and an assist and was named MLL MVP.

Spare Marrocco the asterisk. No matter how unusually the Cannons reached the championship game, he said, they were legitimate and deserving champions. Boston itself was without five players — Jason Brewester, Frank Brown, Bryan Cole, Matt Gilray and Randy Staats — who left Annapolis after learning of the positive COVID-19 tests in the bubble.

“Denver was the No. 1 seed,” Marrocco said. “We were ready to play anyone. Denver was good for that No. 1 seed, but by the end of the tournament, we were the best team.”

Despite the roadblocks, players and coaches felt good about the product on the field and the way individuals spoke up for social justice. Sconone said the future of MLL was bright, and Adler said the difficult times revealed the dedication and determination many players in the league routinely display. He said it paralleled everyday life.

“You see people use this as an excuse to not work or use this as an excuse to not be successful or work hard. Then you see other people grit their teeth and grind through it and come out better,” Adler said. “These are character-revealing times.”