Can you smell it? It’s either the stench of last year’s gear bags reopening or the plastic/rubber combination from all of the new pads coming out of their packaging. Either way, it means the MLL season is here!
Games start on Saturday and we know you’ve been locked into the exciting NCAA, MCLA, NLL, HS and other lacrosse seasons. We need to do some catching up and refocus on the sport’s premier professional field lacrosse league. No better way than the old MLL Super Preview.
The 2016 MLL Championship was a game to remember. Denver and Ohio were fresh off wins over New York and Charlotte, respectively, and the game went down to the literal last seconds. In a cruel joke for Denver after a scorching quarterfinal that had gotten so hot that trainers were putting ice on the turf to help cool players, the final was the downpour to end all downpours. The night started fine, but once the skies opened up and a delay took over, the field turned into a puddle filled mess.
Regardless, the teams took the field after and finished the game. It looked like it would be headed into overtime, but Eric Laws goal with just three seconds remaining is what put the game away. The Outlaws needed an 8-1 third quarter just to pull within range. The end results was the team’s second title after years of coming close.
What will really live on forever in MLL history when you talk about 2016 will be the ties. This isn’t #TieGate or anything like that, but the regular season ended with a 7 way tie for first. 7 teams were 8-6 when all was said in done.
I personally maintain that the league really needs to evaluate their tie-breaking procedures after this, but all teams were aware of them before this happened.
If you want to dive into this again for some reason, remember this from last summer.
A big change for this year is the January collegiate draft was moved. The official details have not been announced, but it will be happening somewhere around Memorial Day. I have been a big advocate for moving the draft later because the early draft deprives teams of more evaluation of a players’ senior season and potential availability.
As it turns out, coaches and General Managers around the league are very, very mixed on the subject. Nobody loves the later draft. While some hate it. One GM in particular summed up the move in one word “Terrible.”
The arguments go in a number of directions. By having an early draft players can join teams once their collegiate careers are done. Several teams point directly to Virginia as an example of this. They have MLL players on their team, but are no longer allowed to play until after all NCAA players are done. This now means that if a player has MLL talent and are on a college team with no postseason, they are going to be idle and training by themselves for a month. On the other hand, players that make it into the NCAA tournament, and especially into the final weekend, are game ready when they want to jump in. Look to Denver’s addition of Jack Kelly, Matt Kavanaugh, Bailey Tills, and BJ Grill. All played in May, all made an immediate MLL impact.
The one suggestion that several teams were bringing up is they would love to have the draft now. Right before the season starts. They know generally where college teams stand for immediate contributors, they know their needs from training camps, and they have most of a collegiate season to evaluate players, be aware of injuries, know work plans, etc. Maybe the new commissioner will consider this. Speaking of which…
A New Commissioner
David Gross has announced that this will be his final season running the league. This caps off a 14 year career as MLL commissioner. As with anyone in such a high profile position, his tenure has been riddled with questionable decisions, constant change, and plenty of controversies. But, all of that is secondary to the primary goal of someone in his position, which is make the business side of everything work. He brought the league through The Great Recession in 2008 & 2009, which saw some teams fold, but the league stayed viable. He also kept several others afloat while adding even more like Charlotte, Ohio, and Atlanta.
The league is entering a fork in the road, though. The next person to fill this role will have quite a task ahead of them as the league almost requires expansion, but also needs boosts in attendance, revenue, player compensation, wider broadcasting rights, and perhaps even a players’ union. The next several years are critical for the league.
There are also a few new Venues to take note of around the league. Both immediate term and long term.
Rochester – The Rattlers are returning to their former home, now named Capelli Sports Stadium. This really is a great move for the team as it is perfectly sized for their city. If they ever get a chance to fill it to the brim like we all want them to, it would be one of the best environments in the league. The fan experience is great, and it is going to serve well as the new Snake Pit.
Machine – The Ohio Machine are making a big splash as having the first ever stadium built for a professional outdoor lacrosse team. Partnering with a nearby town right on the outskirts of Columbus, Obetz Fortress Field is going to be home for the Machine. This is a great step forward for the league.
Launch – Unfortunately, the Launch are a little nomadic this summer as their home turf is getting ripped up and repaired. They only spend a few games elsewhere, but it is still worth noting.
Bayhawks – Like the Machine, the Bayhawks have a lacrosse specific stadium planned. Unlike the Machine, this is still just a long term plan. The Bayhawks are looking to invest some big time money for a major stadium. This would certainly be a sight if it happens.
I won’t be doing a full roster and schedule analysis for each team, but here are some quick items for each one.
First Game: 4/22 at Charlotte
In Denver’s own words, they face the toughest challenge in all of sports. The repeat. The Philadelphia Barrage did it in 2006 and 2007, the Rochester Rattlers/Toronto Nationals did it in 2008 and 2009, while the Bayhawks did it in 2012 and 2013. So while it can be done, it is not going to be easy. You start the season with a target on your back and you get no sympathy from anyone else in the league. So what do the Outlaws have going for them that will help get back to the winner’s circle for a second straight year and winners in three of the last four?
To start: rookies. Rather, last year’s rookies who are coming back for more. Hopefully they all didn’t get the idea that winning a championship in the MLL is just how things work. Since none of their rookies were from college teams rolling in championship rings, I do not suspect that to be the case. Aiding them through this transition is probably one of the best people in the world to do so. John Grant Jr. on Wednesday announced that he will be retiring from the MLL. Right after that, it was announced by Denver that they are bringing him on as an offensive coach for this season. A two time Championship game MVP, including one in Denver and another for the repeating Bayhawks mentioned previously, Junior is hopefully the right person in the right place at the right time.
When they made their championship run a year ago, they were all but written off. They backed into the playoffs by way of the tie breaker system and had to win several unlikely games while also getting plenty of help from other teams. As coach BJ O’Hara explained “We were in playoff mode early on”. The Outlaws are not going to be able to be in playoff mode for an entire season, but they are entering the season knowing who their goalie is. They know who their core team is. And they know what their ceiling is.
First Game: 4/22 at Atlanta
Ohio was on the losing end of the Championship. They gave up a last second goal in what would have been the franchise’s first title. This really was a landmark season for the Machine. They had Tom Schreiber as the league MVP, and Scotty Rodgers turned in his best season as a pro taking home the All-Star MVP honors. While the start of their season will not be a smooth transition, they still have all the right pieces in place to make another run.
Rodgers will anchor the defense who has taken on the name of “the faceless men.” They take pride in being a group not comprised of superstars, but as a group who plays aggressive defense that will be disruptive and make plays. According to coach Bear Davis, that style relies on having a great goalie. They take risks, which will result in shots that most defenses do not allow. It is no coincidence that they turned in their best season with the way Rodgers played.
The beginning of their season will not beat the same on offense. Schreiber is in the NLL making a name for himself as a rookie in that league and leading the Toronto Rock in a turnaround season of their own. In addition to him being out to start the season, right around when training camp wrapped up, Kyle Harrison was getting a cast put on his leg. He is still slated to play this season, but is starting the year on the injured list. When asking coach Davis how this impacts their plans, he said it is more of matter of making their offense fit the players they have. Not making the players fit the offense.
First Game: 4/22 at Chesapeake
Even though New York did not repeat as Champions, they were the number two seed in the playoffs. And once again, when looking at all the rosters, I have to say that New York is the favorite going into the season. Some big additions that should help them out are Joe Walters at midfield, and Ryan Flanagan on defense.
Defense was where New York struggled the most in 2016. They would just have serious lapses that allowed teams to go on runs. Joe Fletcher is still one of the best defenders in the league, and Drew Adams is a goalie any team would love to have between the pipes. Adding Flanagan to that close defense is an upgrade. His season was cut short last year from a rather horrific injury while sliding to a player diving in the crease. His leg lost the battle. Also, I’m not sure I would want to be the first player to dive at Flanagan’s feet this season. I feel like a slash or two might happen just on principle.
Coach Spallina has shown that he knows how to get superstars to work together on offense. Rabil and Pannell are not just coexisting, but they make each other better. Adding Walters into that mix bring an entirely new element that will be exciting to watch. The big question for the Lizards this season is how they handle Greg Gurenlian. He announced that this will be his final MLL season, and will retire at the end. I certainly do not expect the Beast to fade away quietly. He’s going to go down fighting and will try to ride off into the sunset. The question is how will Coach Spallina handle this? Do they draft a new FOGO high to be an understudy? If so, do you give him more MLL reps with Gurenlian standing right there? The Lizards under Spallina are a “win now” team. Anything that isn’t a championship is a disappointment, so cutting their losses and building for the future just isn’t a thing. That’s why I feel that this is an interesting storyline to keep an eye on.
First Game: 4/22 vs. Denver
Charlotte was the final playoff team to enter the field in 2016. They were very middle of the pack in terms of overall offense and defense. Coach Jim Stagnitta said simply “We had no expectations in 2016”. They were in the middle of a longer term transition plan which did not include a championship or bust mentality. They were building for the future and quite frankly, they wound up ahead of schedule.
Similar to the Outlaws, they were very reliant on several rookies playing larger roles. Players like Ryan Brown, Pat Young, and Goran Murray all stepped up in their first year. They are fully expecting on carrying over from the end of last year into this season. On Day 1, they are not entering with “no expectations” again. The only major player they have in the NLL is Kevin Crowley, so their only concern early on is coaching conflicts. From where they stand right now, they are very confident about where they stand in that first game.
Looking ahead to the draft and possible trades, the biggest area where they need improvement is in their defense. They still feel like they need to be a little more physical to force opposing teams into positions they want. There is still quite a bit of faith in Charlie Cipriano as the goalie, but getting him seeing better shots could be a major difference maker in Charlotte.
First Game: 4/29 at Florida
The Rattlers need that one extra week until their opener more than just about anyone. They have several players who are seeing extended time in the NLL, while they also already know they will be without John Galloway in net week 1 because of his coaching duties at Jacksonville. This is nothing new for Rochester as they have this problem each year. What has changed, is they picked up JoJo Marasco in a trade with New York, so they have a top-level middie week one. They have made due with their other players, but having someone like JoJo right away might be a difference maker in those early games.
Their offense will have to perform extra until their full defense can come and play. No Galloway right away, no Joel White, and Mike Manley may not be ready to start the season, either. That right there is your defending goalie of the year and his co-defenders of the year, which isn’t just difficult to replace, it’s impossible.
The big thing for the Rattlers for 2017 is going to be staying healthy. They have had some pretty major injuries each season at the wrong time. If they can stay healthy, this could be the year for Rochester. What was made clear when talking to this team is that they want to win now. And they are not just a collection of guys who all want to win a championship in the general sense. They are comprised of a core group that has taken on a true team identity. They want to win a championship. They want to win it with the team that they have, and they want to win it as Rochester Rattlers.
First Game: 4/22 vs. New York
Chesapeake is poised to have a monster year. It was just two years ago that Inside Lacrosse featured a cover with Lyle Thompson and Myles Jones as “The Face of College Lacrosse.” Now, the Bayhawks are set to feature both of them on the field at the same time. Their styles are very different, but coach Brian Reese is confident that he will find a way that they can work off each other and make things run. They still have a few guys like Matt Danowski, Ryan Tucker, and Shawn Evans waiting to join from the NLL ranks. Not a bad offense. Not bad at all.
On defense, they picked up Will Koshansky from the Rattlers, who was the odd man out with Matt Dunn in the lineup, while Jesse Bernhardt comes back as the top returning defender. All of this leads up to Brian Phipps, who had a season good enough in 2016 to be added to the Team USA training team over this past winter. For their defensive midfield, everything starts with Matt Abbott. Coach Reese joked that if he could only clone Abbott, he would be set. A do it all midfielder who just never seems to get tired, plays great defense, and takes full runs on offense, Abbott is the kind of player that makes a team better.
This season is shaping up well for the Bayhawks. Coach Reese was emphasizing just how deep their roster is. Sure they have the big names that were mentioned, but they have the “grinders” that you need in the MLL. Guys that can fill a certain role in one game, but jump into the other side of the field the next. They do all the dirty work in the middle of the field to get the extra possessions that will win games.
First Game: 4/23 at Florida
When looking at the Cannons roster, what jumps out at me is their defense. They traded for Matt Landis in the offseason to go with Brandon Mullins, their franchise rookie of the year in 2016, and Mitch Belisle. Tyler Fiorito is still the goalie, and Josh Hawkins leads the way with the short sticks. Oh. And they still have Brodie Merrill. That is a lineup that will just be flat out physically abusive and can turn a ground ball into a shot on the other end in a matter of seconds with their transition game.
Regarding that transition, a big shakeup was actually on the sidelines. With the college responsibilities of Sean Kirwan sending him down to Virginia, the Cannons needed to bring in a new guy to run the offense. They turned to the previous head coach, John Tucker. As an outside observer, I cannot properly say how impressed I am by this move. It’s something that you just don’t see very often in pro sports. For a head coach in year two of leading his team to bring in his predecessor, it shows how much they have a team first mentality. Now, with Kirwan’s departure, there will be less of the Tufts style of offense that they started to implement last year. Coach Quirk does expect them to be closer to Tucker’s offense when he was the coach, but not a carbon copy by any means.
Regarding the offense, they are still anchored by Max Seibald at midfield and Will Manny down at attack. Coach Quirk described a their offense as just being “one or two pieces away” from being a great offense. He was also quick to emphasize that those one or two pieces are not necessarily on other teams or still in college. He spoke to his players at the end of last season about who needed to step up and be less of a role player. Based on what he saw in camp, he felt that a few took that message seriously and may be able to provide that little extra firepower that they lacked a year ago.
First Game: 4/22 vs. Ohio
Year two for the Blaze is going to be an interesting one. Their first season saw the front office in a constant state of flux and a head coach fired via text message. The organization is very focused on putting all of that behind them and moving forward. This is a team who says they were just “4 plays in about 4 seconds from being the top seed in the playoffs”. It went both ways. There were defensive lapses for a more second or two that allowed a bad goal. There were also wrong decision on when to shoot. Those few mistakes turned into points in close games that left the Blaze out of the playoffs. If they went the other way, the entire complexion of the postseason could have changed. And this was just year one.
Going into year two, the Blaze are looking to make a big impact, and they are not looking for moral victories. As you often hear around the league, a big emphasis for them is team chemistry. They brought in Dylan Donahue, who will be combined with Randy Staats and Kevin Rice at attack, a Syracuse reunion of sorts. While Staats is off in the NLL helping lead the first place Georgia Swarm, the Blaze picked up Chris Bocklet. Based on camp, Bocklet is already working with the others on offense extremely well, which should be expected. Bocklet is helping make this group dangerous from day 1.
On Defense, they chemistry factor strikes again as they have both Hossack brothers (Graeme and Matt) who will join after their NLL seasons. They real headliners back on that end are goalie Adam Ghitelman and Scott Ratliff. Both are more than happy to carry the ball over midline to create some offense. The Blaze were quick to point out that despite their abilities, this is not a transition-only team. Will they look for transition goals? Absolutely. But they are building this team to make sure they can win every 6 on 6 set you throw at them on both ends of the field. It’s hard not to get excited about this team.
First Game: 4/23 vs. Boston
The Launch are coming off their worst season in their young, three year history. They had just three wins. Oddly enough, one was against eventual champion Denver and the other was over New York. They brought in new head coach Tom Mariano to try to turn around this franchise and make them winners. It will not be an easy task. Over the past few seasons, the Launch have been loaded with talent that does not justify their results. But when you watch them play, the defense routinely leaves goalies on an island while the offense is rarely on the same page.
Mariano said his first major task when trying to put together a team is to focus on two things with players. The first is that he wants players who are hungry and want to play in the MLL. That means he is searching for the guys who have made the MLL a priority in their lives for these few months. That does not exclude NLL players or college coaches, but they need to be fully on board when they first suit up. Following that, he wants players who want to play for the Florida Launch. When he has met with players and watched them in camp, he feels that this is what he is getting. Players have worked all offseason and improved themselves as players. They want to succeed in the league and they want to show that Florida can be a team that will do some damage this year.
This team is going to look and play differently than they have in years past. There are new faces who are being asked to do new things and the draft will also be critical in putting together a late season run.
When asked about whether not the draft is going to be used to make immediate improvements, Mariano laughed and said “We have three of the first nine picks, I should hope we can get better in the draft.”