Saturday’s semifinals were the best
two games of the summer. Rochester dethroned Philadelphia in sudden-death overtime and Denver rallied to send Los Angeles its walking papers.
These games had all the aspects that make lacrosse what it is: Team defense. Snappy ball movement. Hits. Skillful ground ball play. Creative playmaking. Outstanding saves. Timely coaching.
Sunday’s final couldn’t live up to Saturday’s theatrics. When two tired teams met less than 24 hours later, the smallest advantage was parlayed into what appeared to be a rout. The Rattlers scored 10 straight goals in the second half to blow open a tight game. The heroes were Brodie Merrill, Alex Smith, John Grant Jr. and Jeff Zywicki.
Rochester boarded the team bus back to upstate New York with its first Steinfeld Cup, having closed out the summer by taking its final seven games.
The weekend started on Friday when all four teams checked into the Hyatt in Cambridge. The players represented themselves, their teams and the league in first class fashion.
The four practices on Friday were revealing. Rochester and Philadelphia were ultra loose, irreverent actually. Grant threw the ball all over the field, accumulating a dozen turnovers – part of the creative process I guess.
Later in the day, the Barrage defenders were in rare form.
They have a tradition in practice when they pick off a pass in flight. Instead of clearing the ball, they throw it out of the stadium. So there’s Kyle Sweeney launching the orange ball out and over Harvard Stadium onto a populated city street. Four times the balls disappeared over the ancient concrete stadium, drawing loud cheers from the entire team.
Los Angeles’s and Denver’s drills resembled a buttoned-up college team. Serious business. Talking to the veterans you got the sense that championships don’t grow on trees and that everyone wants to play their best on national television.
By Sunday at 2 p.m., halftime of the final, both teams were on the verge of breaking.
Rochester led 6-5. It dominated the first 30 minutes yet only led by one. The tempo was slow. Denver goalie Jesse Schwartzman was a one-man band with 11 saves. But Denver’s defense was running out of gas, trying to keep up with Rattler picks and rapid ball movement.
Rochester coach B.J. O’Hara changed goalies; Brett Queener replaced Mike Levin.
Queener danced his way onto the big stage with a 30 minute performance for the ages. He ran circles around rubber-legged field players. He brought the fans to their feet. The agile rookie from Albany made 9 saves, gave up one goal and chipped in an assist. The helper was one of the top plays of the summer. I got chills.
Face-off guru Smith won 16 of 25 with some help from his wingmen Merrill, Chris Schiller and Jordan Hall. Smith is a machine in both mindset and technique and Denver’s season slipped away a little bit with every faceoff win.
The Outlaw offense was stagnant all weekend, relying on unassisted goals. They lacked ball movement, didn’t generate a single fast break on Sunday and were held scoreless for 28 minutes of the second half. Their six goals were the lowest point total in championship game historyJack Reid did wonderful work against Brendan Mundorf. Merrill was his usual menacing self – arguably made the most important takeway of his career on Saturday in the closing moments of the the semifinal win, stripping Matt Streibel on Philly’s final possession. Sol Bliss and Kyle Guadagnolo were rough and tumble.
But more important was the sensational job that short stick defenders Pat Dutton, Andy Spack and Schiller did against Denver.
The 2008 Rochester Rattlers will be defined by their offense. They set a record for most assists in a season. They played a hybrid indoor/outdoor brand of offense. Two man games. Picks. Off-ball cuts. Great looking stuff.
Joe Walters lit up the Barrage for four goals on Saturday and then chipped in a pair on Sunday. It’s amazing how he is able to set up his left hand when everybody in Boston knows that’s the direction he’s going. His shooting stroke is the smoothest in the game.
Grant, the reigning two-time league MVP, was held to a season low one goal on just three shots in the semifinals. Philadelphia’s Brian Spallina broke four titanium shafts on Grant but Sunday was a different story. Grant was brash and swashbuckling. He hit the net early and often, finishing with 4 goals and one assist.
Rochester switched Casey Powell to midfield when they were 4-3. Seven wins later they’re the champs. Powell drew the long pole most of the weekend. He showed patience and restraint, netted the game winner on Saturday in OT and chipped in three assists on Sunday afternoon. He’s ageless and as quick as ever.
The Rattlers ball movement benefited Zywicki. He took nine shots in the finals, sending six past Schwartzman from point blank range. The ‘Nibbler’s’ production is a barometer for Rochester offensive flow.
I hoped you enjoyed Championship weekend. I did. It was a fitting close to my collegiate and professional lacrosse year. I’ve never felt more confident about the lacrosse product that Major League Lacrosse puts on the field.
I want to thank the fans for their boisterous support, feedback and passion – it’s always great to meet a face behind an email. I’m energized by your enthusiasm.
Quint welcomes your email at Quint@Insidelacrosse.com. He’ll be in Orlando, Florida this weekend covering college football (the MEAC-SWAC Challenge) for ESPN2.