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Outlaws: Road to the Playoffs

August 24, 2011
On a rainy day at INVESCO Field at Mile High in Denver (recently renamed Sports Authority Field at Mile High), thousands of fans came out to watch the Outlaws’ season opener against the Hamilton Nationals.  Rabid fans could not be deterred by the inclement weather; they were ready to cheer on their team from the first game all the way through the playoffs. Since the Outlaws inception in 2006, the Denver-based team has made it to Championship Weekend every year, but has invariably fallen short. This year, they hope to finally hoist the iconic Steinfeld Trophy.

“It would mean a whole lot to get one for our organization,” said Denver’s All-Star goalie Jesse Schwartzman. “They do a lot for us, and the people are phenomenal and the fans are great, so bringing home a title would be the best way to thank them.”

Schwartzman is no stranger to postseason lacrosse.  He led Johns Hopkins to four NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championships with two National Championship wins.  He wants that “postseason magic” again in Denver, not only for the fans but for his teammates as well.  “We’ve all sacrificed more this summer than every other year. We’ve been through some tough times and I think maybe for some guys like Langtry and Zink, their careers may be coming to an end soon.  It would mean the world to win.”

Last season ended in a semi-final loss against the Long Island Lizards following a regular-season tie with the Boston Cannons for first place.  This year Denver slipped to second place overall while the Cannons held on to the number one seed, but the Outlaws are not worried.

“I don’t think we’ve performed better in all my years on the team in terms of the little things,” Schwartzman said of the Outlaws’ ability to move the ball, dominate ground balls and the performance of players such as Kevin Unterstein who Schwartzman dubs an “animal.”

“I don’t think there’s been better lacrosse all year. It was a pleasure watching it from where I was considering there wasn’t much action on my side of the field; it was nice to sit back and watch.”

While Schwartzman has been key to Denver’s defense, All-Star attackman Brendan Mundorf has been monumental for the team’s offense.  He kicked off the season by netting a hat trick, leading the Outlaws to their first opening day win since ’08 against the L.A. Riptide. The 18-10 win over the Nationals along with Mundorf’s 10 total points (the single game point record) certainly gave the fans something to bang their drum about on opening day, and creating momentum for the first half of the season.

Perhaps one of Denver’s most dangerous competitors this year was the Boston Cannons, a team that finished with the same record as the Outlaws in 2010.  In Week 2, a new face emerged for the Outlaws.  Connor Martin, the Internet sensation best known for his “Con Bro Chill” persona, made his MLL debut against the Cannons after playing his college career on the Chapman University MCLA club team.  “You can’t go out there and play like you’re a rookie and I just go out there and play like I’m still in college” remarked Martin after he was asked about his thoughts on playing in the MLL.

In the following weeks, another fresh face joined Outlaw veteran mainstays to foster more wins. Rookie attackman Billy Bitter joined vets Mundorf and Drew Westervelt on the attack. Denver’s Head Coach Tom Slate was pleased with Bitter’s adaptation into the league and the offense.

“Billy’s done a great job sitting in. Westervelt and Mundorf have obviously taken him in. He didn’t want to step on any toes but they understand that he’s going to make his mark on the net,” Slate said. “He’s trying to get some good quality looks in his shots on net, but sometimes he tends to ad-lib and stray on his shots, but he’s scored some big goals for us.”

Adding Bitter to the already potent attack was not the only move Slate made that improved Denver early on. The Outlaws traded away newly acquired Grant Catalino for Rochester’s Bill McGlone and Jarett Park while All-Star Max Seibald was scheduled to return the following week from a knee injury.  With the Cornell grad at full speed, he was to be the final piece of the explosive Denver team.

In the first half of the season the Outlaws seemed unbeatable, having dropped only one overtime thriller to the Chesapeake Bayhawks, as they found themselves first in the league.  In game seven, the Outlaws matched up against the Boston Cannon’s, a game that drew a record crowd of more than 27, 000 fans. Denver was up with an 11- 7 score going into the fourth, but the Cannons went on to outscore the Outlaws 8-1 and took the game, 12 – 15. The Outlaws then dropped the next two games to the last place Rattlers, who added their only two wins on the season. On July 30 th, the Outlaws dropped their fourth in a row to a rival Boston squad, leaving them winless in July.

The Outlaws had dropped from 5-1 to 5-5 and were stuck in a three-way tie for third place in the league, failing to clinch a playoff spot. 

In week 11, the season came down to a match-up against the Long Island Lizards. A win would clinch a playoff spot for the Outlaws, but a loss would leave them .500 on the season and with only one game to go, they would be in danger of missing the cut for the playoffs.

The teams went goal for goal, fighting to score through impressive games by Schwartzman and Warrior Goalie of the Year, Long Islands’ Drew Adams. Seibald, Mundorf and Bitter led the way for the Outlaws early, but the Lizards’ high-powered attack kept them in the race with goals from Tim Goettelmann, Matt Danowski and John Grant Jr. By half time, the game was knotted up at five.

The Outlaws came out of the halftime gates swinging.  With a two-pointer from Westervelt followed by two, quick tallies from Poillon and DeLaney just minutes into the third, the Outlaws were up 9-5. The Outlaws would put in five more to take the game 14-11, keeping them 10-0 against the Lizards in the regular season and clinching them a spot in the playoffs. Schwartzman explained the team sentient after the clinched playoff berth.

“Luckily we won five in a row in the beginning of the season. We’ve treated the past couple games as do-or-die, but having the older guys help the younger guys keep it together, telling them to play their own game, has really paid off and we’re starting to click right now.”

Heading into Championship Weekend, the Outlaws say they must keep their composure and avoid little mistakes.

“False starts on facing-off and illegal stick penalties tend to add up at the end of the day,” Coach Slate said of the mistakes they made during their five game slide. “I think the last three or four minutes of the game are so important and you can’t make mistakes.”

The second-seed Outlaws will match up against the third-seed Hamilton Nationals on Saturday at 3:00pm EST. Fans can watch live on ESPN2. This will be their league high sixth play-off appearance.