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What Makes a Championship Team?

March 18, 2016
On Saturday night, the Denver Outlaws finally broke their playoff-losing streak, defeating the Rochester Rattlers 12-11 in the 2014 Major League Lacrosse Championship. After an eight-year drought, the Steinfeld Trophy is finally making the trip to the Mile High City.

Although it has taken the Outlaws their entire nine-year existence in the league to finally win the Championship, it certainly has not been due to the team’s lack of talent or success.

Denver has been a constant factor in the MLL playoffs, making it to the post season every year since 2006, where they made the Championship in their first season. Since that first season, the Outlaws returned to the Championship three times. While Denver has always been a successful team, something had been preventing the Outlaws from bringing home the trophy.

The question then becomes what did the team to differently from previous years?

Two factors stand out: offseason roster changes and the new MLL playoff system.

The Outlaws took advantage of the 2013 offseason, making multiple personnel changes and trades.

The first move was promoting B.J. O’Hara from the assistant coach position, to head coach. O’Hara’s previous Championship experience may have been exactly what the Outlaws needed. He had won the Steinfeld Trophy while at the helm of the Rattlers in an easy final against the Outlaws.

At the end of the 2013 season, Denver announced a huge trade. In exchange for attackman Brendan Mundorf, the Outlaws received John Grant, Jr. and Michael Simon, as well as the 16 th pick in the 2014 Collegiate Draft. The Outlaws used the 16 th pick to draft faceoff man Brent Hiken, and also picked up Colin Dunster and Jeremy Noble. The roster changes certainly made a positive impact this season.

Both Grant and Simon made noticeable differences on the field. Grant, who was incredible this past season, brought previous Championship experience, including a Coca-Cola Championship MVP title, his second consecutive, making him the only player in MLL history to win two. His aggressive style of offense and presence on the crease, might have given Denver that much-needed boost. Simon, a defender, also managed to make his presence known at the other end of the field, as one of the defensive point leaders. Rookies Hiken, Dunster and Noble all got a considerable amount of playing time, and performed impressively for first-year players.

Paired with a core comprised of such players as goalie Jesse Schwartzman, defensemen Lee Zink and Matt Bocklet, middies Jeremy Sieverts and Drew Snider and Bocklet’s attackman brother Chris, proved to be the perfect recipe for success.

Another possible element in changing Denver’s playoff fate may have been the alterations to the MLL playoff format. In previous years, the MLL playoffs took place during Championship Weekend, where the semifinals and Championship Game would be on back-to-back days. The biggest problem with this setup was the limited time for players to rest between games.

Before the game, Grant, was asked based on his previous Championship experience, how he felt about the new playoff system: “It’s a unique opportunity this year with the new setup where you have a week to prepare, as opposed to sometimes less than 24 hours,” said Grant. “I think you’re going to have a better Championship game than you have in the past just due to the fact that you’re going to see two fresh teams that are fully prepared and ready to battle.”

The week off seemed to have helped Denver in the Championship Game. Although, they were slow to start, the Outlaws came out strong and aggressive in the second half, managing to catch up to the Rattlers, and ultimately push past them.

After eight years of waiting, Denver was able to bring the trophy home. Whether or not the roster changes and week off were what pushed the Outlaws to the win, no one can be certain. While it appears that Denver finally has found the complete formula to victory, it’ll be interesting to see what comes next for the 2014 Champions.