By Steve Guglielmo | 8/15/12 11:27 AM
The 2011 Rochester Rattlers were not good. There isn’t any other way to put it. They finished the season at 2-10, 7 games back of the first place Cannons, and allowed the second most goals in the league (154) while scoring the third least goals in the league (134).
So, how did the worst team in the league last year come back to finish 7-7 this season and compete for a playoff spot until the final week of the season? Simply put, Rattlers Owner Rob Clark and Head Coach Tim Soudan absolutely dominated the off-season. They radically reshaped the roster and constructed, arguably, the most dangerous team in MLL. How did they do this over the course of one off-season?
“We knew going into the season that we wanted to be very athletic,” says Rattlers Owner Rob Clark. “We wanted a lot more team speed between the lines. And we also focused on improving our attack unit, which was very good, but we had some weaknesses that tended to cause turnovers. Going into the offseason, we knew what our needs were and then we scoured the player pool to address them.”
First and foremost, they took advantage of the league’s expansion from six to eight teams. With 50 more roster spots up for grabs, players who didn’t have a chance to showcase their skills previously were positioned to do so this season.
In the first two rounds of the league’s Supplemental Draft alone, the Rattlers were able to add 54 points in the form of Steven Boyle (18 goals, 9 assists) and Jordan Macintosh (23 goals and 4 assists.)
Last season, the two combined for two games played (both by Boyle) and 3 points. That’s some serious ROI.
“I learned a lot on Hamilton last season from a very good group of midfielders,” says Macintosh. “This year, when I was given the chance to play, I used some of that knowledge and did my best to translate it to the field. I have also been very fortunate that the coaching staff has had a lot of faith in me and my abilities.”
Steven Boyle adds, “I was really excited when the Rattlers drafted me. Rob Clark told me that he wanted me to be a big part of this team. It’s been terrific. We have such a great group of guys and we just try to play hard for each other every week.”
However, the team’s turnaround took more than the Supplemental Draft. Clark and Soudan made a conscious effort this season to get better in the midfield and create a fearsome transition game. One of the biggest cogs in that engine was the addition of Steve DeNapoli.
After losing Dan Groot to the Ohio Machine in the MLL Expansion Draft, the Rattlers set their sights on DeNapoli. On March 1, the team acquired DeNapoli from the Bayhawks for Joe Cummings and a 2013 Collegiate Draft pick.
What has DeNapoli done since coming over to the Rattlers? Just get named to his first MLL All-Star game, be named 2012 team MVP, score 11 goals and scoop 43 groundballs. Not bad for a guy who managed only one point and 16 groundballs in five games for the Bayhawks last season. He is also one of the fastest and most athletic players in the league today, sparking the team’s nigh unstoppable transition attack.
“I wasn’t with the team last year, but obviously I knew what kind of season they had,” says DeNapoli. “But everybody came into training camp with a real positive attitude. We knew we had a group of really talented guys. We expected to compete.”
The third leg of the Rattlers offseason barrage was the MLL Collegiate Draft. Here too, Clark and Soudan hit the ball out of the ballpark.
MLL analyst Evan Washburn said before the season, “The Rattlers unquestionably won the Collegiate Draft. They filled all of their needs perfectly. I think that Mike Manley from Duke was the perfect pick at number three. Last season, Rochester struggled to guard the ball in one-on-one situations, which is so crucial in this league. I think Manley could come in midseason and potentially be their best defenseman. I also loved the Kevin Drew pick. He is such a great transitional midfielder and he could be an asset on both sides of the field. They made great picks throughout the draft. A lot of times guys who are drafted in the later rounds struggle to crack the roster, but I think that Rochester filled needs throughout. Add that to an already very solid roster with Ned Crotty who is one of the two best players in the league and a very solid goalie in John Galloway and I think that this Rochester team could be poised to contend in 2012.”
Prescient analysis by Washburn. While the team went 2-10 last season, they had a solid core to build around. Ned Crotty and Matt Striebel provide plenty of firepower, but last season teams could focus on them to shut down the attack. This season, the team built a veritable armory of weapons. Teams could no longer key on one or two players on attack. This led to a balanced and explosive Rattlers offense.
So how did this team come up short? First, the season started slowly for the Rattlers. In Week 1, the team set an MLL-record low for goals scored in a 15-3 drubbing from the Cannons. The team started off 2-4 before ripping off 3 wins in a row.
As with any young team, the Rattlers struggled with consistency. At times they looked like the Incredible Hulk, smashing anybody that dared get in their way. Teams didn’t like them whey they were angry.
But other times, they were the mild-mannered Bruce Banner and gave up runs of six and seven goals at a time. It wasn’t until they started a long home stand that they gained some consistency. By the end of the season, they were capable of beating anybody at any time.
“Early in the season, we were pretty inconsistent. We hadn’t spent much time together,” Boyle says. “But getting a consistent lineup together, we started to click. We all bought into the game plan that Coach Soudan put forward. We knew we had to buy in and go out there and execute. We’ve gotten a lot more consistent and hopefully that will carry over moving forward.”
Fans of Denver, Chesapeake, Long Island and Boston must have breathed a sigh of relief as time ran out in the Rattler’s 15-14 loss against Charlotte last week. The Rattlers were very capable of going on a run through Championship Weekend.
And while the Rattlers stumbled in their final two games, they are primed to compete next year. Rob Clark has already declared 2013 “The Year of the Ratz.” I wouldn’t bet against them. And if he can repeat his magic this off-season? Watch out.
MLL will host its 2012 Championship Weekend presented by Warrior on August 25 and 26 at Harvard Stadium in Boston, Mass. It will be a battle of the top four teams and will include two semi-final games on Saturday followed by the championship game on Sunday. Tickets are available now via Ticketmaster.com. To learn more about the 2012 MLL Championship Weekend presented by Warrior click here. The games will be televised live on ESPN2.