Bayhawks, Outlaws Advance to MLL Championship Game


Ageless wonder John Grant Jr. scored five goals Friday to lead the Denver Outlaws to a 17-15 comeback win over the Boston Cannons in the MLL semifinals at Peter Barton Stadium.

DENVER — The Major League Lacrosse championship game is set, and it is a battle of heavyweights.

The championship game will see the top-seeded Chesapeake Bayhawks, the winners of the most championships in league history (five) and the team boasting the second-highest championship game winning percentage (.714), against the second-seeded Denver Outlaws, the defending champions who have won three of the past five championships and are making their fourth consecutive championship game appearance.

It also almost didn’t happen.

Both the Bayhawks and Outlaws overcame halftime deficits in semifinal wins over Atlanta and Boston, respectively, to earn their spots in the championship game.

“It’s not easy to win a championship,” Chesapeake head coach Dave Cottle said. “You have to play great.”

The Bayhawks scored the first goal of the game, but Atlanta went on several multi-goal runs and Chesapeake scored only once in the second quarter, resulting in the Blaze owning a 9-4 lead at halftime.

Ryan Tucker gave the Bayhawks a boost in the third quarter, however, scoring two of the first four goals to open the third quarter, and the Bayhawks outscored the Blaze 6-1 in the third quarter to tie the game.

“We just kind of found a spark,” Bayhawks attackman Steele Stanwick said in a televised post-game interview. “Ryan Tucker gave us a big lift and we kind of rode that wave.”

After each team scored three goals in the fourth quarter, overtime was needed to determine who would advance. It was Stanwick who played hero, as he cut across the crease, received a pass from Nick Mariano, and scored on an underhand shot that hit the far pipe and went in.

“Steele was the first one to realize it was in the goal,” Cottle said. “Steele raised his arms to start celebrating and everyone else followed suit.”

Denver, which happens to be playing at home, faced an even more dismal start. The Cannons scored five of the first six goals of the game and led by four after the first quarter. Both teams put on a show in the second quarter, combining for 13 goals, but Denver still trailed 13-10 at halftime.

Then, the seemingly ageless John Grant Jr. took over. He scored three goals in a two-minute, 23-second stretch in the third quarter to draw Denver even with Boston. When Cannons midfielder Cal Dearth scored to open the fourth quarter (his fourth goal of the game), Junior scored less than three minutes later (his fifth of the night) to tie the game once more. The Outlaws scored two more goals after thata to punctuate their comeback and advance to the championship.

Grant, 44, has provided the veteran guidance all season, and Denver goalie Dillon Ward said his experience in the two-games-in-three-days playoff format was something everybody was going to lean on.

“Junior has won a lot of championships,” he said, “and he’ll be someone we look to help us get through this.”

Grant is certainly no stranger to the MLL championship game. He played with the Ohio Machine in 2016 when they lost to the Outlaws 19-18 after a lengthy weather delay.

In 2014, he helped the Outlaws win their first championship in franchise history, scoring three goals, tallying an assist and winning the championship game MVP award in a 12-11 victory over his former team, the Rochester Rattlers.

The year before that, he scored four goals to help lift the Bayhawks over the Charlotte Hounds 10-9, hoisting the Steinfeld Trophy for the second time with the Bayhawks, who had beaten the Outlaws the year prior in the championship game 16-6.

Grant, who came out of retirement this year and surpassed Paul Rabil as MLL’s all-time scoring leader, also won titles with the Rattlers in 2008 and Hamilton Nationals in 2009.

Getting to this point was the plan all along for Grant. It’s one of the major reasons he came back to begin with.

“I validate my career by championships,” he said in June. “That’s what I’m gunning for. Getting my sixth championship as a player is what’s driving me. I’m battling through injuries and pain.”

Winning a second consecutive championship is on the mind of every player on the Outlaws.

“Every year, it’s expected we win championships,” Denver faceoff specialist Max Adler said. “It starts with [team president] Mac Freeman. Anything short of that, there’s no consolation prize. It’s win championships or nothing.”

The Bayhawks will be the team standing in the way of Denver’s bid to become the first back-to-back champions since Grant and the Bayhawks accomplished the feat in 2012 and 2013.

While both Denver and Chesapeake found themselves down in the 2019 semifinals, both dug in and came back to win and advance.

According to Cottle, winning games in that fashion is par for the course in the MLL playoffs.

“When we won it in ’13, we were trailing in the third quarter and came back and won,” he said. “Charlotte was a low-scoring game. In ’12, we had to beat a good Boston team [in the semifinals]. [In the championship, Denver attackman Brendan] Mundorf got hurt, and we had a blowout. Every game is different.”

As the 2019 MLL season culminates at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Colorado on Sunday (1 p.m. Eastern on ESPN2), two of the best franchises in MLL history will square off in an attempt to be crowned champion.

Both teams have experienced highs and lows throughout the season. None of that matters at this point however; not past championship games, not regular season efforts, not even what happened in Friday night’s semifinal games.

It all comes down to one game.

“The bottom line,” Cottle said, “is you have to play great.”

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