In the 2013 Major League Lacrosse playoffs, coach Jim Stagnitta led his undefeated Denver Outlaws into an MLL semifinal encounter with a second-year franchise, the Charlotte Hounds.
The Outlaws dominated the regular season. They led the league in scoring with 226 goals (45 more than the next-best team) and defense (136 goal allowed, 13 fewer than the next team). Charlotte, coached by Mike Cerino, was using a team predominantly comprised of rookies.
On that August day in Chester, Pa., however, the Hounds pulled off the upset, stunning the Outlaws 17-14. Charlotte lost to Chesapeake the following day in the championship game, 10-9, but it was a run everyone in the organization was proud of.
Fortunes changed for both teams after that day, however. Denver reached the championship game three of the next four seasons, winning its first two MLL titles, including the following season in 2014. Charlotte, on the other hand, finished last in the league the following two seasons and missed the playoffs in three of the following four seasons.
“When I took the coaching job, the group running it was like, ‘We want to be in the championship game in year two or three the latest,” said Cerino, now the team’s general manager. “A lot of the moves were made with how quickly could we get in a championship position in mind. There was a hangover after that.”
Fast forward to Week 5 of the 2018 MLL season, with the Hounds traveling to Denver for a game Saturday (9 p.m. ET), and Charlotte seems to have turned things around.
The Hounds (4-0) are atop the standings, the only undefeated team remaining. They also are first in goals per game and goals allowed per game. More importantly, they may have finally found the culture they’ve been searching for all along.
“The credit goes to these guys,” Cerino said. “They do have outside commitments, but they’re at the ball game. That’s been the difference. They’re making the commitments around their jobs to make this team successful. They’re holding each other accountable and feel the organization is supporting them.”
Stagnitta is now in his third year as coach of the Charlotte Hounds. The team tied for first in the league with six other teams in his first season, making the playoffs on a tiebreaker, and finished two games out of the playoffs in his second season, although they were in contention into the final week.
As a former college coach, culture is very important to Stagnitta and something he’s tried to build with the Hounds.
“I told [Outlaws general manager] Tony Seaman [I won’t coach] if all I’m going to do is run a box and manage egos. I need to develop a team, a culture, and coach people,” said Stagnitta, whose college coaching career included stints as the head coach at Rutgers and Washington and Lee. “We have not only phenomenal players, but phenomenal guys. We push them. We have high expectations for them. It proves in this league you can truly work as a team. You can have a culture where people buy into roles like in a college team. It doesn’t happen overnight. We’ll have our bumps in the road, but I believe we have the culture and quality of people and commitment to overcome those things.”
Despite the strong start, the Hounds had plenty of personnel obstacles to overcome.
Of the top six scorers from the 2017 squad — John Haus, Ryan Brown, Joey Sankey, Mike Chanenchuk, Kevin Crowley and John Crawley — only one (Brown) has played in at least three games to start the 2018 season. Crowley (NLL commitments) and Sankey (injury) have yet to make their MLL debuts this year.
The team’s depth was tested; it passed with flying colors.
In Week 1 against the Boston Cannons, Kevin Cooper — who was acquired at the 2017 trade deadline but played in only two games for the Hounds — scored seven goals and assisted on two others.
In Week 2, Dylan Maltz — who went undrafted in 2017 and wasn’t even on a roster after training camps broke in April — scored four goals in his MLL debut. He continued to surprise many by scoring three goals and adding one assist against the Bayhawks and then scoring another two goals and assisting another goal against the Machine.
“Honestly, we had no expectations for Maltz,” Stagnitta said. “He has a great IQ. He has a skill set that works well with what we do. He’s performed well above and beyond for our expectations and someone who’s never played in an MLL game before.”
Maltz, who did not make the Outlaws roster out of training camp prior to the 2018 season, only wanted to be part of a team. Matt Rambo, a second-year attackman for the Hounds and Maltz’s line mate on Maryland’s 2017 NCAA championship team, vouched for his friend.
“I wanted to have fun and work hard and not let Matt down, putting my name out there and helping me get picked up,” Maltz said. “A lot of our success has to do with between-the-lines plays, whether that’s winning a ground ball or running out a shot. We’re playing at a really hard level. We’re underdogs. We were put last in the rankings. That motivates people. If you have good people and good chemistry, that goes a long way.”
Another reason for the team’s turnaround, and another example of the change in culture and accountability, is the goaltending.
Prior to the 2018 season, Stagnitta said goalie play was an area that would need to improve if the team wanted to climb in the standings. In 2017, Charlie Cipriano — who played for Stagnitta in Denver — posted a 14.04 goals against average and .488 save percentage, both of which were eighth in the league among qualifying goalies.
“We did damage when he played three games in six days,” Cerino said. “There wasn’t anything left of him. We opened the season 0-3, so there’s a little sense of panic that every game is your season.”
“I broke a rib,” Cipriano said, describing the three-games-in-six-days stretch. “I just took [the losses] very personally. Come September of last year, we lost and I took it on myself. I said, ‘I’m working on this from September until the season starts.’ I had my worst season in the MLL. I know how I can play, my caliber. I worked out a ton. I told Coach Stags and Coach Cerino I was embarrassed about my performance.”
In three games, Cirpriano’s statistics are much improved, posting a 10.55 goals against average and a .580 save percentage. A prime example of the maturity and growth of both Cipriano and the Hounds, Stagnitta said Cipriano — with a stretch of three games in nine days — told the coaching staff to start Pierce Bassett in the third game. While the coaching staff was already planning on making that change, they felt it showed great leadership for Cipriano to communicate with them and stand up for his teammate.
Many coaches tell their teams it takes sacrifice to be successful. While many players, especially in MLL, are willing to sacrifice time to make themselves better, it is something else to sacrifice playing time and statistics. Cipriano and Maltz, however, show that the Charlotte players are listening and understand.
Going into Week 5, Kevin Crowley returns to the Charlotte lineup, and other players will continue to filter in. Maltz doesn’t know what the changing roster means for his role in the lineup, but he isn’t too concerned.
“I’m not necessarily sure what my role is other than go out and play my hardest. I’ll do whatever I can to make sure the team is still successful,” he said. “It motivates me to stay hungry and work hard, whether that means shooting during the week or dodging or watching film.”
Though Denver is tied for the worst record in the league (1-4), Stagnitta and Cerino said they are prepared for a competitive outing from Outlaws. Even with a less-than-stellar record, Denver provides a measuring stick.
Stagnitta and Cerino also were adamant that it is too early to talk about a championship or think about comparing the 2018 Hounds to the 2013 Outlaws. What Stagnitta, Cerino and Cipriano will say, however, is that they have a good feeling about the guys in the locker room and the team’s potential.
“I like our group a lot. It’s been a very gritty group with a mix of veterans and young guys meshing together,” Cipriano said. “I’ve been on two championship teams (2014 Denver Outlaws and 2015 New York Lizards). You don’t want to jump the gun, but we have the same chemistry. You have to hope we continue to do that.”