Lizards hope to turn season around on big stage

Lizards attack Rob Pannell receives a pass during

Lizards attack Rob Pannell receives a pass during the second period of a Major League Lacrosse game vs. the Charlotte Hounds at Shuart Stadium. (May 31, 2013) (Credit: James Escher)

A game against a team gunning for the best start in the history of the MLL Wednesday night could be just what the Lizards need after losing four of its last five games.

That’s because head coach Joe Spallina believes many of his players, including Rob Pannell and Tom Palasek, enjoy playing on a big stage, and could thrive under the circumstances. At least that’s what he’s hoping for.

The Lizards (3-6) will face the Denver Outlaws (9-0) Wednesday, at 9 p.m., in the eighth annual “Mile High Fourth of July Celebration” at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. More than 30,000 spectators are expected, according to both teams’ websites. Denver has averaged less than 5,500 in attendance through five home games this season, yet a MLL single-game attendance record of 30,128 fans was set last year during the July 4 game, also in Denver.

The Outlaws are looking to be the league’s first team to start 10-0 while the Lizards (3-6) are trying to get back into the playoff race with five games remaining after losing, 13-10, to Rochester last week.

“It’s still nowhere near the expectation that myself and the guys have for themselves,” Spallina said. “We have a huge task ahead of us against Denver, arguably the best team in the history of MLL. I don’t worry about my guys getting wide-eyed. In fact, I think it could have a different effect.”

Denver attackman Chris Bocklet leads the league in scoring with 37 points, and the team has three other players in the top 10. The Outlaws are led on defense by Jesse Schwartzman, who took over second place in saves per game in Outlaws history with his career-high 27 saves in a 17-11 win against Charlotte last week.

Big shakeup: The Lizards acquired a first round pick of next year’s collegiate draft and attackman Steve Mock from the Boston Cannons just before the league’s deadline Tuesday for midfielder Stephen Berger, a 2015 second round collegiate draft pick and a sixth round pick.

With the trade, the Lizards have two first round collegiate draft picks and two first round supplemental picks next year. Spallina described Mock, a Cornell graduate, as “a guy who has proven chemistry with Rob Pannell,” and someone who could help the Lizards gel better offensively because he’s a player that “doesn't need to have the ball in his stick.”

The trade bodes well for the future of the Lizards, a young team made up of many rookies and second-year players. Yet Spallina expressed some disappointment in trading Berger, a relatively close friend of his and a proven veteran.

Berger, a perennial all-star, has played seven of his eight professional seasons with the Lizards. He spent the 2012 season with the Charlotte Hounds, and was named the 2012 All-Star MVP. Playing in all nine games for the Lizards this season, Berger scored 10 goals and had three assists.

“It was probably one of the toughest things I’ve had to do,” Spallina said. “We’re 3-6 and if we were 6-3, Stephen Berger would still probably be in our uniform. We’re in a position where we’re sellers. When you're 3-6, you're not a buyer.”

The Lizards also made a pair of smaller moves before the 4 p.m. deadline. The Lizards traded faceoff specialist Matt Dolente, who was just acquired last week, to Chesapeake for a fourth round collegiate draft pick. The team also acquired attackman Max Van Bourgondien and defender Dan DiMaria from Charlotte in exchange for a 2015 fourth round supplemental draft pick.

Palasek an All-Star: Attackman Tommy Palasek, a Rocky Point High graduate, was added to the all-star roster over the weekend and will take the place of Chesapeake attackman Drew Westervelt, who will be unable to attend the game on July 13 in Charlotte.

Palasek, who many, including Spallina, thought was initially snubbed, leads the Lizards with 15 goals in nine games played.

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