“When entering a playoff game you never contemplate the possibility of losing,” Philadelphia Wings captain Brodie Merrill once wrote at the close of the Wings' 2012 season, “so when you lose, everything seems to end very abruptly.”
The Wings’ jarring ejection from the National Lacrosse League postseason lingered, Merrill admitted, and the team would spend the offseason aching for their next shot. Fortunately, with the Major League Lacrosse season beginning, their next shot wouldn’t be too far off – they just wouldn’t be the Wings anymore.
This weekend, the MLL championship plucked former NLL teammates apart, pitting a captain against his men, for one tournament of sundrenched Wing-on-Wing cannibalism.
The semifinals came down to four squads hailing from Denver, Chesapeake, Charlotte and Hamilton, three of which featured at least one offseason Wings player.
Captain Merrill, his leading scorer Kevin Crowley, and Jordan Hall reinforced the Hamilton Nationals, entering the postseason weekend 9-5.
Still haunted by his NLL postseason loss, Merrill’s next shot at a championship would happen in PPL Park, as fate would have it, not far from the city whose colors he wore in the Wings’ final loss in Rochester.
Leading 11-8 going into the final quarter, the Nationals seemed primed to advance to Sunday’s finals. But the captain was cut down in a scathing 13-12 loss to the Chesapeake Bayhawks, and his Wing brethren Jeff Reynolds and Drew Westervelt would be the ones to continue on, thanks to the Bayhawks’ 5-1 push in the final minutes.
Things seemed brighter for the Denver Outlaws on Saturday, entering semifinal play with a single Wing in their ranks – four-time MLL All-Star Brendan Mundorf – and having completed the regular season with a sparkling 14-0 record, one day short of a calendar year completely void of losses.
The Outlaws’ Eric Law slipped a rebound in for the game’s first score, only to watch the Charlotte Hounds (the weekend's only roster vacant of any Wings players) go on an 11-2 rampage and put a dark 17-14 ending on the Outlaws’ whirling season-long epic.
Which brings us to Sunday, when the last Wings standing were the grizzled ace Westervelt and his Bayhawks teammate Reynolds, as they prepared to take on the Wingless Hounds.
Westervelt pointed and bellowed his way through the first half, arranging troops like a man who's played the game for over half a decade, notching a pair of shots on goal. When fellow Bayhawk John Grant – the only scorer of the second quarter and the eventual MVP – picked up a hat trick to make it 4-2 Chesapeake, it was Westervelt feeding him with one tick left on the clock.
During halftime, an advertisement for Wings season ticket packages boomed across the space, promising great seasons from Crowley, Merrill and the rest of the gang not fortunate enough to be playing.
The Wings forward attacker made his presence most known in the third quarter, when Westervelt dropped the hammer on Hounds goalie Adam Ghitelman with a blistering side shot from several feet out. Four minutes and 15 seconds into the final quarter, Westervelt found himself at the center of a dog pile, padding a 9-5 Bayhawks lead with a second slick score.
The Hounds gnawed away at the deficit, with Ryan Young's day becoming slightly more incredible thanks to his fourth goal. But Westervelt again stepped in and delivered a killing stroke to send the Bayhawks into the comfort of double digits and a 10-7 lead.
When the day came to a close, with Westervelt and Reynolds in the Bayhawks' ranks, there were Wings with hands on the trophy, they just wore different uniforms and came from out of town.
The next time they suit up, they will all be Wings again, but for now, two of Merrill's men don't know the jarring sting of loss.