Jim Stagnitta made clear Wednesday morning while speaking on a conference call that he'd rather have his Denver Outlaws win the Major League Lacrosse championship than finish with the league's first undefeated regular season.
But that doesn't mean the second-year coach and his players intend on shying away from history.
"You can't help but think about going undefeated," said Stagnitta, whose Outlaws play host to the Bayhawks (7-4) today. "We're sitting there at 11-0, and if I talk to the players about limiting some of their playing time, I get the same answer back: 'Coach, I want to compete; I want to play until the end.'"
It's easy to see why Denver has its eyes on finishing the season without a loss. With just three games left, the team is off to the best start in MLL history and is one win away from at least matching the 2005 Baltimore Bayhawks' 12-2 regular season record as the best of all time.
The Outlaws have scored the most goals in MLL this year and have allowed the fewest, beating their opponents by an average of 7.3 goals per game.
Four of the top 10 scorers in the league play for Denver, while goalkeeper Jesse Schwartzman (Pikesville, Johns Hopkins) has been to six straight All-Star games, the most of any goalie in MLL history.
"They do everything really well," Bayhawks coach Dave Cottle said. "They're good in transition, they're good in six-on-six offense, and they're good in six-on-six defense. … That's the reason they've gone to places that nobody else has gone to."
Though the Outlaws are on the cusp of accomplishing an unprecedented feat, All-Star midfielder Jeremy Sieverts (McDonogh, Maryland) maintains that the team is staying grounded.
"We know where we are in the season and what our record is," Sieverts said. "We know how close we are to an undefeated season, but if you ask any of our players they'd say we're most focused on the next game."
Denver has good reason to be focused on today's game against the Bayhawks, which will be broadcasted nationally on ESPN2 at 2 p.m. Cottle's bunch presents a potent challenge to the Outlaws, whose slimmest margin of victory came in last week's 12-9 defeat of the Rochester Rattlers.
Chesapeake, which sits in third place, has the second-ranked offense and defense in the league and is riding a three-game winning streak. Plus, the Bayhawks recently received a boost with the return of Casey Powell.
Powell, the league's second-leading scorer all-time, scored three goals en route to earning Offensive Player of the Week honors in his season debut last week.
"Obviously [Powell] is a talented player and somebody you have to pay attention to," Stagnitta said. "But one guy doesn't make a team. Casey's not going to change the way we approach the game."
The Bayhawks — who lost to Denver, 13-9, in Annapolis on June 15 — handed the Outlaws their most recent loss, a 16-6 defeat in the 2012 title game.
Chesapeake midfielder Dan Burns (Severna Park, Maryland) said that it's fitting his team will have the chance to divert Denver's run at an undefeated season considering the franchises have been among the league's best for the past the several years.
"It's a rematch of last year's championship game and nail-bitters in the past, so I'd say it's definitely a rivalry game," Burns said. "Especially when it gets down to the end of the season, this is a game we have circled on our calendar."
The Outlaws, though, have considered resting key players today or in coming weeks. They do, after all, have the No. 1 seed virtually guaranteed. (Denver would need to lose all three remaining games and the second-place Hamilton Nationals would need to win all three to force a tiebreaker).
Stagnitta said he will play his starters today and hopes the team can stay unbeaten. But because his main goal is winning a championship, he's left with a balancing act.
"There's a happy medium between keeping guys fresh and also keeping them game-ready," Stagnitta said.
The veteran coach made sure to say that winning remains a priority regardless of who is in the lineup. Stagnitta knows that chances to make history don't come too often.
Just as Denver isn't backing down from its attempt at a 14-0 season, the Bayhawks aren't overlooking their opportunity to derail it.
"We definitely want to beat them," Burns said. "Denver is always an awesome environment to play around, and it's on ESPN 2. It's definitely something we're looking forward to."
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