When Matt Striebel stepped onto Denver's Invesco Field at Mile High in July 2005 for the Major League Lacrosse All-Star Game, he was a bit taken aback.
Sure, he had won two NCAA championships at Princeton and played four seasons in MLL, but he was still in awe of his teammates in the "Old School vs. Young Guns" matchup.
"It was my first All-Star Game, and I had only been in the league a couple years, but they put me on the Old School team," said Striebel, then a member of the now-defunct Philadelphia Barrage. "So I looked around, and guys like Gary Gait and Jesse Hubbard were on my team. That was pretty special."
By now, Striebel has gotten more accustomed to playing alongside the league's top talent. After all, the Rochester Rattlers standout attackman will make a record ninth All-Star Game appearance tonight at American Legion Memorial Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
The 2005 game still serves as Striebel's favorite All-Star Game memory, but he now has more recollections of the annual event. He has seen various formats of picking teams, too.
MLL used the "Old School vs. Young Guns" format again last year for the third time, and this year's teams were selected "playground-style" Friday night by two fans serving as captains. Frank Ranfone, 15, picked the players for the Supernova team from the pool of MLL All-Stars and Cameron MacKenzie, 17, served as the honorary captain of the Eclipse team.
"I think having the captains is a cool way to do it," Striebel said of this year's format, last used in 2011. "I know hockey has done it, and they have a lot of success. It's like being on a playground, so the fans have fun with it."
In 2006 and 2010, Striebel played in the All-Star Game on Team USA — which later competed at the world championships each year. During the MLL event, the squad played a team called the "MLL All-Stars."
Striebel had fun in the 2010 game, though there was more at stake for some of the players on the MLL All-Stars team, like then-Bayhawks midfielder Peet Poillon (UMBC, Howard Community College).
"Some of the guys on our team hadn't been picked for the national team, so they really wanted to win that one," said Poillon, who now plays for the Charlotte Hounds and will make his fourth All-Star Game appearance. "It made it more competitive."
Despite the added motivation, the MLL All-Stars fell to Striebel and Team USA, 13-12, in that game.
The constant for the All-Star Game, regardless of how teams are chosen, is the halftime skills competition. The fastest-shot and freestyle competitions will return this year, and a new event — long-distance accuracy — will debut.
Players said the skills competition helps attract viewers to the game, which will be televised on ESPN2.
"The skills competition is really what gets fans excited," said Bayhawks defenseman Michael Evans (Johns Hopkins, South River), also making his fourth All-Star Game appearance. "I'm never in it. I guess my skills aren't good enough. But I love watching it and being around the guys."
Of course, there's always good-natured heckling among the All-Stars, and this year's format certainly encourages that. Before the teams were chosen, Evans joked that each All-Star wanted to be picked as soon as possible to have bragging rights over those picked below them.
"But even if you're picked last in an All-Star Game, you're still in an All-Star Game," Poillon said. "That's something in itself."
Typically in MLL All-Star Games, the teasing and friendly vibes last for the first three quarters. Everything changes when the game gets down to the final minutes, Poillon said. Possessions become more deliberate, players revert to fundamentals and the game's intensity increases.
"If the game is close, guys get more locked in at the end," Striebel said. "That makes it more fun. I think we try some things we wouldn't normally do in games earlier, but we sometimes can get more competitive toward the end."
The 11-year veteran would know; he's been in his share of tightly contested All-Star Games. In fact, Striebel's first one in Denver eight years ago ended with a 21-20 Young Guns victory.
Striebel hasn't missed an All-Star Game since that first one in 2005, developing from wide-eyed newbie to record-holder for most appearances.