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It's time for another run for the Champion's Cup!
In 2017, the Georgia Swarm box lacrosse team snapped our metro's 22-year-long professional sports title drought, winning the National Lacrosse League championship. This past weekend, they clinched the Eastern Division regular season crown and are awaiting their opponent for the NLL East Division Championship. Unlike 2017's series, this will be a single, winner-takes-all game, and it will be on May 12 at Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth.
Things weren't looking too hot in early March, when an 11-10 loss to the Rochester Knighthawks dropped the Swarm to a middling 5-7 record. But they've since gone on a tear. The hottest team in NLL, Georgia (11-7) closed out the regular season winning six in a row, including an impressive 16-10 victory in Saskatchewan, beating a Rush team that was last season's runners-up and this season's best team (14-4), going undefeated in the Western Conference.
This year's Swarm outfit was not the offensive juggernaut like last season's record-breaking unit. But they still have 2017 reigning MVP and 2017 Finals MVP Lyle Thompson in their corner! Lyle continues to be flanked by his brothers on the Swarm, fellow forwards Miles and Jerome, and his 46 goals still ranked 4th in the NLL. He and the Swarm offense have been ably aided by forwards Shayne Jackson and Kiel Matisz, whose 52 and 50 assists rank 10th and 11th in the league.
With the chance to defend their NLL title in jeopardy, Lyle Thompson asserts that the Swarm have been in playoff mode for awhile.
Mike Poulin, meanwhile, continues holding down the fort in goal for the Swarm. Although the offense endured a downturn, Georgia allowed just two more goals in 2018 than they did in their championship season. That's thanks largely to strong play by defenseman Jason Noble, 2017's NLL Defensive Player of the Year, and the netminding by Poulin (2nd in NLL for saves, 1st in minutes played among goalies), who was named last season's NLL Teammate of the Year.
The biggest threat to keep Georgia from returning to the Finals appears to be Rochester, who took two of three games versus the Swarm, gave Saskatchewan half of their four losses by sweeping both contests, and finished the season with a plus-26 goal differential, the best in the East. But the Knighthawks must first win an elimination game at home this weekend, versus the New England Black Wolves and NLL goals leader Kevin Crowley.
If a rested Swarm team prevails on the 12th, they'll likely have a rematch with the Rush in the best-of-3 NLL Champion's Cup Final. It will be hard to top last season's Game 1 comeback win in Duluth or, especially, that hair-raising, title-clinching season-ender in Saskatoon!
Might the ATL finally earn themselves a championship of some kind this year? It could happen next month.
A brief swerve... I tried to get in on the ground floor with the Atlanta Blaze, the Major League Lacrosse squad playing at Kennesaw State that was an expansion club in 2016, and their #1 overall pick Myles Jones out of Duke. But barely over a month into the season, Atlanta shipped the star midfielder out of Duke to Chesapeake. The trade was for MLL All-Star Matt Mackrides, who promptly injured his spine and was out for the 2016 season. And the Blaze coach got fired in mid-season. So, with so much instability from the jump, I've shifted my interests indoors for the time being.
The Georgia Swarm finished 2017 with a 13-5 record, tops in the National Lacrosse League, the premier league for box (indoor) lacrosse (back in the day, it was known as the "Major Indoor Lacrosse League"). Inside Lacrosse does the "world" rankings that naturally has the Swarm at #1. After 11 seasons, the NLL franchise was relocated here from Minnesota in 2015. So, no, they're not intentionally stealing Georgia Tech's colors.
The Swarm knocked off the Toronto Rock 11-8 on the road in Game 1 of their two-game Eastern Division Finals series, with Game 2 shifting to the ATL this Saturday. If Georgia wins in regulation, they move on to the NLL Champion's Cup Finals. Even if the Swarm don't win in regulation, their would be (at least one) ten-minute tiebreaker afterwards, where the tiebreaker winner moves on. A playoff series victory would be sweet for Swarm coach Ed Comeau, a longtime Toronto assistant who was canned by the Rock while an interim head coach in 2003.
Playing out of Infinite Energy Arena in Duluth (the old Gwinnett Center arena), the Swarm have become sort of the Golden State Warriors of "boxla" along the way. They shattered the longstanding record for most goals scored in an NLL season, 266, with one game left to spare. Georgia also signed the top free agent in the 2016 NLL class, goaltender Mike Poulin, to mind the net on the other end. Poulin also got his pro start in the NLL with Toronto, so a win this weekend would hold extra meaning.
It's quite a family affair whenever the Swarm play. NLL scoring title winner Lyle Thompson is joined by two siblings, fellow forwards Miles and Jerome "Hiana". The Thompson clan are Native American, from the Onondaga Nation in New York State, and that's of special significance since Native Americans established the roots of this sport back around 1100 A.D.
Teammates at SUNY-Albany, Miles and Lyle were 2014 co-winners of college lacrosse's version of the Heisman Trophy. Lyle won the Tewaaraton Award again in 2015 while Miles was in his rookie season here. Georgia selected Miles third-overall in the 2014 NLL Entry Draft, then drafted Lyle (NCAA's all-time leading scorer) first overall in 2015. They traded to acquire Jerome from Buffalo in 2016.
If the Swarm prove successful, there's a chance for a true family reunion during the Champion's Cup Finals, which begin in June. The favorite in the Western Division finals are the Saskatchewan Rush, featuring elder brother Jeremy Thompson, who also teams with Lyle at Chesapeake in the outdoor MLL. The four on the field together this past January set a Guinness World Record, as one might imagine, for most siblings in a pro lacrosse game.
The "laxbros" don't get paid a ton as pros and are often pulling double-duty in indoor and outdoor leagues, if not also other side jobs. The 2016 NLL Rookie of the Year, Native American Canadian Randy Staats also plays as an attacker on the other end of I-285, with our Atlanta Blaze. Staats will rejoin the MLL club once his NLL campaign concludes.
They're teaming up with 680 The Fan radio to promote Saturday's playoff contest as "#10KDay". No, they're not looking to get a quick race in before the game. But they do want to set an arena attendance record by selling out "The Hive" with five-digit ticket sales in advance of the game. If the talent isn't enough, the air conditioning and the free parking might be enough of a swing for ATL sports fans to help pack the house this weekend.
(^I suspect that's a nice Photoshop job.)