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Midseason report

After a soft start, the Rattlers rev up for a shot a the MLL playoffs

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Stick shift

With less than two minutes to go in the third quarter of the Rochester Rattlers' July 1 game against the Baltimore Bayhawks, the atmosphere at PAETEC Park was bordering on euphoric --- or, at least, as euphoric as 4,233 lacrosse fans can get --- thanks to Rattlers goalie Mike Levin.

About four minutes earlier, Rochesterattackman John Grant had flipped in a nifty behind-the-back goal to boost Rochester's lead to 12-8, a move that brought the majority of those 4,233 to their feet.

The zaniness then peaked when Levin corralled a ball in front of the Rochester goal, then started upfield looking for an outlet pass. Finding none of his teammates open, Levin kept moving, and moving, and moving. He didn't stop until he was just a few feet in front of the Baltimore goal. He shot and scored, marking only the second time in Major League Lacrosse history that a goalie had notched a goal. That's when the stadium throng went bananas.

"People were already into it," Irondequoit resident and Rattlers fan Kevin Moynihan said after the game. "After [Levin's goal], that really fired them up."

The Rattlers themselves were fairly stoked as well, and they should have been. The 21-11 win was Rochester's fifth in 18 all-time tries against Baltimore, and the 21 goals marked the Rattlers' season high after enduring a woeful offensive lull in previous games. The victory also boosted Rochester's record to 4-3 and gave the Rattlers sole possession of third place in MLL's Eastern Conference.

"We're a young team, but we're starting to come together," Rochester midfielder Pat Dutton said after the July 1 game. "We're starting to play unselfish lacrosse, and we're adjusting to each other's game."

But even with the result of July 1 contest, it was hard to banish from memory the Rattlers' low points so far this season, and there have been several. The team has lost four of its five road games, including a miserable 14-9 loss at Baltimore June 16and an even more miserable 19-7 defeat at Long Island this past Saturday. And even the big revenge win over the Bayhawks was far from flawless --- Rochester's first-quarter performance was lackluster and sluggish, with the Bayhawks pushing the Rattlers around, running the transition at will, and staking out an early 5-3 lead over the host team.

"We were playing soft," Dutton said plainly. "When you don't set the tone physically, that sets you up for potential disaster."

Fortunately, the Rattlers regrouped between periods and took off on a three-quarter explosion. "We talked about being disciplined and about cutting down [Baltimore's] transition," Rochester defenseman/assistant coach Regy Thorpe said after the game. "We did that, and we started putting in two, three, four goals in a row."

The question now is whether the Rattlers can keep that up for the duration of the season and play consistently solid lacrosse without any of the drops in productivity that marked the first half of the 2006 campaign.

Actually, that's what they have to do at this point --- only four of the MLL's 10 teams make the playoffs, and as of now, Rochester is 1.5 games and two points behind San Francisco for the second and final wild-card slot.

The road doesn't get any easier, either; the combined record of the team's next four opponents is 23-8 (including two games against 6-2 Boston and a July 29 game against San Francisco), and several key Rattlers are taking time off this month to play in the World Lacrosse Championships in London, Ontario. Thorpe, for one, knows that such a combination of factors could doom Rochester's post-season hopes. That's why, he said, "we're just going to take it one game at a time." But after Saturday's debacle at Long Island, the Rattlers might need to start thinking long-term, or their season will be shorter than they want.

Like the Rattlers, the Rochester Red Wings have recently shown signs of life after a midseason swoon in which they lost 12 of 17 games and saw their lead in the International League North Division dwindle. During a four-game homestand last week, the Wings went 3-1, including a solid 5-3 win over Pawtucket July 5 that featured the type of highlights that marked the Rattlers' win over Baltimore.

Infielder Tommy Watkins, fresh off a call-up from Double-A New Britain, made a trio of dazzling plays in the field, and the crowd of 4,725 at Frontier Field gave outfielder Jason Tyner a standing ovation for his valiant albeit unsuccessful try at an inside-the-park home run. That was in addition to a monster, out-of-the-park homer by Rondell White, who's in Rochester on rehab assignment from Minnesota.

\If the Wings can maintain their lead in the division --- at 51-39, they're three games ahead of Scranton-Wilkes Barre --- they'll make the playoffs for the first time since 1997, and manager Stan Cliburn is optimistic about their chances.

"We've lost a lot of tough games of late, but we've won a lot of tough games," he said after last Wednesday's win. "Baseball is a game of momentum, and we seem to have regained our momentum. That's baseball."

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