Earlier this fall the Hastings Walleye beat the Blaine Lycans 4-2 in a best-of-seven series. As the winner, the Walleye advance to the national tournament held in Colorado at the beginning of November.
After losing the series opener in Blaine 14-16 and then taking their home opener 11-7, the Walleye won three of the next four games to take the series. Player/manager Mike Nogle said he honestly was not expecting the level of competition from the Lycans in that first series, or the atmosphere in both locations.
"They gave us a lot more than we were expecting, and we felt really confident going in," he said. "As a whole, it had a lot higher fan involvement, we got more fans out to the games than we were expecting. It led to some really good games, some games where the other team didn't have much of a right to be in the game, but you get a little bit of that fan support right in your sails and it carries you through and puts you on a run you probably didn't deserve to be on. It gives you a nice little boost. Overall it was a much better product than Colorado (where the Indoor Box Lacrosse Association is located) expected."
With the win in its inaugural season, Hastings becomes the first ever indoor box lacrosse team from Minnesota to qualify for the national tournament. Nogle said it was special to be the first team in the three states to tie up a nationals berth and to be the first one in Minnesota.
"I think the plan is to store the cup at the Hastings Civic Arena next to a commemorative jersey for the rink," he said. "It was a big deal for all of us on the team, so many of us played for or played against Hastings as kids. Growing up playing hockey in that rink, I think there are six of us on the team who grew up playing there, and we got to seal the win at home, that was a pretty sweet moment for all of us."
Nogle said that overall the community and fan feedback was positive, though there was some concern over the physicality and aggressiveness.
"It was split 50/50 (whether they liked) how aggressive the first few games were," he said. "When they added a third ref, things toned down a little bit and we got to emphasize more of the lacrosse. As a player, when you're not getting destroyed and it comes down to whether or not you're a good lacrosse player as opposed to whether or not you're a big guy, that was key for us. In those last few games, I felt they were our better games because it wasn't the younger and faster team (that won) but rather the better lacrosse team."
While fighting is legal in indoor box lacrosse, Nogle said that it's meant to be an outlet between adults to quickly let out their frustrations, without serious injury and to prevent any malicious or risky plays later in the game. He explained that some of the more egregious examples of aggressiveness during their series against the Lycans was not representative of what indoor box lacrosse is supposed to be and was addressed by the league. However, he did acknowledge that it played a role in fans' perceptions of the games.
"I heard fans saying 'you need to clean it up' and I heard fans ask where it (the physicality) went, and that's going to change game-to-game regardless, but that was the biggest one that fans vocalized," Nogle continued. "I know next year we want to get more fan involvement during halftime, or intermission, with the kids and adults in the stands. Get the fans involved more and really get the crowd going."
The Walleye, champions of the Minnesota division; the Portland River Monsters who are the Oregon champions; and a Colorado team yet to be decided will all play a round-robin during the nationals tournament, which is Nov. 4-5. The top two teams of that round-robin will then play a championship game.
Should Hastings make it to the championship game, they will have played four games in two days, which Nogle said will be a challenge for a slightly older Walleye team. Luckily, he said they are allowed to bring their trainer to help the players in recovery, which is not quite as fast as if the team was younger.
As for who their competition will be, Nogle said it's somewhat of a mystery.
"It's gonna be a battle," he said. "We know we will have our hands full no matter what team comes out of Colorado. We're not very sure about (the team from) Oregon. They could be great, they could be just as good as us, we're not sure what we're going to get."