Schwartz: The Lizards Were Pioneers And First MLL Champs In 2001

Prior to 2001, there wasn’t a professional outdoor lacrosse league in the United States.  For many players, including those who hailed from Long Island and the New York area, the only way to play lacrosse after finishing college was to play for a club team like the Long Island Lacrosse Club.  The players and coaches traveled around the Northeast to places like Baltimore and Boston and paid their own way when it came to transportation and lodging.

There had been some discussions about an outdoor pro lacrosse league, but nothing ever came of it.  That was until the summer of 1998 when “Body by Jake” CEO and Chairman Jake Steinfeld read a magazine article written by Dave Morrow, the Owner and President of Warrior Lacrosse, a leading manufacturer of lacrosse equipment.  Steinfeld contacted Morrow about starting a league.  Then, in February of 1999, the duo teamed up with Steinfeld’s friend and business associate Tim Robertson, the former CEO of the Family Channel.

Major League Lacrosse was born and this coming May, the league will celebrate its twentieth season.

“It was a very exciting time,” said John DeTommaso, a player on the Long Island Lacrosse Club who would be hired as the first head coach of the Long Island Lizards (now New York Lizards) New York’s team in Major League Lacrosse.  “Most of us had played club lacrosse for years and years which were the top players in the world but it was very competitive and it was fantastic.”

The league began with a “Summer Showcase” in 2000, a travelling event that went from market to market to introduce MLL to potential markets.  Then in 2001, the league kicked off with six teams for its inaugural season.  The National Division had the New Jersey Pride, Rochester Rattlers and Baltimore Bayhawks while the American Division had the Bridgeport Barrage, Boston Cannons and the Long Island Lizards.

The fact that a professional lacrosse league was actually happening was a dream come true for so many players who loved the sport.  But until they actually took the field, there was a feeling of “is this actually going to happen?”  The owners of the Long Island Lizards would be the Bishop Family who owned Sobe Beverages at the time.  They also partnered with Joe and Mike DeSimone from Lacrosse Unlimited, a chain of lacrosse stores on Long Island.

“When this opportunity came along…I think at first there was a little skepticism,” said DeTommaso.   “I remember they asked me to coach the Long Island team.  I had just finished playing so I was like is this real…is this thing going to get off the ground? The next thing you know they did it really well and everything was very smooth for the most part.  The competition was amazing.  There were six teams with the best players in the world.”

Prior to that first season, there was a Major League Lacrosse draft and there was certainly a Long Island flavor to the Lizards roster with players like Vinnie and Stephen Sombrotto, Brian Spallina, A.J. Haugen, Tim Goettelmann, John Gagliardi, Tim Byrnes, Sal Locascio and defenseman Pat McCabe, an Elmont native who would go on to play at Syracuse and ultimately was inducted into the Lacrosse Hall of Fame.

“2001 was special for so many reasons,” said McCabe who is now the Head Coach of the Women’s Lacrosse team at Adelphi University that has won three NCAA Division II National Championships over the last five seasons.  “The core of our team was based on the Long Island Hofstra Lacrosse Club and some of my closest friends.”

While the teams in Major League Lacrosse were certainly stacked with players of their geographic area, there was also an opportunity to draft two of the greatest players in the history of the sport and certainly the faces of lacrosse at the time, Gary and Paul Gait.  They were twin brothers who starred at Syracuse University and then they enjoyed great success in the Major Indoor Lacrosse League.

There were two issues when it came to taking the Gaits.  First, it would require two draft picks so if you took one of them, you had to wait for your turn to come around again to take the other if nobody else took him.  The other issue was that there was a feeling that the Gaits weren’t interested in playing in the MLL because of contractual obligations elsewhere.

If a team drafted the Gait Brothers, they ran the risk of wasting draft picks on players that wouldn’t suit up.

“I said of course we have to take them,” said DeTommaso.  “It was worth it to take them.  I said so what if they don’t play but what if they do play it’s going to make a big difference.”

The Lizards did draft the Gaits who both agreed to play and that added even more firepower to a team that was already loaded with talent.  As it turned out, they blended in very well with all of the local players and it also created a reunion of sorts.

“Gary, Paul and I were college teammates (at Syracuse) and friends already so I wasn’t like many of the people who were in awe of them,” said McCabe. “I knew them as good people and great teammates and it was fun to see them mesh with the “Long Island Guys”.  These were some of the greatest players in the world but what set them all apart was how smart they were.”

The Lizards’ home field that first year was Hofstra University and after stops at places like EAB Park (now Bethpage Ballpark, home of the Long Island Ducks), Mitchel Field, LaValle Stadium at Stony Brook University and Icahn Stadium on Randall’s Island, Hofstra is their home today.  The Lizards lost their first game to the Baltimore Bayhawks 16-13 but they finished the 2001 regular season with a record of 10-4 and finished in first place in the American Division.

Then came the playoffs and the Lizards beat Rochester 13-12 in one of the semifinals setting up a Championship Game clash with Baltimore on September 3rd in Bridgeport, Connecticut.  The Lizards would prevail 15-11 to capture the first ever “Steinfeld Cup”

“Paul had seven goals in the final,” said DeTommaso who would be named the 2001 MLL Coach of the Year and would lead the Lizards to another title in 2003.  “It was such a big deal when we won.  It was such an incredible thing to win. I was like oh my God this is a big deal.  This is pretty cool.  To win, especially the first year to win it with Long Island.”

With that seven-goal performance, Gait was named the Championship Game MVP.  DeTommaso spent four seasons as the Lizards coach racking up a regular season record of 33-18 to go along with a 5-1 record in the playoffs.

So many of the players on that 2001 team had already won championships whether it was in college, with club teams or even indoors in the MILL.  But this was something different.  This was the first year of an outdoor professional league that they had been waiting for and winning the first championship was special for the Lizards and the Long Island community that is a hotbed of lacrosse.

“That team was made up of many different styles and personalities but we all came together because we all shared the desire to put the team first and win a championship,” said McCabe.  “We all remain friends and it’s always good to run into anyone associated with that team and catch up.”

The Lizards would go on to win a third championship in 2015 and they hope to add a fourth in 2020, the 20th season of Major League Lacrosse.  The league started as an idea…a concept and then was born with that Summer Showcase in 2000 before the first year in 2001.  There have been peaks and valleys along the way with franchises coming and going.

But twenty years later, the Lizards, Boston Cannons and the Bayhawks (now in Chesapeake), are the three inaugural franchises still battling it out for the Steinfeld Cup.

“I’m definitely happy,” said DeTommaso.  “There were a lot of people that put a lot of time and effort into this whole thing.  It was only a dream for a long time.  I think it’s amazing that twenty years later, it’s still around and still viable.  Let’s face it, I think it helped spur on a lot of lacrosse being played around the country.  It’s amazing that it’s twenty years later and it’s hard to believe.”

Today, the landscape of professional outdoor lacrosse in North America has changed.  Major League Lacrosse will begin it’s twentieth season on May 30th, but unlike their first year in 2001, they have competition.  2020 will be the second year that MLL will have to compete with the Premier Lacrosse League, an entity founded by legendary lacrosse player Paul Rabil.  The PLL launched last year and it pried away many of the top players in the world from MLL.

Will Major League Lacrosse survive?  Can two outdoor professional lacrosse leagues co-exist?

“I’m not sure where the professional lacrosse situation goes from here,” said McCabe.  “There are plenty of terrific players out there who want to play so there should be no shortage of talent.”

Regardless of how things turn out down the road, Major League Lacrosse is going full steam ahead with a celebration of their twentieth season including social media posts and website content looking back at the history of the league.  You can even watch the full-game broadcast of the Lizards victory in the 2001 Championship game on the league’s website

Major League Lacrosse afforded players the opportunity to continue playing the game outdoors in a professional setting.  Club lacrosse was great, but getting paid to play the game you love was something that they had only dreamed of and in 2001 that dream became reality with MLL.

“Whatever happens with the MLL and the PLL, it’s like Elvis Presley,” said DeTommaso.  “No Elvis. No Beatles and nobody else.  No MLL.  No PLL. It’s as simple as that.  I coached a group of incredibly talented athletes and even better people.  They were the pioneers.  They put their money and their time and efforts into the whole thing.  I’m definitely happy with how it all turned out twenty years later.”

Those talented athletes, many of whom were from Long Island, etched their names in the history books as the first every champions of Major League Lacrosse.  Chances are if you come to a New York Lizards game in 2020, you just might run into a player or two or even a coach from that 2001 Long Island Lizards team that hoisted the first Steinfeld Cup.

To kind of steal a line from the Beatles, “It was (almost) twenty years ago today”, when the Long Island Lizards showed the lacrosse world how to play.

About the Author

Peter Schwartz

Peter Schwartz is a contributor covering the Islanders for NY Sports Day while also writing about general sports in the New York/New Jersey area. In addition to his column, Peter also hosts his “Schwartz On Sports” podcast as he interviews players, coaches, and other sports personalities. He is also currently a sports anchor for WFAN Radio, CBS Sports Radio, and WCBS 880 radio while also serving as the public address announcer for the New York Cosmos soccer club.

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