Kyle Sweeney had a very tight schedule to keep as his plane landed at Norfolk Airport near Virginia Beach on May 18th. The defenseman had only a short time to hustle to the Virginia Beach Sportsplex, where his Philadelphia Barrage were opening their season against the Washington Bayhawks.
Arriving about 15 minutes before the opening whistle, Sweeney shook off travel and helped his team to a 17-12 victory. But the win was barely savored as Sweeney left to catch his return flight maybe an hour after sealing the win.
“I was in Virginia Beach for about six hours, and two of them were playing the game,” Sweeney recalled. “That’s just the way it goes sometimes…it’s not easy, but this is what we do. Once you’re on the field, you’re on the field.”
Keeping such a frenetic schedule is exactly what Barrage players have done this summer. After ownership troubles in Philadelphia couldn’t be solved, the league had to determine what to do with a franchise without a home.
Not wanting to dissolve their most successful team, Major League Lacrosse executives ruled the Barrage would become a “traveling show,” playing all 12 games of the 2008 season on the road. Seven would be traditional away games, and five were declared “home” games, with the Barrage “hosting” another team in a unique location.
A week after the contest in Virginia Beach, the Barrage hosted the Long Island Lizards at Texas Stadium in Dallas. Two weeks later, the Barrage played the Chicago Machine at a soccer stadium in St. Louis, Mo. The next week it was off to Cary, N.C. for a rematch with the Rochester Rattlers. The Barrage wrap up their season in Hillsboro, Ore. against the New Jersey Pride.
“The travel thing, it’s been a burden a little bit, but it really hasn’t been any different than it was before,” said Barrage goalie Brian Dougherty. “We’re more excited to hang out and travel around the country with guys that we wanted to hang out with.”
Most MLL players are seasoned travelers by nature of the league. Since a lacrosse career is more of a part-time job, players need to travel by car, bus, train, or plane to their games every weekend.
“I think traveling is just a part of the league that everyone knows,” said Barrage attackman Mike Springer. “You know, you’re used to it beforehand, so it’s really no big surprise.”
But all of this travel, particularly to nontraditional lacrosse destinations, has created a very unique experience for the Barrage.
“I’d say the coolest part is going to see the sport grow across the country,” said Sweeney. “You’re getting fans who have never seen the game before in person, and that’s good, that’s helping the sport.”
Along with a broad range of lacrosse fans, the host cities provide a broad range of amenities. While in Dallas, the team saw what big-time pro sports enjoy at Texas Stadium. The Cowboys’ locker room was a stark contrast to the storage bin the team changed in for the following week’s game, Dougherty said.
“We’ve been in trailers for our locker rooms,” Springer listed. “We’ve had locker rooms with no showers, no bathrooms, stuff like that. It’s kind of comical.”
The season started with locker room follies. While the Barrage were busy beating the Lizards 17-12 on the field, someone else was busy ransacking their Virginia Beach locker room. When players walked in after the game, they saw their wallets scattered around the floor and most of their iPods and other electronics missing, Dougherty said. A similar thievery befell them a few years ago in Boston. In both cases players made out OK though, as the league and host officials reimbursed them for the stolen goods.
“It never fails the Barrage,” said Erin Vosburgh, the team’s public relations director, “we always have some interesting things happen.”
No longer having an ownership group in Philadelphia, Vosburgh is the Barrage’s front office this season. After the league absorbed most duties of team officials, they asked Vosburgh in April if she would like to stay with the team. Working about 15-20 hours a week, not counting weekends where she travels with the team to every game, she handles “the little odds and ends stuff here and there to make sure everyone gets to where they need to be,” she said.
Still responsible for typical PR duties like media releases, game stories, and being the point person for all “home” games, Vosburgh’s major responsibility this year is travel arrangements for the entire team.
“I am the team’s personal assistant and their walking calendar if you will,” Vosburgh explained. “Anything that needs to be done, like if they need to change a flight, they need to call me and see if it’s ok, and see if I can take care of it for them; so really, from the outside, it would look like I am the personal assistant to all these guys.”
Vosburgh handles it all, Dougherty said. “If we didn’t have her, I’ll be honest with you, we wouldn’t be able to do anything. She’s the one dealing with all that as far as trying to get everybody there.”
Her job gets no easier when rosters are often changed at the last minute and players come from Philadelphia, Maryland, D.C., New York, and New Jersey, all busy hubs for air traffic. Many destinations the team flies to involve laying over and taking shuttles to much smaller airports. Once at the terminal, players almost always have to check their equipment since any of it could be considered a weapon and not fit for carry-on.
“It’s very nerve-wracking on my end,” Vosburgh said, “because I am in control of booking their flights, so I don’t really relax until everyone walks onto the field for pregame warm-up. That’s when I kind of take a breath and relax because that’s when I know everyone made it there safely, they have all their stuff and what not, so it’s a different kind of stress than last year.”
Despite all the potential pitfalls, Vosburgh said she has yet to have any major issues. Instead, she is treating this summer as “a once in a lifetime season for us to get to go to all of these places.” That positive disposition seems to be reflected by most of the team.
“Everyone has different complaints, but I think everyone’s doing pretty good so far,” Vosburgh said. “It’s trying having to fly to all of these places…but I think in general everyone is doing pretty well with the flying. I haven’t heard any major drama with any of the travel so far. Overall, I think everyone is having a good time.”
Amongst long flights, layovers, and locker room troubles, the Barrage have managed to squeeze in a little fun on the road. They arrange large team meals whenever possible. If players don’t have to rush off to catch a flight right after the game, guys will go out and have a beer just to hang out.
After the game in St. Louis, Dougherty and a few teammates changed their flights and got tickets to the Phillies vs. Cardinals baseball game at Busch Stadium.
“That, in this league,” Dougherty said, “is as big as anything else, just going to a ball game and being regular guys.”
“We’re probably one of the closest teams in the league,” Vosburgh said. “Everyone seems to be having a good time and in good spirits.”
Occasionally hanging out before or after games has helped camaraderie, but limited practice time hurt chemistry and defensive play early in the year. With guys coming and going at all different times on weekends, it is very difficult for the team to arrange a full practice, Springer said.
Some teams might get 20-30 guys together the night before a game and hold practice, Dougherty explained, but with everyone flying in at different times, rarely can the Barrage get a full squad assembled for a Friday night session.
The typical schedule for a weekend trip, Sweeney said, has players flying in Friday, usually late. Then they wake up early Saturday and attend a walk through and a team meal. After the game players fly out late that night or early Sunday. That is if the team isn’t doing day of game travel, where they fly in that morning and out immediately after the game (which they did for the Virginia Beach and North Carolina trips).
“We refuse to let that be an excuse, “ Dougherty said. “We’re all professionals here. You have to do what you have to do to be ready to play, wherever the game is.”
Like professionals, the Barrage are handling this season quite well. At 5-3, the team is tied with Long Island for the best record in the Easter Conference. They are playing with confidence and urgency. They are two-time defending MLL champs, with a stable of all-star veterans and a winning record. But in a league where only four teams advance to the playoffs, the Barrage will have to stay sharp if they want to shoot for a three-peat.
“The one thing that is scary is you really can’t afford to lose more than four games in this league, “Sweeney said. “There’s definitely a sense of urgency.”
Playoff aspirations for this season’s squad are tightly in focus, but no one can clearly see what lies ahead for the Barrage. The sentiment amongst many players is that they would like to find a home in Philly again for 2009, but they are staying positive about potentially moving to one of the new markets they have enjoyed playing in this season. (Virginia Beach seems one of the favorites so far).
If this coming offseason plays out anything like the one prior, the league will probably sort out the Barrage’s fate in the middle of the fall, then bring its proposals to the players, who will have to decide if they are in or out.
“In December we will have to sit and talk,” Dougherty said, “see where we are based out of and how that fits.”
For now though, the only city the Barrage would like to land in is Boston, playing at Harvard Stadium for the MLL Championship, again.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” Sweeney said. “You could get traded. You could not be good. You could get hit by a bus, who knows. You’ve got to just play this season, and that’s all we can do for right now.”