August 27, 2012

'Hawks Fly Together to Beat Denver for MLL Title

by Matt Forman | | Twitter

2012 MLL Championship

* Live Blog Replay
* Mundorf Tries to Play Despite Torn Tendons

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — They’re called the Bayhawks, but if you ask defenseman Brian Spallina, they should be nicknamed a different kind of aquatic bird: the Penguins. And so they were, at least to each other.

“We like to call ourselves the penguins because we keep close-tight. One day Spallina said, ‘Guys, get in here in the huddle like penguins,’” midfielder Steven Brooks said. “Wherever penguins go, we migrate with each other. No matter what happened — the ups and downs of the season — we always stuck together. We bent but we never broke.”

The Chesapeake Bayhawks celebrated their MLL championship on the turf at Harvard Stadium after beating Denver behind four goals by Ben Hunt and a 17-of-25 faceoff performance by Alex Smith.
© Bill Danielewski

It might not have been exactly what first-year head coach Dave Cottle had in mind when he reconstructed Chesapeake’s roster around “character and toughness.” But it worked. The roster of “older guys who play for the love of the game and competition” made sure the Steinfeld Trophy will belong to the Bayhawks for the next 12 months.

The reconstructed Bayhawks — featuring starters in five different starters from the team that lost to Boston in the semifinals in 2011 — won their fourth Major League Lacrosse championship, 16-6 over the top-seeded Denver Outlaws in front of 7,384 fans at Harvard Stadium on Sunday. It was Chesapeake’s second title since Brendan Kelly purchased the team in February 2010.

Meanwhile Denver, perpetually snake-bitten in the postseason, has been outscored by a combined margin of 65-33 in its four championship game losses and is still without a title in seven straight post-season appearances.

Regular-season league MVP Brendan Mundorf, who injured his left ankle in Friday’s practice and didn’t play in Saturday’s semifinal, tried giving it a go Sunday. Mundorf played into the second quarter before pain in the ankle became too much.

Without Mundorf, Denver couldn’t repeat its magic from Saturday, when it scored 10 straight goals to overcome a 12-3 deficit to Long Island. Outlaws coach Jim Stagnitta said the offense “never got in sync and didn’t have enough firepower” and the team “emptied the tank” trying to rally from behind. Chesapeake kept the pedal to the metal deep into the second half — Denver scored only one goal — then opted to slow it down in the waning minutes. 

Mundorf’s absence certainly made a difference. But Sunday’s story was about Chesapeake, which had all the right pieces in the right places, who came together and played for the right coach. They answered any and all questions along the way. They were penguins. 

“This has been a great team to be around. The locker room is an unbelievable place. They care so much about each other. They do anything we ask them to do. That’s the satisfaction for me personally: They got what they deserved, and what they wanted. They were willing to work for it,” Cottle said. “This was a team where we had veterans at every position who had won championships. We weren’t nervous. We understood the big moment on the big stage. And we played really well on it.”

Chesapeake’s road to the 2012 championship began with the team’s roster revolution under Cottle, who is also the team president, and general manager Brian Reese. It all showed Sunday.

Long-time Long Island Lizards teammates Spallina and Nicky Polanco — otherwise known as the Bash Brothers — formed a tough, physical defense alongside Michael Evans. Chesapeake acquired Spallina in a trade through the expansion draft in December. He is now the first player in MLL history to win five championships. Polanco, who held out until the early parts of the 2012 season with Long Island, was traded for rookie CJ Costabile in mid-May.

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The Bayhawks also picked up goalie Kip Turner, who made 12 saves Sunday, in the expansion draft after Boston left him unprotected. Turner had never won a postseason game with the Cannons and backed up Jordan Burke last year. But he became a stout last line of defense for the Bayhawks, commanding a group of veterans in front of him, including two-time all-pro Michael Evans.

Chesapeake’s revamped defense allowed only six goals in the championship, which tied an MLL record for fewest points scored in a postseason game.

The Bayhawks also traded for attackman Drew Westervelt, who spent the previous five seasons with Denver, in October. Westervelt was held scoreless Sunday, but ran through the box and created matchup concerns for Denver.

And Chesapeake bolstered its attack by adding former MLL single-season scoring leader and Canadian legend John Grant Jr., acquiring him in a trade for Yale’s Matt Gibson, who went on this season to be named rookie of the year with the Lizards. Grant scored five goals — many of the highlight-reel variety — this weekend.

Opposite its intimidating, jawing defense, Chesapeake’s offense had more weapons than seemed reasonable. How would each player get his touches? Cottle’s “let it fly” approach that encouraged taking 2-pointers and spreading out the field, was exactly what the doctor ordered. Kyle Dixon broke his own single-season record for most 2-pointers.

The offense didn’t really run through any one player, though it was midfield-oriented with Brooks, Dixon and Michael Kimmel. Ben Rubeor, Chesapeake’s seventh-leading scorer in the regular season, won Championship Weekend MVP. Ben Hunt, who led all scorers with six points Sunday, with two 2-pointers, somehow took a secondary role. So did Grant, the most accomplished player on the roster.

But the championship-or-bust veteran-laden lineup had its drawbacks. With so many tenured players, Chesapeake dealt with salary cap issues throughout the season. Several stars sat out games to help the front office balance the finances and keep the lineup under the league’s weekly cap. And the Bayhawks dressed only 19 players in the postseason for the same reason, although postseason rosters expanded to include an extra, 20th man.

Yet that final roster decision might have been the most influential. Alex Smith, whom Cottle called “the greatest faceoff man who’s ever played” was “unbelievable.” He won 17-of-25 faceoffs on Sunday (after taking 16-of-28 against Boston in the semifinals), tilting the possession battle in Chesapeake’s favor.

It was too much for Denver to overcome.

“This was a good experience for our young guys,” Stagnitta said of a revamped roster of its own that featured rookie Mark Matthews and second-year pro Jordan McBride on attack with Mundorf. “But I don’t think they responded as well as the veterans on the Bayhawks.”

Now, everyone will know them as the Penguins.

“This was a team that committed to playing as a group, that cared more about the guy next to him than they cared about themselves,” Rubeor said. “That shows. We did that all day. We did that all season. That’s why we’re here today.”

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