Bayhawks getting a lot of mileage out of 2017 draft class

Chesapeake Bayhawks general manager Dave Cottle determined several years ago that an aging roster had to eventually be turned over and targeted the 2017 season as the time to do so.

Cottle carefully analyzed the collegiate scene and felt there would be an abundance of talent available for the 2017 Major League Lacrosse Collegiate Draft. Strategically over a period of a couple years, Cottle made multiple trades designed to stockpile picks for 2017.

“We purposefully made some trades because we thought that was an extremely talented draft class. It was part of our plan to get as many picks as we could for that year,” Cottle said.

Chesapeake selected a whopping 13 players during the 2017 MLL Collegiate Draft and the early returns are quite positive. Over the past two seasons, 10 members of that class have suited up for the Bayhawks with most making a major impact.

“We really like what we’re getting out of these guys that we got in last year’s draft,” Cottle said. “Our hope is that those players will form the nucleus of the Chesapeake Bayhawks for many years to come.”

Attackman Josh Byrne was the 2017 MLL Rookie of the Year after setting a record by scoring 39 goals. Isaiah Davis-Allen stepped right into the starting lineup at short stick defensive midfield and has already established himself as one of the best in Major League Lacrosse.

Colin Heacock contributed 11 points in eight games as a rookie and has clearly taken his game up a notch this season – starting all five games on attack and ranking second on the squad with 15 points.

Stephen Kelly did not play in a single game last season, but has suddenly emerged as the best faceoff specialist in Major League Lacrosse in 2018.

Matt Rees is starting on close defense this season after struggling somewhat as a rookie. Nick Manis may be the biggest surprise of the class, stepping up as a versatile and valuable defender capable of carrying a short stick or long pole depending on need.

Cottle said the remarkable success rate on players taken during last year’s draft is due largely to having so many selections in the initial three rounds.

“It’s easy to hit on players when you have a lot of high picks. I think we had five picks in the top twenty so you should hit a high rate with that,” Cottle said. “That being said, we did find some real gems in the later rounds.”

Cottle called landing Byrne, a Hofstra product, at No. 19 in the third round “probably the biggest steal of the entire draft.” Kelly was chosen with the 48th pick of the sixth round while the Bayhawks got Manis with the No. 66 selection in the eighth round.

Members of Chesapeake’s 2017 draft class are now sophomores at the professional level and most are performing well beyond expectations. Cottle credits those youngsters for coming to training camp in top condition and understanding how to approach the pro game.

“I have found the second year is kind of make or break for young players in the league because they either can’t get in shape on their own or they figure it out and catapult forward,” he said.

The only 2017 draft pick to take a step back has been midfielder Jake Froccaro, who was taken with the seventh selection of the first round. Froccaro scored 15 goals in nine games as a rookie, but only has two goals and two assists through five games so far this season.

DEEP, TALENTED CLASS

Byrne missed the initial three games of this season while playing indoors with the National Lacrosse League. The Canadian native of British Columbia totaled six points on four goals and two assists in his season debut against Denver then scored the game-winning goal as Chesapeake came back to beat Boston.

“Josh can dodge with the ball, cut without the ball, pass the ball and really shoot the ball. So he has a pretty diverse skill set,” Cottle said. “I believe Josh Byrne is going to become one of the stars of this league.”

Cottle watched Heacock play at Maryland and envisioned a swing player, which is important at the pro level. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound product of Boys’ Latin can play is equally adept at playing attack or midfield.

“First of all, Colin is a tremendous teammate. He’s a high character kid who just wants to win,” Cottle said. “Colin is a big, strong kid who has been a real handful to defend. He’s having an outstanding season.”

Heacock strictly played midfield as a rookie, coming out of the box and routinely getting matched up against a short stick. The Catonsville resident is an important part of Chesapeake’s invert game, using his attack skills to beat short stick defenders from behind the cage.

“I’d say it’s a faster game with the shot clock and just overall style of play,” Heacock said of making the adjustment to the MLL. “A lot of the veteran guys like Matt Danowski and Steele Stanwick have taken me under their wings and kind of shown me the ropes.”

Davis-Allen was a two-time first team All-American at Maryland so it’s really no surprise that he would succeed in the MLL. However, Cottle said the Springfield, Virginia, resident has been even better than advertised – dominating his matchup on the defensive end, excelling as the wing on faceoffs while making things happen in the clearing game.

“Isaiah makes a tremendous impact on the wing. We put him out there every chance we get,” Cottle said. “He’s taken three of the best poles in MLL (Matt Bocklet, Brodie Merrill, Michael Ehrhardt) and rendered them a non-factor. We’ve never been able to do that on the wing. On top of that, Isaiah does an excellent job of covering that really quick midfielder and is a real force in transition.”

Kelly has arguably been the biggest surprise of the 2018 MLL season and proven a real game-changer for Chesapeake. The Calvert Hall College alum is winning 62 percent of faceoffs, giving the Bayhawks a critical possession advantage while constantly stopping scoring runs by the opposition.

“Stephen Kelly has been absolutely unbelievable. I cannot emphasize enough how important he has been to our team,” Cottle said. “Stephen is winning a lot of faceoffs to himself and we’re getting transition opportunities because the other team’s faceoff man is running off the field. Even the ones Stephen loses, a lot of times he gets them back.”

Kelly was a non-factor last season, missing a high number of practices because of previous commitments and losing to fellow rookie Ben Williams when he was available.

“I had come off a long senior season in which I’d played hurt and was still kind of healing up,” said Kelly, adding that he also took a three-week trip abroad with several North Carolina classmates that had been planned months in advance. “I don’t like to make excuses and the bottom line is that Ben was better than me in practice. That definitely added some fuel to the fire coming into this season.”

Kelly said he’s completely healthy for the first time in years and came into the 2018 campaign intent on proving his worth.

“I know what I’m capable of doing and what I could give the Bayhawks from a competitive standpoint and a skill set standpoint,” the Lutherville native said. “I wanted to show the coaching staff and management that I’m a true winner at heart.”

Kelly has been by far the best faceoff specialist in Major League Lacrosse this season, besting such veterans as Joe Nardella (Boston) and Thomas Kelly (Denver) among others.

“I wouldn’t say surprised per se. I’ve done pretty well with winning faceoffs at every step of my career when I’ve been healthy,” Kelly said. “I think the MLL game fits who I am as a player in terms of being able to use my athleticism. It’s been great so far and I’m just trying to keep it rolling.”

Rees was taken with the No. 12 overall selection of the second round and Cottle had high hopes for the Naval Academy graduate. However, the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Sykesville native struggled to adapt to the speed of Major League Lacrosse and didn’t make an impact while appearing in just four games.

Rees has already equaled that number this season while starting three games on close defense. The Boys’ Latin grad has scored three goals, including a 2-pointer, while gobbling up six ground balls.

“I think Matt was tired and worn down after a long season with Navy. There was definitely a confidence issue as well,” Cottle said. “Matt came into camp in great shape and with a better understanding of the pro game. He is developing into the player we envisioned – a big, agile guy with tremendous stickwork who can pick the ball up off the ground and carry it forward.”

COLLEGE WALK-ON, CONSUMMATE PRO

Cottle may have been the only MLL general manager that saw pro potential in Manis, who was a walk-on at Maryland. The Annapolis resident became the No. 2 short stick defensive midfielder for the Terrapins behind Davis-Allen and was a team captain as a fifth-year senior.

“If you listened to the University of Maryland coaches and players talk about Nick Manis and the impact he made on their team you would know why we drafted him,” Cottle said. “Nick is a chemistry guy, a glue guy, a locker room guy and a leader.”

Manis showed he had the athleticism to compete in Major League Lacrosse while playing in four games down the stretch last season. The Severn School product has blossomed into a key performer as a sophomore.

“What impresses me most about Nick is that he knows he must do all the little things in order to be successful,” Cottle said. “There is no one on this team that spends more time watching film and preparing.”

Manis readily admits he never envisioned playing professional lacrosse and was a little surprised to learn he’d been drafted by the hometown team.

“When I found out the Bayhawks had drafted me I was so excited and – just like when I first went to Maryland – just wanted to prove that I could play at this level and do whatever I could to help the team,” Manis said.

Manis agreed with Cottle’s assessment that players must work out and prepare on their own in order to compete in Major League Lacrosse. He is working full-time selling copiers and printers with the Cap X Solutions franchise owned by his uncle John Vassos and goes to the gym as often as possible while also trying to play catch with friends whenever he can.

“You go from having a four-month preseason in college to a four-practice preseason in the pros so it’s definitely different,” Manis said. “For all the time and effort that (owner) Brendan Kelly and Coach Cottle put into this team, it’s kind of our responsibility as players to make sure we’re doing whatever it takes to be prepared for every single game.”

Manis was asked to play close defense for the first time in his career against Charlotte and admits he laughed out loud when suddenly matched up against former Maryland teammate and Tewaaraton Award winner Matt Rambo.

“I played man-down with a long pole at Maryland, but I’ve never played close before,” Manis said. “Coach Cottle asked me to do it so I said no problem. I’m happy to do whatever the team needs me to do.”

There is one thread that ties together most of the 2017 Chesapeake draft class. Davis-Allen, Heacock, Kelly, Rees and Manis are all local products. Cottle has made a concerted effort to build a roster filled with players from the greater Baltimore-Washington area because they can attend mid-week practices and have a built-in fan base.

“It’s really cool. Heacock and I played on the same eighth grade team and I played against Matt Rees in high school. (Chesapeake defenseman) Garrett Epple is one of my best friends from Calvert Hall,” Kelly said. “Then you have guys like Steele Stanwick (Loyola) and Brian Phipps (Severn) that you watched play when we were kids going to MIAA A Conference games.”

Heacock was excited to be taken in the second round with the 11th overall pick by the Bayhawks.

“Growing up in the Baltimore area I used to watch the Bayhawks play all the time. Being able to play for the hometown team is great because my family and friends can come out and support me all the time,” he said.

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