For the Chesapeake Bayhawks, the road back to the playoffs began with convincing Dave Cottle to come back as head coach.
The Bayhawks are the most successful franchise in Major League Lacrosse history with five championships to their credit.
However, Chesapeake missed the postseason four straight seasons from 2014 through 2017 – a drought that prompted considerable soul-searching within the organization.
Owner Brendan Kelly hired Mark Burdett to serve as team president, further strengthening a front office that had been led by Cottle.
Cottle initially came to the Bayhawks as a consultant in 2010 and provided valuable advice as Kelly, who had appointed himself as head coach late in the season, led the franchise to its third MLL title.
Chesapeake had a losing record and was in danger of missing the playoffs for the fifth straight season when the Kelly-Cottle tandem took over and led a magical postseason run that culminated with a 13-8 victory over the archrival Long Island Lizards in the final.
Kelly remained as head coach in 2011 with Cottle being named president and general manager of the organization. Cottle added head coaching duties in 2012 and directed Chesapeake to consecutive championships in 2012 and 2013.
Cottle spent three seasons in the all-encompassing role of head coach, general manager and president. Looking to pull back a bit, Cottle stepped down as head coach following the 2015 season and hired Brian Reese as his replacement.
In January, 2017, Kelly hired Burdett – a veteran sports and television executive – as team president, relieving Cottle of that responsibility as well.
Reese performed an admirable job as head coach in 2016 and 2017 with the Bayhawks barely missing the playoffs both years. In fact, it came down to tiebreaker scenarios keeping Chesapeake out of the postseason in those consecutive campaigns.
Looking to further professionalize the organization, Burdett decided during the offseason to hire a full-time head coach for 2018 and beyond.
Reese, who works as a teacher at Glenelg Country School and also has considerable responsibility for raising four children since his wife Cathy is head coach of women’s lacrosse at the University of Maryland, could not make that commitment.
So the Bayhawks advertised the position, accepted applications and began the process of identifying a full-time head coach.
“We went out and looked at the market and did a lot of interviews,” Kelly said. “It was a good process because Mark and I got to interview a lot of talented coaches and gauge their suitability for the Bayhawks.”
Burdett and Kelly seriously considered several qualified candidates, but in each case there was something missing. Either the coach wasn’t willing to commit to working full-time or Bayhawks management found the individual lacking in some area.
“We had some very qualified NCAA college coaches come through and none were willing to devote the time necessary to do the job properly,” Burdett said. “There were some other candidates that just didn’t measure up in terms of the experience we were seeking.”
Burdett consulted with Cottle throughout this process, and in many cases the Chesapeake general manager helped set up the interviews.
When the top choices all fell through, Cottle recognized he was far more qualified than the next tier of prospective coaches.
“We had three great candidates to choose from and brought them in for the final round of interviews. For one reason or another it didn’t work out with each,” Cottle recalled.
“We were kind of in a holding pattern so Brendan took me to lunch in December and asked if I would consider returning as head coach. Brendan said the organization needed me.”
Kelly had grown increasingly impatient with the hiring process, which had dragged on for several months. He compared each candidate to Cottle and, quite frankly, they came up short.
“I talked to Mark Burdett one day and basically said: Why are we going through this exercise when we have the best candidate available right here in our office?” Kelly said. “I had a vision in my mind about exactly the type of head coach I wanted and the only person who checked all the boxes was Dave Cottle.”
Burdett had already been in Cottle’s ear saying basically the same thing.
“My message to Dave was: Why hire a junior varsity version of Dave Cottle when we could get the varsity model – the real thing?” Burdett said.
Put on the spot and not wanting to let down an organization he cared deeply about, Cottle had to do some serious soul-searching. Truth be told, the 63-year-old Annapolis resident had been looking forward to having a little less responsibility with the Bayhawks and spending more time at his vacation home in Boca Raton, Florida.
“Coach Cottle really likes Florida so I had to convince him to be here when it was cold,” Kelly said only half-jokingly.
Added Burdett: “It was an important life decision that Dave needed to make. At the end of the day, I think Dave realized he still had that competitive fire burning inside of him.”
GETTING THEIR MAN
Kelly and Burdett had one factor working in their favor. Cottle had put considerable time, effort and planning into rebuilding the Bayhawks – transforming an aging roster into one loaded with outstanding young talent.
Attackmen Lyle Thompson, Josh Byrne, Steele Stanwick and Colin Heacock, midfielders Myles Jones, Ryan Tucker and Ian MacKay, faceoff specialist Stephen Kelly, short stick defensive midfielder Isaiah Davis-Allen as well as defensemen Garrett Epple, Matt Rees and Goran Murray. Those are among the key members of the 2018 club that Cottle acquired via the draft (collegiate and expansion), trade or free agent pickup over the last three years.
“Dave had steadily built a solid team of young players and what they needed most was an experienced leader,” Kelly said.
Cottle acknowledged feeling a sense of responsibility and loyalty to the players he brought to the Chesapeake Bayhawks.
“What made me absolutely sure that I would do it was the quality of the players we have in the locker room,” he said. “I love our team and that was the deciding factor. There were just too many guys that I cared about and I didn’t want to leave them high and dry.”
After agreeing to accept the head coaching position, Cottle set about putting together a staff and immediately reached out to Bob Shillinglaw, who retired last May after 42 years as a collegiate coach. Cottle thought Shillinglaw, who spent 39 seasons as head coach at Delaware, would enjoy working with professional lacrosse players and that has proven the case.
Cottle retained Mark Goers, having been impressed with his work with Chesapeake’s faceoff specialists. Goers lives on Kent Island and works at the Naval Academy as Director of Operations for the men’s lacrosse program.
Jim Bernhardt, whose son Jesse is a starting close defenseman for Chesapeake, was brought aboard largely for his expertise in analytics and scouting. Bernhardt performed those types of duties while serving as Director of Football Research for the Houston Texans.
“Dave hired a very qualified group of assistants. They are all real mature men who can take direction from Dave and execute it during the week and at practice,” Burdett said.
There is no arguing with the results as Cottle led Chesapeake to a 9-5 record and sole possession of second place in Major League Lacrosse during the regular season. Now the Bayhawks enter the playoffs as the second seed and will host No. 3 Denver on Saturday night (5:30 p.m.) at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
“Dave fully understands the nuances of Major League Lacrosse, and not all of them are positive. There is a lack of practice time, consistent changeover in roster and players with outside commitments,” Burdett said. “Dave knows how to manage all those factors while at the same time demanding a significant commitment and certain level of excellence from the players. He holds people accountable.”
Kelly said no other head coach in Major League Lacrosse is more committed than Cottle and Burdett has seen that “all-in” approach first-hand this season.
“Coach Cottle is constantly communicating with players – sending them film and scouting reports, providing constructive critiques and telling them what things to work on,” Burdett said.
Burdett now knows why Cottle is considered a “players coach” after seeing the special bond he has developed with all the Bayhawks, who clearly respect a man who compiled a 279-115 career record in 28 seasons at Loyola-Maryland University and University of Maryland.
“Dave is an intense competitor, but he is also a lot of fun to be around. I think Dave brings humor and real personal compatibility to the relationship with players. Our guys love Coach Cottle because he thinks of them first all the time,” Burdett said.
Reflecting this week on the 2018 season, Cottle called it one of the most rewarding of his entire coaching career.
“I’ve really enjoyed this group of players. We had a really good culture with this team. Our guys played hard and cared about each other,” he said. “There were days when you watched them play and it brought a smile to your face because they were just so darn committed.”
Cottle declined to speculate about his future and whether he would return as Chesapeake head coach next year.
“I wanted to get this organization back to the playoffs and we were able to accomplish that goal,” He said. “Once you make the playoffs you certainly don’t want to stop there. We would like to lead this team to a championship so these players can achieve their dreams.”