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Jesse Bernhardt (36) has anchored a Chesapeake defense that leads Major League Lacrosse in fewest goals allowed.
Jesse Bernhardt (36) has anchored a Chesapeake defense that leads Major League Lacrosse in fewest goals allowed. (Daniel Kucin, Jr. / For The Capital)

Defense. Defense. Defense.

That will be the rallying cry on Friday evening when the Chesapeake Bayhawks begin their quest for a sixth Major League Lacrosse championship.

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Chesapeake (10-6) is the top seed for MLL Championship Weekend and will meet No. 4 Atlanta (8-8) in the semifinals on Friday (7 p.m.) at Peter Barton Stadium in Denver, Colorado.

This will be a matchup of the league’s stingiest defense against the most explosive offense. The Bayhawks allowed the fewest goals in Major League Lacrosse, giving up only 193 through 16 regular season games. Meanwhile, the Blaze set an MLL record with 229 goals scored, an average of more than 14 per game.

“Atlanta is a very high-scoring team. They have a ton of talent on the offensive end and have the ability to score in bunches,” Chesapeake head coach Dave Cottle said. “We really need a sound defensive game-plan and everyone on that end of the field has to know exacty what we are doing and work together as a unit.”

Chesapeake is led by perennial All-Star Jesse Bernhardt, one of the best close defensemen in MLL. Cottle is admittedly biased, but was disappointed Bernhardt was not among the three finalists for Warrior Defensive Player of the Year.

“Jesse Bernhardt has been the most impactful player and leader I have seen this year. He changed our team and I am not sure where we would be without him,” Cottle said.

Bernhardt has been the anchor of a close defense that includes second-year professional Chris Fennell (Navy) and rookie Warren Jeffrey (Vermont). He routinely covers the opponent’s top attackman and is the key communicator for the entire defense. The former Maryland All-American is also a best on ground balls and a factor in the clearing game.

Chesapeake closed the regular season on a two-game winning streak and Cottle plans to stay with the hot hand in goal. Annapolis native Brian Phipps, a Severn School graduate and current head coach of boys’ lacrosse at Archbishop Spalding will make his fourth straight start between the pipes after allowing just 32 goals over the last three games.

“Brian made 17 saves in our last game and has looked very sharp,” Cottle said. “Brian’s communication has been excellent.”

Long stick midfielder C.J. Costabile along with short sticks Isaiah Davis-Allen and Nick Manis (Severn School) are the other key figures of a defense that is giving up just over 12 goals per game. It will not be easy to maintain that average against Atlanta, which boasts four of the top seven scorers in Major League Lacrosse.

The Blaze are led by attackman Tommy Palasek, who stands second in MLL with 63 points on 28 goals and 35 assists. Running mate Shayne Jackson is the league’s fourth-leading scorer with 58 points on the strength of 43 goals. Midfielder Bryan Cole has 53 points while attackman Randy Staats has 50.

“Atlanta can put out six offensive players that are extremely tough to cover,” Cottle said. “You cannot focus on one or two guys. They’re all dangerous.”

Cottle is particularly concerned with Atlanta’s penchant for scoring second-chance goals. It will be important for Phipps not to allow rebounds and the defense must do a good job of getting the ball off the ground in front of the cage, he said.

“They’re pretty good at getting rebound goals or scoring off loose balls out front. They’re jamming the ball inside, so you need to have your sticks up. When you knock the ball down you have to pick it up and get it out,” Cottle said.

Atlanta struggled defensively down the stretch of the regular season, giving up a whopping 40 goals in its last two games. Cottle noted the Chesapeake offense can help the defense by controlling possession and scoring goals.

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“Good offense lends itself to good defense,” Cottle said. “In the last game against Atlanta we got a good number of transition goals. We need to maximize our opportunities in both six-on-six and unsettled situations.”

The Bayhawks have been sparked all season by standout attackman Lyle Thompson, one of three candidates for both the Coca-Cola Most Valuable Player and New Balance Offensive Player of the Year honors. Thompson leads Major League Lacrosse with 73 points on 46 goals and 27 assists.

“In my mind, Lyle has been the most impactful offensive player in the league. He’s one of the best pure goal-scorers, one of the best passers and one of the best riders I’ve ever seen,” Cottle said.

Thompson took a knee during the opening game of the World Indoor Lacrosse Championships. He was able to come back and play for the Iroquois Nationals in the championship game but was hobbled a bit.

“We plan on playing Lyle. He’s had some time to rest and we’re hoping he’ll be close to 100%,” Cottle said.

Attackmen Steele Stanwick has amassed 50 points on the strength of 32 assists, while left-handed running mate Colin Heacock has totaled 46 points with 37 goals.

“If you’re going to win an MLL championship you need to score 15 or 16 goals,” Cottle said. “I think we need to shoot a bit better, share the ball a bit better and have a little better spacing on offense.”

A critical matchup will come at the faceoff stripe where Chesapeake’s Kenny Massa will square off against Atlanta’s Alex Woodall (St. Mary’s). Massa and Chesapeake got the better of that category in the last meeting between the teams, capturing 20 of 33 draws.

Host and second-seeded Denver (9-7) takes on No. 3 Boston (9-7) in the second semifinal, slated to start at 7 p.m. Mountain time. Winners will meet in Sunday’s championship game, being held at 11 a.m. local time (1 p.m. EDT) at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

Major League Lacrosse Semifinals

No. 1 Chesapeake Bayhawks (10-6) vs. No. 4 Atlanta Blaze (8-8)

Friday, 7 p.m.

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