Chesapeake Bayhawks primed for run at another MLL title

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In his first year as owner of the Chesapeake Bayhawks, Brendan Kelly got the result every Major League Lacrosse executive hopes for: a championship.

With an eye toward consistency and, of course, a repeat, the defending Steinfeld Cup champions kick off their title defense Saturday at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium at 7 p.m against the Rochester Rattlers. Kelly hopes Saturday's season opener will start the team's build on last season's improbable title run.

After a 5-1 start in 2010, the team went on a five-game losing streak, during which Kelly removed head coach John Tucker and installed himself in the same role to save the season. The Bayhawks won their final two regular-season games to qualify for the playoffs, and capped championship weekend with a 13-9 win over Long Island for the title.

Kelly, who is back as coach this season, said while the coaching change looks great in hindsight, it was one that he felt the need to make at the time.

"Obviously, we had the players," Kelly said. "The coach before me did a good job, but we really needed to change some things up."

This season, Kelly has built the team in a manner that he hopes requires as little change on the fly as possible.

He enlisted former Maryland coach Dave Cottle as the team president and assistant coach, a move that Kelly said has "taken the organization, from the front office to the field, to another level."

Cottle said that Kelly is honest with his players, a trait that midfielder Mike Kimmel appreciates.

"He's a straight-shooter, which everyone respects," said Kimmel, who joined the Bayhawks last season after finishing his playing career at Johns Hopkins. "If you're playing soft, he's going to call you out for it. That's all you can ask of a coach. Playing for coach [Dave Pietramala], that's what I respected about him and it's the same with Brendan."

Kimmel joined the team just before the losing streak began, but saw a collective transformation after the coaching change.

"We weren't doing so well, and we decided to put our egos aside for the betterment of the team," Kimmel said. "We had a philosophy on offense where if we moved the ball and got everyone involved, we would have success. We ended on a great note, and are going into this season with [that same] mentality."

Sharing the load on offense became much more important for the Bayhawks this week after the team traded Peet Poillion, last season's leading scorer, to Denver for midfielder Dan Hardy. Poillon tallied 30 goals and 15 assists last season and was named the league's Most Improved Player.

"Peet's a great player," Kelly said. "We had the chance to get Dan Hardy who was an all-star in the league and played at Syracuse. He's a force. They contacted us about the trade, and it made sense for both sides. It was a good all-around trade."

Hardy, who scored 30 points last season, was the MLL Rookie of the Year in 2009. The Bayhawks also acquired Stephen Brooks, the nation's top collegiate midfielder in 2008 at Syracuse, from Rochester in a trade for midfielder Brian Vetter.

Hardy and Brooks join a balanced midfield that provided plenty of offense for the Bayhawks last season. Midfielder Kyle Dixon is the team's leading returning scorer, having scored 32 goals — including 11 two-point goals — with seven assists in 2010.

Attackmen Ben Rubeor and Danny Glading, whom Cottle called their "stalwarts" on attack, are back to build on a 2010 campaign in which they notched 15 regular-season goals apiece. Unlike the midfield, Kelly said the team didn't need to make as many moves in attack.

"I think we have the best attack in the league," Kelly said. "We won a championship with them, so obviously we're excited about having all of them back again and getting on to the repeat."

The Bayhawks also return a pair of first-team All-MLL players in faceoff man Alex Smith and defender Michael Evans.

Kelly said he "absolutely" expects a repeat performance this season, something that his players are also on board with.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't our goal," Kimmel said. "Everyone's so good in this league, and there's so much talent. Everyone's goal is to win the championship."