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Banged-up Bayhawks’ trip to Florida not an early vacation

Chesapeake Bayhawks midfielder Joe Walters faces his former team for the first time since being traded to the Bayhawks for Casey Powell. The Florida Launch hosts the Bayhawks Saturday at FAU Stadium.
Photo by Jen Fuller/Getty Images

The Chesapeake Bayhawks are bathed in the sun of Florida’s ocean coast this afternoon. But the visit is strictly business, not pleasure. This is Chesapeake’s first visit to Boca Raton to take on the Florida Launch in a pivotal Major League Lacrosse matchup Saturday night at 7 pm at Florida Atlantic University Stadium.

With only two wins in eight outings, the Bayhawks’ roster remains decimated by injuries and is almost down to its last chance to put together the wins necessary to salvage postseason hopes. They remain in sole possession of last place in the standings as well as in several statistical categories, including goals scored (77), shooting percentage (.219), faceoff percentage (.377), and penalty killing (48.65 percent).

Nevertheless, head coach Dave Cottle insists there’s still plenty of lacrosse to be played, and that his team isn’t ready to concede this disappointing season.

Having struggled through its worst start in franchise history, Chesapeake (2-6) needs to win five of the final six regular-season games to salvage a .500 season and have any chance for a playoff spot. Getting that next win Saturday in Florida would make an excellent present for the legendary coach’s birthday which is next Wednesday.

The Bayhawks remain on a pace to set a new franchise-worst season finish – eclipsing a pair of 4-8 seasons in 2006 and 2008 – and its first non-playoff season under Cottle. Chesapeake had back-to-back 6-and-6 campaigns in 2010 and 2011, with Cottle as consultant and as Assistant Coach respectively, but still made the playoffs.

Chesapeake is coming off its best defensive showing against the league’s top offense in Denver. That comes on the heels of their best offensive showing the previous week, but the team has yet to pull all the parts together in the same game.

Florida (4-4) is locked in a third-place tie with New York and Boston, ranking in the middle of the league in most stat categories. They boast MLL’s third-best penalty kill (73.91 percent), but are last in shots-on-goal (193) and only fifth in goals scored (93) and faceoff percentage (.484). Although they’ve dropped three of their last four contests, the Launch remains the only MLL club to score at least 10 points in every game in 2014.

For the Bayhawks to win over Florida, according to Cottle, Chesapeake will have to find a way to contain the Launch’s powerful offensive threats, most notably the ageless Casey Powell, rookie phenom Kieran McArdle, Team USA attackman Garrett Thul, and Team Canada midfielders Kevin Crowley and Jordan Hall.

Powell, at age 38, is currently second in the league in scoring (37 points) and leads Florida in goals (17) and assists (20). McArdle, an attackman out of St. John’s, is the only rookie among MLL’s top 15 point scorers this season -- with 21 points in six games. His five-goal and one-assist showing against the Bayhawks in week four earned him Warrior Rookie of the Week.

“When we run our offense properly and get all six guys moving together as one is when we can get things done,” Launch head coach Stan Ross said. We need to play our game this weekend. It’s got to be about the Florida Launch from now on. We need to do what we do best and get back on track in playing more as a team than as individuals.”

Chesapeake also must beat the Launch’s primarily offensive midfielders in transition, execute better ball movement, and have the patience to create good looks and high-quality shot selection against goaltender Brett Queener who ranks second in MLL in save percentage (.559). Another thing that would help would be improvement on faceoffs and in special teams play. Both areas have been abysmal for the Bayhawks in 2014. Cottle has used a league-high eight different players at the X this season – none of whom have been able to achieve a 50 percent take.

Chesapeake lost to the Launch, 15-12, in Annapolis but bested them, 11-5, in an April preseason scrimmage. The Launch – who played in Toronto and Hamilton as the Nationals from 2009 to 2013 – split last year’s series with the Bayhawks, trading road victories.

Chesapeake midfielder Joe Walters, who led all scorers in Thursday night’s MLL All-Star Game, will face his former teammates for the first time since being traded to the Bayhawks for Powell in the off-season. Likewise Chesapeake long-stick midfielder Jason Noble will play against the team that dealt him away just three weeks ago.

While the Bayhawks’ training room recently has resembled a disaster triage, Cottle got some positive news this week. Attackman Drew Westervelt and defenseman Jesse Bernhardt are expected to return this week, according to the coach.

Defensemen Michael Evans and Brian Spallina, midfielders Stephen Peyser and Kyle Dixon, attackman Brendan Mundorf, faceoff specialist Adam Rand, and goaltender Kip Turner remain on injured reserve. Thirteen different Bayhawks now have missed all or part of at least one game. Others have played through nagging injuries. Last week’s lineup was the most depleted yet.

Asked how the Bayhawks would deal with the continuing injuries and adversity, Cottle inscrutably quipped, “We’re gonna circle the wagons like the Buffalo Bills.”

Turner originally injured his right thumb in practice the night before Chesapeake’s home game against the Cannons. Wearing a special brace, he subsequently turned in his finest performance this season in stopping Boston. The compromised thumb, however, gave way on a blast from the Outlaws Jeremy Sieverts just 45 seconds into the second quarter in Denver. He played the remainder of the first half in agony while surrendering just one goal. Turner also missed the final three quarters of the opener in Boston after taking a shot to the groin.

The two-time defending Steinfeld Cup champs have had a slow and sluggish start. In the wake of Cottle’s 2014 reloading strategy and “two-year plan”, the team has struggled trying to establish chemistry, execution, and consistency as the number of new faces that have joined the active roster since last year has now grown to 15.

This week the Bayhawks traded midfielder Michael Kimmel to the New York Lizards for midfielder David Earl.

“We had a little bit of a logjam at midfield. This is an opportunity for Michael to dress and play more in New York,” Cottle said. “I just felt David Earl had a better chance of contributing than Michael.”

Chesapeake dropped a 9-6 decision in Denver despite another remarkable comeback attempt that brought them within a goal of the Outlaws. Ironically the two-point goal that clinched the victory came from Denver LSM Michael “Tree” Simon, whom the Bayhawks traded away last September.

"Last game was the Bayhawks’ best yet. I loved the spirit and effort we played with on Saturday in Denver. We had passion & enthusiasm. We outshot them; now we have to build on it," Cottle said. “We’ve struggled with effort and enthusiasm this year. Now we have to get better on execution.”

The six-point scoring output was Chesapeake’s lowest since a 16-6 home loss to Hamilton on July 30, 2011. The Bayhawks’ franchise mark for fewest points in a game came against the Los Angeles Riptide on July 21, 2007.

Chesapeake also picked up former Loyola goaltender Jack Runkel from the league Player Pool to serve as backup to former Princeton All-American Tyler Fiorito, who’ll now be starting between the pipes while Turner mends that injured thumb.

“Tyler played with great enthusiasm and gave our team an immediate lift,” Cottle said of Fiorito’s performance against the Outlaws. “We saw the Tyler we had been seeing in practice. Hopefully, he can build on the confidence he gained and play well again this week.”

Denver goaltender Jesse Schwartzman’s 28 saves with only six goals against earned the 2013 MLL Goaltender of the Year his second Warrior Defensive Player of the Week award for this season. Six different players this year have earned Player of the Week honors for performances that came at the expense of the Bayhawks.

As part of some new deployment adjustments instituted two weeks ago, primarily defensive midfielder Matt Abbott is now taking on more of an offensive role, and short-stick defensive midfielder Jeff Reynolds is playing some long-pole defensive midfield on the man-down unit where the Bayhawks have been surprisingly unsuccessful in killing an increased number of penalty disadvantages this season.