Bayhawks face growing pains

After losing veterans to expansion draft, 2005 champs struggle with talented but untested rookies

pro lacrosse

July 22, 2006|By DAVID SELIG | DAVID SELIG,SUN REPORTER

In their pre-game notes, the Bayhawks include a feature called "This Time Last Year," which serves as a reminder of the team that won its second Major League Lacrosse championship last summer and was considered to have one of the greatest professional rosters of all time.

But it also illuminates how frustrating this season has been. The Bayhawks (3-5) have matched their highest loss total in the franchise's six years and likely will miss the playoffs for the first time.

A team that set a league record with a 31-9 win last June struggled through a 9-6 loss last month in the lowest-scoring game in MLL history. Attendance is also down, and some of the biggest names in lacrosse - Gary Gait and Mikey Powell - have been replaced by a stable of rookies in the first season since the team was bought by an ownership group led by businessman Jeff Harvey and new coach Scott Hiller.

"We thought that we'd probably have a few more wins while these guys get their feet wet," Hiller said at a recent weekly practice, where a group of young players mingling beforehand may have been just as valuable as the on-field drills. "We had a lot of injuries that I didn't anticipate, but it's a different team, there's no doubt about it."

While fans are frustrated with the team's direction since the new ownership took over in January, the league's expansion is also a significant reason only two starters from last year returned. Shortly after he took over in the front office, Hiller said he received phone calls from several veteran players who wanted an opportunity to play closer to their homes.

The Bayhawks complied, shipping starting goalie Trevor Tierney (9-2 in 2005) and midfielder Jeff Sonke (37 points) to the new Denver Outlaws for draft picks. Midfielder Gavin Prout (27 points) and last year's Rookie of the Year, Brodie Merrill, wanted to be closer to their homes in Canada to prepare for the world games. Merrill has become one of the best defensemen in the league after a preseason trade to the Rochester Rattlers. The team has continued its overhaul with three more trades in the past two weeks.

Many MLL players hold full-time jobs and have to travel from their homes to the city where they play on weekends. When all of the teams were located on the East Coast, players from farther away had little alternative, but with four Western Conference teams added before this season, there are more convenient options.

"This is a league where, in order for it to make sense, guys need to be near where they live," Hiller said. "It's tough to get guys to travel every weekend from Denver to Baltimore. We have a lot to pick from down here. We certainly knew there was no reason to take on a huge expense on our travel budget for all those guys, when we're supposed to be in the mecca and capital of lacrosse."

While Hiller was named MLL Coach of the Year with Boston in 2005, his initial plans included Gait, who as a player/coach led last year's Bayhawks in scoring as it cruised to a 12-2 record and the franchise's fourth championship appearance. Gait agreed to return for a fourth season in the same capacity, but the lacrosse legend and fan favorite became unhappy when the new management began making roster changes without his approval.

"Scott made some player personnel decisions that I didn't agree with," Gait said in a recent phone interview from Denver, where he coaches the Colorado Mammoth of the indoor National Lacrosse League. "I told him I'd be 100 percent in or 100 percent out [depending on] if I got to choose the game-day lineup. He decided it was best for him to take over."

Hiller said his decision was based on Gait having too many other obligations with the Mammoth and preparations for this month's world championships to focus on adapting his system to a new group of players.

After Gait decided to leave the team, Powell also refused to report to training camp. Powell did not return several phone messages and, through a U.S. Lacrosse spokesman, he declined to discuss anything related to the Bayhawks. Hiller said he got the impression the flashy attackman didn't want to put up with the travel and time commitment before the world games.

Without many of their stars from a year ago, the Bayhawks made a series of moves to acquire picks in May's collegiate draft, which makes them a team full of potential, but in a rebuilding mode that Gait believes could have been avoided.

"I thought that myself and [previous general manager] Jay Pivec had put together a hell of a program," said Gait, who admits that he misses the outdoor league. "I thought what we had protected [through the expansion draft] and were left with was a hell of a team."

Chris Hutchins, one of the Bayhawks' four founding partners, said it was difficult to watch the franchise lose the players who made it so successful, but he said he can't argue with the new management's plan.

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