As the Steinfeld Trophy made its way from Bayhawk to Bayhawk following their 10-9 comeback victory over the defending Major League Lacrosse champion Denver Outlaws, Chesapeake coach Dave Cottle walked past Matt Abbott.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s take that picture.”
While some players took photos with family or college teammates, Cottle and Abbott posed together with the trophy, the symbol of their journey together.
“Matt and I have been through four championships together,” Cottle said. “He wanted us to get a picture with the trophy. I appreciate that, because I wanted to get one with him, too.”
The championship game was the culmination of Abbott’s 11th season MLL, all with the Bayhawks organization. He won three previous titles with Chesapeake in 2010, 2012 (the only player on the current team from this iteration of the Bayhawks) and 2013. He is one of the longest-tenured players in the entire league.
„All egos aside, we were playing for one another. The defense was playing for the offense; the offense was playing for the defense. We didn’t care who put the ball in the net. We didn’t care who made the next play.“ – MLL MVP Lyle Thompson
Abbott also is known as a guy willing to do whatever it takes for the team to win. He’s one of the few two-way midfielders in the league, and in the championship game against Denver, he even played with a long pole in man-down situations.
This championship, Abbott said, meant just as much, if not more, to him as the others that came before.
“I’m so happy for these guys,” Abbott said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to win four of these now with the Bayhawks. Each one is super special. I’m so happy for the guys that have won it before, but also for the guys who this is their first one. It means a lot, and we have a great group here.”
One of Chesapeake’s biggest strengths this season was that it returned the core of its roster despite the advent of the Premier Lacrosse League. Many of those players, like Abbott, have been with the Bayhawks for many years and have helped Chesapeake build its championship culture.
Abbott is one of two players remaining in Chesapeake from the organization’s championship victory in 2013. The other is long-stick midfielder Jesse Bernhardt, someone who Cottle heaped major praise upon.
“The guy who took over our team was Jesse Bernhardt,” Cottle said. “Without him, I don’t think we’re where we are.”
Bernhardt was a rookie in 2013, and he picked up four ground balls in the championship victory over Charlotte. Since then, he’s developed into one of the best long poles in the league and has played in three MLL All-Star games.
It took six more seasons after his rookie year, but Bernhardt finally won his second ring, and he was proud to be a part of an organization that has such a strong culture — evident when after the team took photos with the trophy, they told the entire Chesapeake support staff to join.
“It’s been a little overdue,” Bernhardt said. “We have a great organization. Start from the top down with [team owner] Brendan Kelly, Coach Cots and everybody who works up there. The past few years, we’ve come up a little short, but this year we really gelled together. To bring it back and see [on social media] the people back in Annapolis cheering for us on Friday [for the semifinals] and today, it’s been awesome.”
At the beginning this decade, it seemed like the Bayhawks would win the championship every year. They made the playoffs every year from 2010 to 2013 and won three titles in that span.
Then came the drought. Chesapeake missed the playoffs the next four seasons, even in 2016 when the team finished in a tie for the best record in the league. (A litany of tiebreakers saw Chesapeake technically finish sixth in MLL standings.)
Some players have been with the Bayhawks for several years but missed out on the championship teams. Brian Phipps played for Chesapeake as a rookie in 2011, sandwiched between two championship teams, but played for Ohio from 2012-2015 before rejoining the Bayhawks in 2016. CJ Costabile’s rookie season was in 2012, but he played for the New York Lizards for the first two seasons of his career. He was traded to the Bayhawks in 2014.
Despite not experiencing the same postseason success that Abbott and Bernhardt did, Costabile said the players never stopped playing for each other, and that this championship was the result of years of dedication.
“The beauty of this group is everyone is about the team effort here,” he said. “Yesterday [at the MLL Honors], we had guys winning awards, some great awards: [Ryan] Tucker winning Teammate of the Year, Lyle [Thompson] winning his awards. But at the end of the day, I tell you, you look at all those guys in the face, and they would give that all up in a heartbeat to win a championship. It just goes to show how close-knit this group is.