KENNESAW, GA – Fourth-year goalkeeper Niko Amato put forth one of the best performances of his career while rookie attackman Josh Byrne continued his scoring spree as the Chesapeake Bayhawks captured a crucial late-season matchup with the Atlanta Blaze, 13-12, at Fifth Third Bank Stadium.
Amato, who has taken over the starting job between the pipes, established a career-high with 19 saves to anchor a suffocating defensive effort that saw the Bayhawks harass the Blaze into several lengthy scoring droughts.
“Niko played great in goal. He was seeing the ball really well and made some outstanding stops,” Chesapeake head coach Brian Reese said. “I’m so happy for Niko because that kid works his tail off. He’s gotten a chance to start and has made the most of it because he prepares so well during the week.”
Byrne scored four goals to lead the offense as Chesapeake evened its record at 6-6 and moved into a three-way tie for fourth place in Major League Lacrosse. The Bayhawks currently hold the fourth and final spot in the playoffs by virtue of winning tiebreakers with Rochester and Florida.
“It’s great that we’ve won two straight games to get ourselves back in the playoff picture, but now is no time to worry about that,” Reese said. “We’ll look up in two weeks and see where things stand. For now, we have to keep grinding and focus on Denver. It’s another short turnaround and we need to be ready on Thursday in Denver.”
Attackman Lyle Thompson totaled two goals and two assists for Chesapeake, which won two games in the span of three days to revive its postseason hopes. Veteran attackman Matt Danowski scored two goals, including the game-winner with 57 seconds remaining, while midfielder Matt Abbott contributed a goal and assist for the Bayhawks.
“I’m really proud of the way we toughed this one out,” Reese said. “We didn’t play our best game. The quick turnaround was tough and we didn’t have the greatest energy, but we made the plays when it counted.”
Ben Williams gave the Bayhawks a huge lift by winning 17 of 29 faceoffs in a tough battle with fellow rookie Jake Withers. Williams got great help from his wings as long stick midfielders CJ Costabile and Jesse Bernhardt combined to gobble up 10 ground balls.
Amato got great support from the close defense of Michael Evans, Will Koshansky and Brian Farrrell as Chesapeake allowed just one goal on seven extra man opportunities.
Atlanta struck first, but the visitors responded just over a minute later with Thompson scoring off a great individual move. Thompson used stop-and-go moves to change directions three times to lose his defender and get his hands free for a sidearm crank shot.
It was a defensive struggle the rest of the way with the two teams going almost nine minutes without a goal. Amato was the catalyst as Chesapeake scored short-handed to take the lead. Amato made a tough save of a power-play shot and immediately threw a great outlet pass to Bernhardt, who in turn moved the ball ahead to Farrell.
Farrell, who has given the Bayhawks a real lift since being activated for the first time all season three games ago, reared back and fired a wicked overhand shot that zipped past the earhole of Atlanta goalie Adam Ghitelman (12 saves) and gave the Bayhawks a 2-1 lead following a low-scoring first period.
Chesapeake continued its momentum early in the second stanza, scoring off the opening faceoff. Williams won the draw and found Thompson, who spotted short stick defensive midfielder John Maloney cutting to the crease and threaded the needle with a tremendous pass. Maloney made a great handle then bounced a short shot into the net.
The Blaze scored back-to-back goals to tie the score at three, but the Bayhawks answered with four straight goals to take control. Midfielder Myles Jones got things started when he used a left-handed toe drag to beat a short stick defender then switched back right and blasted a hard shot from just inside the 2-point arc.
Midfielder Jake Froccaro scored just 21 seconds later, using a nifty box fake and spin move to get free for an absolute cannon blast of a crank shot that stung the top corner, making it 5-3 at the 9:17 mark.
The Blaze then felt the Byrne as the rookie sensation tallied twice in 32 seconds. The former Hofstra standout dipped his shoulder to knock a defender off-balance then unleashed a left-handed laser.
Byrne then benefited from superb ball movement as Abbott took a pass then used a quick-stick to hit Byrne in the slot. The Canadian showed off his slick stick skills by whipping the ball into the cage with a no-look back-handed flip that gave the Bayhawks a 7-3 halftime lead.
“I thought we started dodging harder and moving off-ball instead of having five guys standing around watching the man with the ball,” Reese said when asked at halftime about the 4-0 run that turned the tide.
Amato and the defense did a tremendous job of shutting down Atlanta, which went almost 20 minutes without scoring a goal. The Blaze were shut out for the final 13:16 of the first half and the initial 6:42 of the second half.
Atlanta attackman Kevin Rice broke the drought with an unassisted goal that briefly cut the deficit to three. However, Byrne buried his third goal midway through the third quarter, using a deceptive shot to slip one past Ghitelman to give the Bayhawks an 8-4 advantage.
Rice scored again to get the Blaze back within three, but the Bayhawks clamped down defensively and held the home team scoreless for an 8 ½-minute stretch that lasted into the fourth quarter.
Thompson used a spin move and stutter step to blow by his defender then waltzed to the front of the cage for an easy one-on-one shot that put Chesapeake ahead by four goals for the third time in the game, 9-5 with 14:34 remaining.
Atlanta suddenly caught fire in the fourth quarter, outscoring Chesapeake 6-1 to take its first lead since 1-0. Midfielder Matt Mackrides, a former Bayhawk, scored twice as the Blaze made it 11-10 midway through the final frame.
Amato made a spectacular save with just over five minutes left and that gave the Bayhawks an opportunity to tie the score. Abbott sprinted past two defenders and got all the way to the doorstep for a bounce shot that knotted the score at 11 with 4:28 to go.
Williams came up with the loose ball following a mad scramble on the ensuing faceoff and Reese quickly called timeout to retain possession. Byrne then came up big, scooping a loose ball on the crease and sticking a behind-the-back shot into the top corner. The team’s third-round pick in the 2017 MLL Collegiate Draft has now scored 28 goals in seven career games.
“Josh scored four goals and it seemed like he had an off night, which is kind of amazing,” Reese said. “He scored some spectacular goals again tonight.”
A late penalty proved costly for the Bayhawks as it enabled attackman Randy Staats to score the tying goal on the power play with 1:50 remaining in regulation. A holding penalty on the ensuing faceoff gave Chesapeake the final possession and Thompson drew a penalty to set up a power play with 1:02 to go.
The Bayhawks ran the extra man offense to perfection with Thompson making a great look and terrific feed to find Danowski wide-open on the doorstep. Danowski faked once to get Ghitelman out of position and put the point-blank shot away to break the deadlock.
“Coach (Paul) Cantabene drew up a great play and I’m sure the guys went out there and executed it. If not, they always do a great job of improvising,” Reese said.
Things got a little crazy in the waning seconds with an exchange of turnovers giving the Blaze one last opportunity with three seconds left. Attackman James Pannell got off a good shot, but Amato made a sweep save as time expired to end the suspense.
“We were kind of sputtering along and let them back into the game. We had to dig deep and keep fighting. We regrouped and got the job done down the stretch,” Reese said.
The Bayhawks play again at home against the Denver Outlaws on August 3rd at 7:30pm at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium. Call 866-99-HAWKS or email firstname.lastname@example.org to order tickets!