Bayhawks Player-Coach Has Championship Destiny In His Own Hands
By Nelson Coffin
Instead of hyperbole, Gary Gait's fame as the "Michael Jordan of lacrosse" may actually be selling him a little short. The way the 2002 Major League Lacrosse season has taken off for the rookie player-coach of the Baltimore Bayhawks, perhaps Gait should be compared favorably to Laker Coach Phil Jackson as well as His Airness. After all, the 'Hawks are off and winging at a 4-1 clip, despite being upset by previously winless Bridgeport at Ravens Stadium in front of an enthusiastic but small gathering of 4,095. The setback came 24 hours after the Bayhawks ran roughshod over the same Barrage in Bridgeport, 15-7, a rout in which Gait pumped in three goals and added an assist. Gait maintained the pace in the home contest as well, finding several ways to strong-arm in a game-high three goals for the Bayhawks. Just to show the veteran midfielder hasn't lost his improvisational touch, Gait used his body to shield a defender and then casually one-handed a shot that flummoxed Bridgeport keeper Mark Spruyt. The goal gave the hosts a 5-1 first-quarter lead that did not stand up to the Barrage.
"If they overplay my left hand, I still have to find a way," offered Gait, who missed most of two games (wins over Rochester in a home-and-away series) with a torn calf muscle. "They make the equipment nice and light these days so you can get off a pretty nice shot with just one hand." It took a brilliant Spruyt split-save to deny Gait's second one-handed missile early in the second quarter while the Barrage was pounding Greg Cattrano in the Bayhawk cage for six unanswered goals. During Bridgeport's run, Gait the coach tried all the ploys available in an attempt to diffuse the enemy's momentum. Neither the strategic timeouts nor the spirited talking-to's had the desired effect as Bridgeport's rally was realized following a Roy Colsey two-pointer that snapped an 11-11 deadlock late in the third quarter. While Gait was on the field, there didn't seem to be any confusion about who was in charge. Once in the huddle, Gait professes to take command if he feels it's in the team's best interest to do so. Otherwise, he has no qualms about allowing offensive coordinator Mike Morrill or defensive boss Tony Resch to take center stage.
"It depends on who needs to talk," Gait pointed out. Talking wasn't going to cut it against Bridgeport anyway. Once they smelled blood, the Barrage were not about to leave Baltimore 0-5.
"As coaches, we take responsibility," said Gait. "We just never got into the flow tonight. It's our job to go out next week and get them refocused (for a game against New Jersey)." So far, Gait has mastered the art of walking the fine line between being a popular teammate and taking control of almost every facet of what happens on - and sometimes off - the field.
"I know it's been a little awkward for him," said attackman Sean Radebaugh, who was traded to Baltimore with Gait after teaming with both Gary and Paul Gait on the champion Long Island Lizards last summer. "Our relationship has changed a little, but if we treat him with respect he'll treat us with respect, too." Gait took over his coaching job with the Bayhawks after the MLL runners-up had a bit of a messy divorce with former Coach Brian Voelker, who guided Baltimore to a 12-6 record and a berth in the finals last Labor Day in the league's inaugural campaign. Voelker retained his job until a month before opening day when a disagreement between Bayhawk brass and the coach boiled over a full-blown dispute.
"I think Brian was a little intimidated when Gary was brought on board," said Bayhawk President and Founding Partner Dave Pivec. "Brian was on vacation when we made the deal to bring Gary in and I think he felt we usurped some of his authority. We actually brought Gary in to be on Brian's staff. We had to pull the trigger on that deal (Radebaugh and Gait for two number-one draft picks) when it was offered." Pivec tried to talk Voelker out of leaving his post.
"Brian did a real good job for us," said Pivec. "This had nothing to do with him finishing second last year. But I think Brian had his mind made up and it's worked out well for us. It's like as if Johnny Unitas had wanted to coach and play at (age) 35." The Johnny U analogy has some merit, seeing as how Gait has chosen to live in Charm City following an incredible career at Syracuse. He is credited with much of the success of the University of Maryland as an assistant to Cindy Timchal in the women's seven-year Division I championship run that came to an end this spring.
Gary skips the 2002 World Games to coach and play in the MLL
Voelker's jarring departure so far has not had much of an adverse affect on a team laden with veterans used to front office machinations in the various pro leagues over the years. For his part, Voelker says he will not hold a grudge when his new team, the Boston Cannons, take aim at the Bayhawks July 4th in Baltimore for what could be a rousing Independence Day showdown. Voelker, a two time All-World defenseman who many think stopped play far too early anyway, is back in more familiar surroundings in Boston. He's the foundation of a Cannon backline that also boasts Ryan Curtis and Bryan Kuczma in front of goalie Billy Daye. Voelker is enjoying his role, offering to advise Coach Scott Hiller should his former U.S. teammate ask for any words of wisdom. Meanwhile, Voelker is more concerned with his game than getting into a war of words with Pivec or Personnel Director Gordon Boone, who conceived and concluded the trade with Long Island for Gait and Radebaugh.
"Gary and I are pretty close, but I'm a loyal guy and I was told I couldn't have (last year's assistant) Todd Curry back," said Voelker. "Todd did a great job for me. It's not that I didn't want to trade for Gary, it's just that I didn't think a trade would work for salary cap reasons. I know Gordon and Dave and Gary were close from Team Toyota. I thought it was going to be Gary's team and that wasn't the direction I wanted to go."
Marachek, Voelker, Gait and Millon in 1998
Voelker does think the Bayhawks have a good chance of taking the 6-team MLL title later on this summer, "I'll say this right now, they have the best talent in the league." And they played like it until Bridgeport II, having fashioned the best start in a short league history with an offense that features magician Mark Millon (27 points) leading the league in scoring. With fellow attackman Tom Marechek and middies Gait and Josh Sims also pitching in, the Bayhawks have not lacked for scoring punch. Defensively, too, Baltimore is sculpted to succeed with 2001 MLL Defensive Player of the Year Rob Doerr, Brian Reese and Hugh (Huge) Donovan camped in front of Cattrano, who earned MVP honors in the first Bridgeport battle. All that's left to wonder about is the coaching style… or staff, who have allayed all fears that having three voices calling shots might be unsettling.
Gait and his brother Paul have dominated the indoor game for over a decade
"Gary's got a lot on his plate," said attackman Jeff Wills, a Gait ally on the NLL's Washington Power last winter and the 2000 Outdoor E-Lacrosse Player of the Year. "But it's actually worked out pretty well. Gary has the final say but game-day operations are left to Mike and Tony. Gary's never been a rah-rah guy but he's always been one to talk on the field. He knows he wields that kind of power. He's always been helpful as a teammate, but never in an overt way."
"We were all sorry to see Brian go," said Marechek about his ex-coach. "Gary's more comfortable on the field and Voelker's the total package as a coach. But Gary's let the other guys coach when he's on the field, so it's all worked out."
It's probably fair to say the Gait experiment has been a success early in the campaign, although it's too early to uncork the champagne yet.
There's still a long way to go and at least two meetings with Voelker ahead. We hope to see many of our readers in Boston and Baltimore at those big games this Summer!
Photos by John Strohsacker and E-Lacrosse Staff
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