Lacrosse: Defense is the heart of the game
Published 1:38 pm, Wednesday, June 1, 2016
GREENWICH — The No. 14 on the back of the Avon Old Farms middie was clear from the stands, because he was headed straight from the left side to the Brunswick net with about a minute to go in their recent lacrosse game, bidding for a fourth goal.
“That guy, 14, we had eyes on him all game,” said Stephenson, a sophomore. “Very good right hand. We saw he had a good outside shot, so he was a big threat.”
Threat neutralized by the defense, a position on the lacrosse field that can sometimes be a bit anonymous, but which longtime Fairfield Prep coach Chris Smalkais calls the heart of the game.
“It generates all the offense. A good defensive play generates ground balls, turnovers, which generate transition,” Smalkais said, “which allows the game to be an exciting game to watch.”
In a game where scores often hit double digits, defense can be psychological, too.
“Sometimes you use the high score as an excuse,” Greenwich defensive midfielder Katie Harford said after the Cardinals came back to beat Staples recently in the regular season. “At the same time, it comes down to four minutes left, and you’re only up or down by one, or you’re tied, and that one goal is going to be important.”
We’re into the time of year, with the CIAC tournament starting, where that one goal can extend or end a season, bring heartbreak or a banner.
Though the girls and boys games are different in many ways, there are aspects of defense in common, communication and athleticism among them.
Harford talked about practicing without sticks, emphasizing body position to avoid fouls.
“As a defender, you’re kind of at a disadvantage to start,” Greenwich girls coach Caitlin Young said. “The attack knows what they’re doing, and you’re always a step behind. Focusing on hips and taking away angles are hugely important.”
Momentum can shift. St. Anthony’s of Long Island took control of a game at New Canaan recently with a big third quarter.
Some Rams slides didn’t work. Clears failed. St. Anthony’s goalie Tom Lingner gave up little. T.J. Heagarty, Michigan-bound, scored five Friars goals in an 8-3 win.
“I guess it’s important to keep a sense of confidence,” said New Canaan’s David Strupp, who’s going to Harvard.
“You have to keep playing the way you know how to play and hope your offense can score goals.
“It definitely is psychological in a way. If we get beat on a clear, or if they score a goal, we get down on ourselves. I think it’s the natural response.”
Boys can have up to four long-pole players on the field at any given time, typically three defensemen who are on all the time and a long-stick midfielder who’ll often go on and off. Boys also have the option of playing the body, which the girls don’t.
That’s part of what endeared the position to last year’s Hearst Connecticut Media Boys Lacrossee MVP, who was a goalie until seventh grade, when his team needed defensemen and his coach handed him a long pole.
Darien’s Mark Evanchick happens to be the state’s best football player, too, a senior who set the state’s sack record in the fall.
“I like the physicality,” said Evanchick, who’ll play lacrosse at Penn. “If I was an attackman or a middie, I don’t think I could find a similar love. Football, it’s obviously very physical, and playing defense, you can be very physical with your man if you want to stop him from scoring goals.”
Evanchik didn’t get much of a chance to be physical in the Blue Wave’s overtime win over Greenwich.
Matched up most of the game against attackman Mike Sands, Evanchick found himself away from the net most of the time. The Cardinals mostly kept Sands out of the play, and with Darien playing man-to-man, that left mostly a five-on-five.
Teams have done that a bit to Evanchick this season.
He said he’d rather be going after the ball, but he doesn’t mind as long as the Blue Wave win, and they’re rated among the nation’s best teams this year, coming in at No. 5 in the latest Under Armour / Inside Lacrosse Top 25 National High School Power Rankings.
“He’s always been a physical specimen with great footwork, great speed,” Darien coach Jeff Brameier said. “He’s worked on his game. He’s developed a great knack for positioning.
“Most teams now know who he’s on, and they bury him. They don’t let (Evanchick) get involved in the game very much.”
Brameier said the Blue Wave hasn’t gone to a zone defense because they’re happy with their matchups.
Loving the zone
For some teams, zone is a godsend. Barlow’s girls team averaged double-digit goals against a few years ago.
Assistant coach Melissa Rotante, a standout at Stony Brook, arrived three years ago and got the Falcons into a zone. They finished their regular season allowing just 4.7 goals a game, with two shutouts and two games allowing one goal. Even better for the Falcons, they just captured the SWC championship with a 14-9 win over New Fairfield earlier this week.
“(Zone) changed the whole dynamic of our defense. It made us more intense and probably scared the other team a little bit.”
It doesn’t hurt to have Gallagher at the front of their zone, a three-sport star and an All-American.
“It starts with this young lady right here,” coach Steve Coppock said, pointing to Gallagher, “but we’ve got six other players always back.
“They have to have great body position. They’ve got to see not only the girl with the ball but see the girl they’re defending as well. And in this kind of a setup, with the zone, they’re constantly feeding people back and forth, so communication is important.”
It’s paramount everywhere, one of the first things almost everyone mentioned when we asked what goes into a strong defense and defender.
Fairfield Prep’s Nick Franchuk didn’t even have to be on the field to exemplify that.
Out with an ankle injury recently on a day where the wind could blow an empty aluminum can from one end of the Rafferty Stadium stands to the other, Franchuk was at the edge of the box, next to the coaches, yelling instructions to the defenders at the other end of the field.
“Communication’s got to be the No. 1 thing, just based on how you communicate with your teammates, letting them know where you’re going to be,” Franchuk said.
“Setting up where the slide (the man who’ll come to help) is going to come from, setting up who’s on ball, setting up who’s the 2 slide (the next guy to help). It just kind of brings the unit closer together.”
Franchuk, bound for the Naval Academy next year, ranks as one of the top two defenders in the state in his coach’s eyes, for his athleticism, his drive and his communications skills.
“Communication has to be our culture,” Smalkais said.
“The unfortunate thing is it’s getting more difficult in today’s society in high school athletics for kids to actually be able to communicate. With electronics, they don’t even have to talk to each other.
“You can’t play good team lacrosse without communication, because the game’s moving. It’s constantly evolving.
“Responsibilities defensively are changing. (One of the) most difficult things to do in motion sports — hockey, lacrosse, basketball, soccer — is to learn how to defend the guy without the ball.”
It takes communication. Individually, it takes agility, smart positioning and coordination with the team, Staples coach Paul McNulty said.
“Team defense is, the two short-stick defenders have got to be good,” McNulty said.
“They get isolated a lot, and it’s a hard position. It’s really like basketball: They have that short stick, and they can push, but they can’t have that long check like regular close defense have.”
In a recent game at Newtown, the Wreckers were without the injured Sam Ahlgrim, who’ll play at Marist, but they did have Josh Willis, who’s bound for Union.
He played long-stick middie that night.
Willis was one of several players we spoke to who had been an offensive player when younger but moved to the back. Willis did it in eighth grade, saying, as did a couple of other boys players, it was nice to be the one slashing the other guy rather than being slashed.
“It was good because going from offense (to defense), you know what the offense is going to do,” Willis said.
Defenders are allowed to advance the ball, allowed to join the play, as long as four players (typically including the goalie, though not always) remain in their own end.
Most long-stick players either change or retreat to their own side of midfield after a pass or a shot, leaving the offense to six short-stick players.
Brunswick junior defender Max Metalios carried the ball a few times in the Bruins’ win over Avon Old Farms.
“Austin Meacham graduated last year; he was an All-American, one of the best players I ever played with. He was the streaker last year,” Metalios said. “This year I decided to be the streaker. I’m getting downfield, pushing it in transition, trying to get some assists, put a few in.
“It’s good to just get it down there. If you get it to the point man, (Reilly) Walsh, he’ll make a play. Once I get it to 14, I can sit back and watch him do his thing.”
Walsh, a No. 14 of Brunswick’s own, was the Winged Beavers’ defense’s problem now.