February 1, 2010

DaSilva: What We Learned at Champion Challenge

By Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff | Champion Challenge Blog

Duke was able to generate offense from its attack without Ned Crotty, who played for the U.S. at Champion Challenge, which is why the Blue Devils would be better served with Crotty at midfield, LMO's Matt DaSilva writes.

© Kevin P. Tucker

By preseason standards, Champion Challenge -- a US Lacrosse event featuring both U.S. teams, both Duke teams, Army’s men and Notre Dame’s and Florida’s women – had it all.

It began emphatically, with U.S. Elite’s 23-7 victory over Notre Dame. It ended dramatically, with preseason No. 1-ranked Duke upending the U.S. men’s national team 9-8 on Max Quinzani’s goal with 5.8 seconds remaining.

Here’s what we learned in between.

1. Alex Smith needs to handle pressure better.
No, not that kind of pressure. When it comes to the crouch, clamp and cadence, no one’s cooler than Smith -- the best faceoff specialist in history. But Army’s and Duke’s better-conditioned middies found success in pressuring Smith after he won possessions, and he got rattled. When Smith managed to get away clean for a fast break, they dared him to shoot. He didn’t, instead forcing passes to the attackmen when they were covered at the point. Canada figures to take the same approach on Smith with athletic wingmen like Jordan Hall and Brodie Merrill. Luckily, the U.S. can counter with Stephen Peyser, who not only wins faceoffs, but goes to the rack hard and has a cannon, as he exhibited against Army.

2. Duke should move Ned Crotty to midfield.
It won’t be a popular move, considering the numbers (23g, 55a) he posted as the engineer of the Blue Devils’ attack in 2009. Why mess with that mojo? Because Duke’s first midfield of Justin Turri, Steve Schoeffel and Robert Rotanz, while solid, isn’t making anyone quiver in their cleats. Of the Blue Devils’ nine goals in their 9-8 upset of the U.S., just one – Rotanz’s game-tying goal with 5:43 remaining – came from a midfielder. The game also reaffirmed that Duke has an obscenity of depth at the attack position. Max Quinzani, Zach Howell, Will McKee, Stephen Coyle and, as we know now, freshman Josh Offit (Champion Challenge MVP) are more than capable of handling the load down low. You need that kind of depth at midfield. Duke can always invert if it wants Crotty, who was an All-American midfielder in 2008 before moving down to attack, to initiate from behind. Moving him to midfield would probably bump Rotanz to the second line, where he can have the reins.

3. Katrina Dowd has more wizardry up her sleeve.
Trix’s from-the-knees, over-the-shoulder gem in last year’s NCAA semifinal might seem special to you. To her, it’s just her game. Dowd’s skater-girl mentality allows her to turn the crease into a half pipe. I learned this in some off time this weekend as she demonstrated a couple of trick shots for Lacrosse Magazine’s “Your Edge” section. (Be on the lookout for some wild stuff in upcoming issues). Even on the super-skilled U.S. team, Dowd’s talents stand out. Said Team USA goalie Devon Wills: “She’s got the best stick skills I think I’ve ever seen.”

4. Northwestern will win its sixth straight NCAA championship.
The Wildcats weren’t even in Orlando, but their mighty presence was palpable. Assistant coach Lindsey Munday was the Champion Challenge MVP for the U.S. team. Dowd wowed at every turn. Junior attacker Shannon Smith was like a bulldog for the Developmental team, scoring three goals in a win over Florida and two goals and two assists in a win over Duke. Sophomore midfielder Alexandra Frank looked much like her older sister Meredith, her efforts getting her bumped up from Developmental to Elite team Sunday. Sophomore Lacey Vigmostad, a Developmental team defender, will take plenty of heat off whomever gets the nod in Northwestern’s goal. Sure, the Wildcats lost Hannah Nielsen and Hilary Bowen, but in case you haven’t noticed, they regenerate fast and furious in Evanston.

5. Florida will make the NCAA tournament in its inaugural season.
Freshmen dominate the roster, but they are not backing down from the hype or expectations. “I think we just see it as a blessing,” goalkeeper Cara Canington said. “We take pride in being Gators, and Gator Nation has been supportive.” Here’s how I see it, looking at Florida’s schedule. The Gators will beat Jacksonville, LaSalle, St. Bonaventure, Marist, Oregon, Le Moyne and Colgate. That’s seven wins. They’re not quite up to snuff against North Carolina, Georgetown, Vanderbilt and Northwestern. That’s four losses. The swing games are Johns Hopkins, New Hampshire, Cornell, Ohio State and Penn State. If Florida wins three of those five and finishes the regular season 10-6, it has a legitimate shot. Make some noise in the ALC tournament, and they’re dancing in Gainesville.

6. The U.S. team attack is better with Ryan Boyle than it is with Ryan Powell.
When either Boyle or Powell is in the game, there’s no question who’s running the offense. Their vision and lacrosse IQ are unmatched. Their brands are similar, yet distinctive. Both Ryans grind on the crease until they see a hole in the defense and exploit it. Both make teammates look good with pinpoint feeds that result in slam-dunk finishes. But Boyle has more patience, and with trigger-happy all-stars at nearly every position, that’s what Team USA needs in its engineer. Boyle not only knows his opponent’s weaknesses, but his own and his teammate’s weaknesses too. He can adjust better. When Duke stormed back from a 5-0 deficit to tie Sunday’s game by halftime, Boyle guided the U.S. offense through more patient possessions in the third quarter, as Team USA took a tentative 7-5 lead. “Gotta be disciplined, boys,” Boyle remarked to teammates after a Drew Westervelt goal. Boyle also single-handedly created the goal that put the U.S. up 8-7 in the fourth quarter, feeding across the crease through a coma slide to find Brendan Mundorf. My starting attack in Manchester would be Boyle, Mundorf and either Westervelt or Mike Leveille.

7. If defense wins championships, then Duke’s got it.
For all their riches on offense (see No. 2), the Blue Devils’ ruthless and relentless long poles will pave the path to that elusive NCAA title. Consider that they held Team USA to eight goals despite missing All-American Mike Manley (hamstring) and long stick midfielder CJ Costabile. Dan Theodoridis and Tom Montelli showed they were more than capable of stepping up. You could have made a case for Parker McKee for Champion Challenge MVP. He’s in even better shape than he was when he played for the U.S. training team in the fall and was the most disruptive defenseman on the field. That’s not to mention the patience and wherewithal he had to draw a slide before feeding Quinzani for the game-winning goal with 5.8 seconds left – on a play that Montelli started with vigorous ground ball pursuit.

8. Duke’s women lack the swagger needed to get back to final four.
The Blue Devils won’t have a problem on the talent side. They played most of the weekend without Sarah Bullard, who suited up for Team USA with the rest of her World Cup teammates. Kat Thomas, Morgan Miller, Virginia Crotty and goalie Mollie Mackler gained confidence as the weekend progressed. But with Emma Hamm, who suffered a knee injury in the fall, presumably out until the NCAA tournament, at earliest, Duke lacks the toughness and attitude needed to advance. Thomas, a physically imposing player, is too nice for her own good. At one point Sunday against the U.S. Elite team, she chose to help an opponent off the ground rather than join her teammates on a break. If head coach Kerstin Kimel can bring out Thomas' killer instinct and get Mackler to use her athleticism to take risks in the cage, I could be wrong on this one.

9. Notre Dame will miss Shannon Burke more than it misses Jillian Byers.
Shaylyn Blaney’s words were respectful, but assertive. “We’re ready to move on from Jill Byers,” she said. That’s the kind of attitude head coach Tracy Coyne wants from her standout midfielder, and Gina Scioscia is ready to be the headliner on the Irish attack. Notre Dame’s problems, as exposed over the weekend at Champion Challenge, are on defense. Too many times, freshman goalie Ellie Hilling – who played well and probably cemented her status as the starter – was left exposed by holes in the Irish ‘D.’ Shannon Burke used to take charge down there. It would help Hilling’s development if someone stepped up in the same mold.

10. Army is better than preseason pundits have predicted.
Patriot League coaches picked the Black Knights to finish fourth, behind Navy, Bucknell and Colgate. Army head coach Joe Alberici agrees with that assessment – for preseason, that is. After this weekend, when the Black Knights were nip and tuck with Team USA until the fourth quarter, there’s reason to believe they can do better. Goalie Tom Palesky, the Patriot League leader with nearly 13 saves per game last year, was not afraid to step into blistering shots from outside or to meet point-blank shooters on the doorstep. Attackman Jeremy Boltus creates scoring opportunities not only for himself, but for teammates too. Midfielder Rob McCallion does the same from midfield. Will Henderson brings a commanding presence to the defense. Army won’t knock anyone’s socks off, but that kind of balance up and down the field can be dangerous.

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