April 29, 2010

Defense Wins Titles (But Offense Does, Too)

by Patrick Stevens | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Adam Ghitelman's 16-save performance in the ACC championship game was the most tangible result of Virginia's renewed vigor on defense.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

His team less than an hour removed from collecting its first ACC championship in four years after a suffocating defensive performance, Virginia coach Dom Starsia’s thoughts drifted back to a time when such an outing wasn’t so likely.

Namely, last year.

For as good as the Cavaliers were for much of the season, they gave up at least 15 goals in three of their final six games in 2009. And coming into the season, it was clear Virginia would need improved play from its veteran close defense and its third-year starter at goalie.

Yet Starsia also thought back to the words of a coach in another sport who only a few years ago promised (as coaches sometimes do) his team would play defense the following year.

“You can’t tell me you didn’t coach any defense this year. You didn’t try?” Starsia said. “I tried to coach defense last year. It just didn’t work in every instance. We also fell down on offense sometimes. We’re a team, the way that we play, I put responsibility in the kids’ hands. When it goes bad, it can look bad. When it’s going well, it looks great.”

For much of this past weekend at Byrd Stadium, the top-ranked Cavaliers (13-1) looked great. Aside from a slow start, Virginia controlled a potent Duke offense that repeatedly created headaches for the Cavaliers in recent seasons. And after spotting Maryland a three-goal lead, Virginia allowed three goals in the last 52 minutes of a 10-6 victory.

Goalie Adam Ghitelman (season-high 16 saves) had a big say in the outcome. But so did defensemen Ken Clausen, who bottled up attackman Ryan Young, and Matt Lovejoy, who held the Terrapins’ Grant Catalino to a goal and an assist just two days after Catalino scored six times against North Carolina.

It was a maestro performance, and its occurrence was most timely. Rather than facing late-season questions about a perceived shortcoming or two, the Cavaliers will enter the NCAA tournament with a strong sense of what they can do when their defense is especially tight.

“If our defense plays like that, minus the first 10 minutes of each game, we’re going to be a tough, tough team to beat with the offense we have and the guys in between the lines and at the faceoff X,” Ghitelman said. “We’re going to gather possessions and we’re going to play great offense. If our defense can hold teams to numbers like today, it’s going to be tough to beat this team. But those 10 minutes did happen, and some teams are going to make you pay. We can’t let that happen.”

Across the parking lot earlier in the day, another ACC team was busy winning a title thanks to a solidified defense. The Maryland women’s team was just a couple weeks removed from its only loss of the season, a 13-9 setback at North Carolina. Yet by the time the Terrapins (16-1) earned their second shot at the Tar Heels, their defense had asserted itself.

Maryland allowed 16 goals in the three games between run-ins with Carolina, but Sunday’s 10-5 defeat of the balanced Tar Heels was particularly instructive.

North Carolina scored once in the first half. After closing within 6-3 just after halftime, the Tar Heels were stymied for more than 20 minutes by the Terps’ stifling defense.

Brittany Dipper backstops a Maryland defense that saw much improvement after its regular season loss to UNC -- which the Terps avenged in the ACC championship game.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com


“I was thrilled with our defense this weekend,” Maryland coach Cathy Reese said. “Against North Carolina on Sunday, I think our defense played especially well. We helped each other out well, and that was something we were looking to improve on as we went through the season. Our slides were where they needed to be, we played good, solid one-on-one defense and it showed.”

The help came from everywhere. Nelson is pleased with the leadership of Karissa Taylor, the contributions of Brittany Poist in the clearing game to create transition and the overall play of Abby Caso.

Put together, it set up a stellar game for a unit anchored by Brittany Dipper, who made a dozen saves while improving her goals against average to 7.49.

“She’s had some ups and downs throughout the season, and we really feel when we play well defensively, she’s able to succeed in her role and kind of shine through and make saves,” Reese said. “I think we did that. We played very well defensively and they took the shots we wanted them to take.”

As was the case with the Virginia men, the Maryland women’s defense was granted a lot of responsibility entering one of the most exciting weekends of the season.

Both teams were ranked No. 1 in their respective coaches polls this week. Both enter May with some impressive hardware -- and a formula for bringing home more on Memorial Day weekend.

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