May 28, 2010

Crotty, Quinzani and Who? Howell Breaks Through

by Patrick Stevens | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Zach Howell's 47 goals and 17 assists this season have forced opponents to respect his scoring ability, adding yet another dimension to Duke's multifaceted offense.

© Kevin P. Tucker

BALTIMORE -- Duke attackman Zach Howell was well on his way to a career-high seven points on March 20 against Penn State when the Blue Devils came out for the second half.

Teammate Max Quinzani, as usual, was getting shut off by a short stick.

So, too, was Howell.

“That’s the ultimate sign of respect,” Howell said. “Max looked at me and said ‘Hey, welcome to the club.’ It was a pretty funny moment. That was certainly a changing point where it showed I had been improving and had become a better player.”

Indeed, there is no way to overlook the junior, who spent the season playing off Quinzani and Ned Crotty to author a breakout season for the fifth-seeded Blue Devils (14-4), who meet top-seeded Virginia (16-1) in Saturday’s NCAA semifinals in Baltimore.

After a four-goal outburst in last week's quarterfinal rout of North Carolina, Howell has 47 goals and 17 assists. He’s one of five players nationally to record at least 10 hat tricks, joining a pair of Tewaaraton finalists (Stony Brook’s Kevin Crowley and Delaware’s Curtis Dickson), Quinzani and Virginia’s Chris Bocklet.

If he adds another three goals tomorrow, he’ll become just the sixth Blue Devil to reach the 50-goal plateau in a season (Quinzani and Zack Greer did so multiple times).

Not bad for a supposed third option whose production is that of a star.

“The more heat he takes, the more space I’m given to operate,” Quinzani said. “We consider him a heavy hitter. He has a great right-handed shot. He creates on his own. Teams have to look to him,
and if they’re not looking at him, they’re making a mistake.”

Soon enough, they learn.

Howell’s field vision and understanding of the game have advanced considerably in three seasons. He credits a coaching staff that enhances his fundamentals. That’s helped, but so has a talented set of teammates who routinely blister opponents.

Quinzani is a superlative finisher, a guy who might have the ball in his stick for 15 seconds the entire game and still have four goals. Crotty is the feeder with a pulse on the entire offense, a guy who sees the field as well as anyone in the sport.

The first rule of Project Mayhem: don't ask questions.

* MD1 Tournament Central
* WD1 Tournament Centra

It’s so tempting to try to take away both of them. Early in the season, opponents considered double poling the midfield and taking their chances with Howell. Not anymore.

“When teams try to key on me and Max, the next thing you know Zach has six points or four goals,” Crotty said. “I think it gives teams fits. All week, they work on a defense for me and Max, and the next thing you know, the third guy steps up. I don’t even want to call him the third guy. Zach steps up.”

With 3.56 points a game, Howell ranks 16th nationally. He’s the most productive third option in the country, and more efficient than all of the second options outside his own team besides a pair of potent Long Island attackmen  (Stony Brook’s Tom Compitello and Hofstra’s Jamie

It’s not much unlike a couple years ago, when Greer and Matt Danowski wrapped up their Duke careers. Quinzani exploited their presence, scoring 61 goals as defenses were flummoxed at how to defend so many threats around the cage.

“I see a lot of similarities to my sophomore year when I was the third guy with Zack and Dino,” Quinzani said. “Literally, I got my licks in here and there, but I was still considered the third guy. He is much more the player than I was my sophomore year. That speaks volumes about how [far] he’s come and how much he’s worked.”

At 6 feet and 175 pounds, Howell realized after last season that physicality was crucial for his chances of improving on a 29-goal season as a sophomore. So while his lacrosse IQ is better than before, it was other offseason work that made perhaps the biggest difference this season.

“I think I definitely took a different approach in the weight room and taking care of my body,” Howell said. “In the fall, I put on about 10 pounds, and it’s given me a lot of confidence and it’s allowed me to take the beating, especially at the college level where defensemen are much bigger and stronger. You have to be able to run through checks and take punishment on a daily basis.”

It’s all ensured he’s held up throughout a long season. In Duke’s last five games, he’s scored 16 goals -- a stretch including back-to-back hat tricks against Virginia last month.

That’s promising for the Blue Devils, who can only hope two more opponents struggle with the quandary of what to do with Howell rather than realize what so many have figured out -- he’s just about as crucial to Duke’s title hopes as the heralded Crotty and Quinzani.

“I think people are definitely starting to,” Crotty said. “I wish they would find out after the season, but I think it’s something people have overlooked, and I think it’s something he’s taken full advantage. He’s definitely made people pay because of it.”

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