April 6, 2012

MD1 Notebook: Defense Powers Lehigh's Methodical Run

by Gary Lambrecht | LaxMagazine.com

Mountian Hawks freshman goalie Matt Poillon said he's thrived because of Lehigh's effective man-to-man, help-oriented defense in front of him.
© Kevin P. Tucker

Watching seventh-ranked Lehigh suffocate Navy's offense last week confirmed what the numbers have been saying for a while. The Mountain Hawks, sparked by their quick slide-and-recover defense, are more than a Patriot League upstart on a roll against a schedule some skeptics might call second-tier.

No, when it comes to playing serious, six-on-six defense, Lehigh (10-1) is legit. The Mountain Hawks have surrendered an average of 4.3 goals in their 10 wins.

Yet, watching Lehigh silence Navy for the game's final 42 minutes, watching defensemen Ty Souders, Mike Noone and Blaise Fullen and freshman goalie Matthew Poillon lead a unit that stuffed the Midshipmen's high-scoring duo of Tucker Hull and Sam Jones (combined one goal on six shots) begged the question.

How in the world did this same Lehigh squad, which is allowing only 5.45 goals per game to lead the nation in scoring defense, surrender 17 hits in its lone defeat? How did the Mountain Hawks turn in a 17-7 clunker against Villanova in their second game?

"I think we were a little too confident that day. We came out flat, and we fell behind, 7-1. [Villanova] was playing faster and harder than us and nothing was going our way. We were just playing for ourselves. We kind of gave up," Poillon recalled.

"It was a wakeup call. That loss told us that if we come into any game thinking we were going to win before we had done anything, this [kind of lopsided loss] was going to keep happening."

"We were off in every sense of the word that day [against 'Nova]," Lehigh coach Kevin Cassese said. "We committed nine penalties and gave up six extra-man goals. But we didn't give up a lot of six-on-six goals. We had a lot of questions to ask ourselves about why [the blowout] happened. But we had some things to build on."

It's clear that Lehigh made a commitment to playing smarter and more unselfishly. It's abundantly clear the Mountain Hawks, now riding a nine-game winning streak that is tops in Division I and school history, committed hard to playing off of their man-to-man defense, which relies heavily on well-timed help and shading passing and dodging lanes.

Lehigh drove that point home at Navy, which came unglued during a scoreless second half with forced passes and shots that became turnovers, while Lehigh dominated possession time and methodically turned a 4-1 deficit into a 9-4 rout, marking the sixth time it has held opponents to four or fewer goals. It was even more impressive with leading scorer David DiMaria on the bench, serving a suspension for a violation of team rules.

The Mountain Hawks are getting it done in multiple phases. They have scored on 63.6 percent of their man-up chances, tops in Division I. They are fourth in fewest turnovers per game (13). They are winning 53 percent of their face-off chances. They are out-scoring their opponents in the second half by a 58-27 margin.

It starts in the back end of the field, however. Poillon ranks third in save percentage (.624). He has only saved 8.9 shots per game. That reflects an offense that pushes the ball and holds it with equal ease. It also reflects the superb positioning and discipline of his fellow defenders in a scheme Lehigh doesn't mind playing for extended stretches if needed.

"This defense is making me look very good. They allow me to watch the ball and see the shots that are easier," Poillon said. "When you keep holding offenses shot-less for two-minute stretches, they start taking frustration shots. That is a goalie's dream."

Towson Hot Heading to UMass

While it was staggering during a 2-3 start that included whippings by Johns Hopkins and Loyola and a fourth-quarter meltdown against Navy, Towson looked like the team many expected the Tigers to be. Transitioning under first-year coach Shawn Nadelen and with four straight losing seasons behind them, the Tigers appeared to be a step behind a deep Colonial Athletic Conference.

Raise your hand if you thought that, three weeks later, the Tigers would be riding a five-game winning streak, on the edge of the top 20, and would be taking a 2-0 league record to face undefeated CAA frontrunner and second-ranked UMass in Amherst on Saturday.

Towson (7-3) is off to its best 10-game start in five years and is coming off a hugely emotional week. On Wednesday, it rallied to score the game's final four goals in a 12-11 win over cross-town rival UMBC. Four days earlier, the Tigers authored a crazy comeback by scoring the game's final seven goals in a 10-9, double-overtime victory at Hofstra.

The Tigers, 3-0 in one-goal games and 5-0 in games decided by one or two, are getting it done in some unconventional ways. Against UMBC, they were out-shot, 42-30, but made their shots count at crunch time on a night when junior goalie Andrew Wascavage was stellar with 17 saves.

Towson's resourcefulness has been impressive. The Tigers are averaging just 27.5 shots – seven fewer than their opponents – but are scoring 10.2 goals a game on blistering, 37.1 percent shooting.

"I can't figure them out," Nadelen said. "It's definitely not the way you script it when you try to orchestrate a game plan. But we are fighting and playing hard and showing a lot of mental toughness."

Syracuse in Trouble

This is how bad things have gotten for Syracuse. The 17th-ranked Orange (4-4) have been dropping steadily in the polls, because they are still looking for their first quality win, with crucial tests against No. 11 Princeton and No. 5 Cornell awaiting them over the next four days.

Syracuse isn't scaring anyone this spring. Its starting midfield has produced 15 goals. It has no go-to guy to break down a defense when the Orange needs a score. It has no players in the top 50 in points per game or goals per game. It ranks 30th in team offense, 32nd in team defense.

That is the definition of mediocrity. And if Syracuse can't knock off Princeton or Cornell, it most likely will have to win the Big East tournament just to get into the NCAAs as an unseeded participant.

America Least?

If only Syracuse could migrate from the Big East to the America East.

Consider that the six teams comprising the America East have combined to win a total of 13 games. None of them have a winning record. And UMBC, Stony Brook and Albany – sitting atop the conference with 1-0 league marks – have a combined, overall record of 6-19.

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