October 8, 2012

#30in30: Where Does North Carolina Turn for Defense?

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

It appears Ryan Creighton, who last year played defensive midfield before running with the first-line offense later in the year, will be North Carolina's defensive leader this season.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

It didn't look like much. Two teammates talking on the sidelines after a turnover near midfield led to a transition goal.

But Ryan Creighton approaching Marcus Holman could have been a seminal moment for North Carolina, and specifically for the Tar Heels' defensive development. It didn't mean anything Sunday at the Capital Lacrosse Invitational at Landon School in Bethesda, Md., but it might come March.

Carolina has enough offensive firepower to make even the Harlem Globetrotters blush. The stocked cupboard of talent helped Carolina beat Johns Hopkins, Virginia and Maryland in the same season for the first time since 1994.

But the Heels' Achilles, in recent years, has been on the defensive end, as they allowed 9.88 goals per game in 2012 — only Colgate, Stony Brook and Canisius, among NCAA tournament teams, allowed more.

To be kind, coach Joe Breschi said: "Defensively, we were inconsistent at best last year."

It's a trend Breschi wants to stop.

"We think we're going to score goals," he said. "But we've got to take care of business at the defensive end. We've really got to focus on our defense."

So where will Carolina turn defensively?

If Sunday's fall ball scrimmage and Breschi's recent conversation with LaxMagazine.com are any indication, the answer might start with Creighton.

Holman is the Heels' leader down low on offense. After spending the early portion of last year at midfield, Holman bumped down to attack and became the quarterback of a young offense, playing alongside two freshmen attackmen and two sophomore midfielders.

It appears — at least for now — Creighton, who last year played defensive midfield before running with the first line offensive unit later in the year, will be Carolina's leader on the defensive end. He's back at short-stick defensive midfield.

"We've got to find a good, sound identity for who we are, what we want to do, and how we want to get there. We've had good leadership, but we need great leadership," Breschi said. "We didn't have great leadership on the field, compared to Marcus Holman on the offensive end, controlling the tempo and the strings, plugging guys in different directions and organizing. We need that — a voice — at the defensive end.

"That's why I've put Ryan Creighton down there in the fall, to generate some of that juice, because he's a terrific leader."

When Carolina committed that turnover Sunday, Penn State's potential impact freshman Sammy Davis scored on the other end. Shortly thereafter, Creighton and Holman could be seen on the Carolina sideline discussing what happened on the play. There was some pointing, some signaling of directions. A pair of leaders coming together to talk through a mistake, and how to correct it.

Breschi likely didn't see this conversation happen. He was closer to the field, watching the game action and making sure his young players were in the right spots. But this is almost certainly what he envisioned.

The wheels are turning. Last week, LaxMagazine.com caught up with Breschi, in advance of the Capital Lacrosse Invitational, which on Sunday featured the Tar Heels, Penn State, Cornell and Johns Hopkins in scrimmages. We asked: What were the reasons for Carolina's defensive inconsistency last year?

"We didn't handle adversity as well as we should have, because we didn't have great leadership," he said. "And that allowed for the inconsistency, because we didn't have that guy who was in the middle.

"Scheme wise, when we played our style and attacked it, I think we did some really good things. Some games were really good. But if you don't have that leadership out there on the field — and they're all really good kids who play hard — you don't respond and make the next play. It starts between the pipes and works its way out to the defensive front, with the d-middies and the poles. It's a whole group."

Creighton's strong one-on-one cover skills, good footwork, lacrosse IQ and nose for loose balls were on display Sunday, playing around a rotating group of young defensemen. (He also took some runs on the offensive end.)

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Creighton scored seven goals and added six assists in nine starts last year. As Breschi told Creighton: "We know what you can do on offense. We want you to come down and take control of this defense."

So far, Creighton "has taken ownership," Breschi added.

And really, defense is in Creighton's DNA. His older brothers, Mike and Chris, were defensemen at Notre Dame and Villanova, respectively. His father, Charles, is a basketball coach.

It's not necessarily common, but it's not unheard of, for a defensive midfielder to be the heart of a unit. Josh Hawkins was a significant part of Loyola's vaunted defense that helped win the national championship. At ACC foe Virginia, Chris LaPierre, a short-stick for the last few years who's running with the first-line midfield this fall, was named solo captain.

But, as much as anything else, one theme was clear last May: A team is only as good as its worst defensive midfielder.

Creighton will guide the defense alongside senior Kieran McDonald and junior Jordan Smith, both returning starters. Sophomore Ryan Kilpatrick figures to be the frontrunner at long-stick middie, where Carolina has to replace Mark Staines. It also loses Charlie McComas.

Otherwise, there are nine first- or second-year defensemen on Carolina's roster. Freshman Evan Connell "has really stood out for his terrific feet and intelligence" Breschi said, while also highlighting sophomore Jake Bailey and freshman Zach Powers.

Redshirt senior goalie Steven Rastivo, a two-year starter, didn't play Sunday and is expected to miss the fall with an undisclosed injury he suffered over the summer, though he's expected to make a full recovery before the spring. Meanwhile, redshirt sophomore Andrew O'Connell, and freshmen Kieran Burke and Duncan Saunders have been splitting time between the pipes.

When asked about the goalie competition, Breschi said his approach this fall is like any other: Every starting spot is an open competition, and none are guaranteed. But when asked more directly about Rastivo, Breschi said: "Our expectation is for Steve to come back healthy, and when he does come back, to earn the starting position and have a great impact. That's the expectation for any returning starter."

Yet, if anyone is locked into a job, it's Holman, a legitimate Player of the Year candidate. He totaled 74 points (39 goals, 35 assists), and as Breschi said, "he didn't do it by mistake."

"What's beautiful about Marcus is that he's an old-school player. You look at him, and he isn't going to wow you with his physique or any of those things. He doesn't look like an Adonis, but he plays like one," Breschi said. "I'm telling you, he is the most competitive kid I've ever coached. He exhausts his ability every time he steps on the field. I'm not just saying games. Practice too. He is so competitive. He wants to win at everything he does."

Breschi said he has "full confidence, all the faith in the world" that Holman's multi-faceted skill set will continue to evolve, as will that of dynamic sophomores Jimmy Bitter and Joey Sankey.

There are nine first- or second-year defensemen on Carolina's roster, including freshman Evan Connell. "[He] has really stood out for his terrific feet and intelligence" coach Joe Breschi said.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

It will be intriguing to watch how the Tar Heels' offense incorporates junior Nicky Galasso, Carolina's leading scorer in 2011 who missed significant time last year with a foot injury. Galasso did not play Sunday, but Breschi said Galasso "came back healthy, in shape, and he looks good."

Asked about Galasso's role, Breschi was emphatic: "He's definitely an attackman, there's no question about that." Breschi added Carolina usually plays four attackmen, and this year should be the same.

Looking back on last year, did Galasso's injury linger longer than anticipated?

"I think it did, from his standpoint," Breschi said. "I know it was frustrating for him, because he wasn't able to run or condition, so that compounded some things a little bit. He wasn't able to be himself, as he's been in the past. You break your foot, and that doesn't allow you to be in the best condition because you're not able to run, or get up and down the way you're used to, like the way he was his freshman year.

"But now, he looks great. He's physically fit. He's lost about 20 pounds. He's running great. And he's just a terrific player. There's no two ways about that. He's got tremendous talent."

Which is exactly what most people have said about Carolina's most recent recruiting class, featuring three players from the U.S. under-19 men's national team. Perhaps most notable is midfielder Steve Pontrello, whom Breschi called "a player to watch."

"He's got speed, and the ability to shoot with both hands on the run. Plays defense smart. Really gets it," Breschi said. "He's just one of those guys, he reminds me of an old-school a player like Ryan Wade."

Mike Tagliaferri, another midfielder on the U-19 team, will have surgery to repair a shoulder injury but is expected to make a full recovery before the spring. Among other freshmen, Spencer Parks and Patrick Kelly also have made their mark.

"We have a host of freshmen who are going to help us, some quicker than others," Breschi said. "We expect all those guys to make an impact. That would be our goal, and that would be their goal."

And as shown last year, Breschi isn't going to shy away from young players, even if he acknowledged it's nice having "some veterans down on the offensive end, and we've been trying to get to that."

Having so many weapons — and we haven't yet mentioned returning midfield starters Chad Tutton and Duncan Hutchins (also out this fall with an undisclosed injury suffered in the summer, but expected to make a full recovery before the spring) — will challenge opponents.

It also will allow Carolina to play fast, which has been its main message offensively this fall.

"Getting up and down the field in a hurry, being under control but certainly pressing the issue, and attacking the cage — those have been the points of emphasis for us," Breschi said. "More of a transition, up-tempo, full-field style of practice has been put into play on our end."

And really, maybe the best defense is a great offense?

The Tar Heels can play make-it-take-it with motorcycle grip magician R.G. Keenan, keep the pressure on with its pace, and get leadership on the defensive side from Creighton — whom they don't need to play offense, thanks to the hordes of gifted offensive players.

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