March 21, 2011

Raba Won't Let Wesleyan Lose Its Edge

by Jac Coyne | | Twitter

Max Landow (above) has emerged as a star for a Wesleyan team mostly devoid of standouts. Cardinal coach John Raba hopes he can keep Landow and the rest of the team playing as if they are underdogs.

© Brian Katten

When Max Landow buried the overtime game-winner for Wesleyan against then-No. 5 Middlebury on Saturday, Cardinal head coach John Raba was happy.

Mostly happy, anyway.

As great as it was to be 5-0, Raba would miss playing the underdog role.

"We wouldn't want to be anywhere else, but it also means the target is on our back again," Raba said. "I'm not going to lie; it was nice to play the no-respect card. We didn't get any votes; no one thinks anything of you; you are picked in sixth in the league. It was great. We could come out and play angry."

Not to say the Cardinals can't play with a little fire, but it's a whole lot easier to do it when you're not undefeated and ranked No. 13 in the country. Wesleyan will more likely transition from a team with a chip on its shoulder to one that prides itself on a seemingly starless roster.

There are good players on Wesleyan's team, but none that have become household names for the casual NESCAC fan. The embodiment of this new team persona is Landow, a junior attackman who was primarily a role player last year. After playing hurt for much of the 2010 campaign, Landow hit the weight room over the summer and came back more willing to embrace the NESCAC ethos.

"This year he really committed himself in the offseason to get stronger physically and just took a tremendous step. In high school, he was a tremendous player, and we've been waiting to see that here. He's had a monster year; he's been a really key guy. I was really proud of the way he has responded. He's a lot tougher, going after the ground balls that maybe he shied away from last year. Now he's real physical, he's a step quicker and he's causing problems."

The closest Wesleyan has to a star is long-stick midfielder Gabe Kelley. Raba raved about Kelley's goal against Middlebury when the senior went end-to-end and ripped a shot from 18 yards out to give the Cardinals an 8-7 lead. It's because of Kelley that the Wesleyan coaching staff feels comfortable running a variation of its old zone this year that features many man-to-man principles.

"Athletically, we feel like we have some guys who match up pretty well," Raba said. "The poles are pretty explosive and Gabe Kelly, the best player on our team, is very noticeable on the field in a man situation. He'll take the other team's top guy, so we thought we'd try some man stuff."

It has worked to this point, as the Cardinals also a have a victory over Bowdoin to their credit, in addition to three non-conference victories. While Wesleyan was able to vanquish both Middlebury and Bowdoin, Raba will continue to look for ways to motivate his players.

How about playing the size card?

"When you look at us warming, there's such a huge difference offensively," Raba said. "You look at Bowdoin and Middlebury warming up, and every kid seems like they are 6-foot-2 or 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds. And then you've got [Middlebury's David] Hild, who is 220 pounds. Landow is 5-foot-7, 160 pounds!"

Sometimes a coach has to manufacture a chip on his team's shoulder if it will lead to more wins.

"The chip is great for us," said Raba, laughing. "It has been awesome."

Fear the chip.

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