May 10, 2013

Weekender: Tufts' Disstinct Advantage at Short Stick

by Jac Coyne | | Coyne Archive | Twitter

Football may be his best sport, but Sam Diss has been on the lacrosse field since his freshman year, when Tufts won a national championship. He's hoping that his thankless efforts at short-stick defensive middie will bring the Jumbos a second title.
© Tufts University Athletics

People gravitate to Sam Diss. He's a fun-loving guy with a demeanor that lends itself to easy friendships. Mike Daly, Diss' head coach at Tufts, admits that he's looking forward to his relationship transitioning from player-coach to that of a peer as alumni of the university just so he can call Diss a friend.

"He's just the guy everyone wants to be around," Daly said. "He's so confident and so tough."

There are times when Diss isn't as amiable. It occurs when the Jumbos' top short-stick defensive midfielder is covering one of the opposition's talented offensive middies, and his foe starts yelling a familiar phrase.

"I've got the short-stick!"

It makes Diss' blood boil.

"It's kind of an insult to me," Diss said. "I definitely take that as a challenge and it provides motivation when they are yelling that they've got the shorty."

Diss likes challenges.

When he arrived in Medford in the fall of 2009, football was Diss' game. A standout running back and defensive back at Ridgewood (N.J.) High School, he was eyeing I-AA opportunities on the gridiron, but a tip from the father of a former Tufts' alum Devin Clarke — the 2005 NESCAC player of the year in lacrosse — put Daly, then also a football coach, on Diss' trail. After serving as a backup tailback his freshman year for the Jumbos, Diss was moved to cornerback for his sophomore year.

On the strength of a 74-yard interception return for a touchdown and another 35-yard fumble return, Diss was named to the NESCAC first-team, and was the only sophomore to make the top squad. He switched to safety for his final two seasons, finishing second in tackles in both campaigns. He led the entire team in all-purpose yards as just a punt and kick returner last fall, the second straight winless season for Tufts football.

"I kind of bopped around for the last four years," Diss said of his football career. "We didn't experience that much success in football, but it was it was great facing that adversity and not necessarily going out there and winning every game. Or any games. I definitely took some valuable lessons out of those two seasons."

Concurrent with his football career — and also something of a contrast, considering the disparity in team success — was his role with the Tufts lacrosse program. He wasn't completely sure he was going to play lacrosse when he arrived at Tufts, but hanging out with the lacrosse players during the offseason his freshman year convinced him to give it a try.

Because he arrived late to the game, Diss' stick skills have been a little raw. He played baseball until eighth grade, when he finally took up lacrosse full-time. His athletic ability and doggedness got him on the field as a short-stick defensive middie his sophomore year at Ridgewood while many of his more lacrosse-savvy classmates wiled away on the bench. It happened again at Tufts. While playing the short-stick apprentice role, which is faceoff wing in the Jumbos system, Diss was a key player in Tufts' run to its national championship in '10. With the departure of Doug DiSesa and Mike Droesch, the starting SSDMs, Diss moved into the primary shorty role and excelled ever since.

"He's tough, he can grab balls and run them out of there," Daly said. "We've just been really excited about his growth. Being a leader on defense, improving his offensive game and everything that goes along with playing d-mid in our program."

"I would say that I'm still a little raw with my offensive skills today," Diss said. "I've always had the opportunity to see time at d-middie and just kind of embraced it."

Some of Diss' football skills have translated to the lacrosse field. While primarily a run-stopper as safety the last two years, his former cornerback techniques have been applicable to the shorty role.

"At cornerback, you have to have pretty loose hips," Diss said. "You have to get used to transitioning from running backwards to running forwards. It definitely helps you playing the middie up top high. You're never running in a straight line like a wide receiver in football or an o-middie would be in lacrosse. Running sidewise with the offensive middie who is running forward is very applicable with the athletic properties between the two positions."

It also helps to have speed, which Diss has in abundance, especially sparking transition.

"He gets so many clean fast breaks because of his speed," Daly said. "He ends up with more assists and hockey assists whereas other guys are coming down on those four-on-four breaks. He ends up more in those other situations because he is putting so much pressure on people and drawing slides."

Diss has twice earned the university's Rudolph J. Fobert Award as the best multisport athlete on campus, but accolades aren't really his thing. He said that he was "lucky" to win his all-conference honor in football. You just can't play short-stick d-mid and buy into awards.

"You don't get any recognition," Diss said. "You're just there to get beat. You just have to play good team defense, not throw takeaway checks and stay between your man and the goal. There aren't too many glorious aspects of playing d-middie."

The glory comes at the team level. Diss gladly accepts the thankless d-middie role and the verbal insults that come with it as long as there is the promise of another title.

"Coach Daly always talks about leaving stuff cleaner than you found it, whether it's the locker room or anything else," he said. "That translates to how we want to leave the program as a senior class. We came in to a national championship team, and it would be great to leave the program with a national championship again."

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