April 1, 2011

Captain Invisible: Asperheim a Key Asset in Michigan's Success

by Jac Coyne | LaxMagazine.com | Coyne Archive | Twitter

He's not the loudest captain in the Michigan locker room, he doesn't have the most accolades, and he wouldn't be described as a "nasty" LSM. But Matt Asperheim's quiet leadership and occasional offensive spark are critical to the success of the three-time defending champions.
© Cecil Copeland

One is the best offensive player in the MCLA and was the recipient of Lacrosse Magazine's Preseason Player of the Year honor. The other is arguably the best defender in the country and first team All-American for the past two seasons.

It's no surprise that Michigan's Trevor Yealy and Harry Freid are captains for the three-time defending national champions. Each brings something different to his leadership role.

"We have Harry, who pushes everybody as hard as he can push them and doesn't really care if he rubs them the wrong way," said Wolverine coach John Paul. "We have Trevor, who leads by example and says a lot of inspirational stuff."

A perfect dynamic, right? Almost, but there is a third captain for the Wolverines this year who fulfills perhaps a more important role.

"And then there's Matt, who'll take you aside and make sure your head's right," Paul said.

Matt Asperheim is the invisible captain for Michigan. While his playing resume pales in comparison to his fellow captains, the long-stick middie is equally as critical on the field and in the locker room. He's just not necessarily the guy making the big speech or drawing attention.

"I guess it's who I am," Asperheim said. "Harry will get in your face a little bit. I like to keep the team up and the team together. That's just kind of my role as a captain. I like to be one of the guys and hang out. I don't view being a captain as being above everybody else."

Asperheim doesn't stand out on the field because he's not a traditional LSM, and certainly not the kind Paul envisions roaming the field.

"We want them to be a little bit scary," Paul said of his long-stick middies. "If you look at great LSMs at all levels of lacrosse, they are guys who have that hockey mentality. If you're a midfielder, you really don't want them approaching you. We'd like them to be a little bit nasty, and that's not really Matt's game. He's a tenacious defender and he's really hard to get around, but if there's one thing we wanted him to improve, it's playing with a little bit more of an edge."

During his freshman year, Asperheim apprenticed under Alex Martusiewicz, who was the epitome of the Michigan LSM.

"Marty was the man, but he was a different player than I was," Asperheim said. "He was more of a hacker, an attack LSM. I was a quarterback in high school, so I'm not a hitter. I'm the finesse guy. It's been something I've been working on, and it's something they want me to do, but I take it personally when I get beat. When you attack somebody, you get beat more often. It's one thing I need to work on: be more risky and make some plays in the transition game."

Where Asperheim exceeds most expectations for an LSM at Michigan, if not the country, is his production on the offensive end. In the Wolverine transition game, in which Paul wants his team to be at its most dangerous, Asperheim is as big a threat as any of the players with bigger numbers and more accolades.

And he's not afraid to do it on the biggest stage. With under seven minutes to play in last year's national title game against Arizona State and the Wolverines clinging to a one-goal lead, Asperheim triggered a break for Michigan with a takeaway, sprinted down the field, used a stutter-step dodge and ripped a low shot that bounced off the goalie's ankle and then the post before trickling into the net.

For a lot of coaches, that would be a heart attack moment.

"Not with Matt," Paul countered. "If I see him in a one-on-one opportunity, I'm yelling, 'Go,' because that's what he can do."

In a game story following Michigan's victory over the Sun Devils, one writer described the shot as "ill-advised," which has turned into a bit of a motivator for Asperheim.

"I'm just trying to make plays, whether it's on the defensive or offensive end," he said. "We have your article after the championship game in our locker room, and you wrote it was a crazy shot. I always look at it after I work out."

"He's got a lot of confidence handling it even when the pressure is on," said Paul, who believes Asperheim might have the best hands on the team. "We give him a little bit of offensive leeway when he gets down there."

Asperheim now has nine goals and 10 assists to his credit during his career, including nine points alone already this year. He had two goals against UC Santa Barbara in the Wolverines' 21-0 whitewash last weekend, and you can bet he'll be eyeing a chance to add more when No. 1 Michigan hosts No. 2 Colorado State on Friday night and No. 3 Arizona State on Saturday.

The on-field excellence played a role in Asperheim's election to captain, but his quiet role off the field was what cinched it. Yealy and Freid were unanimous choices during fall ball, and the staff decided to see how the team evolved before adding another.

"We held off on the third until we saw what other leaders developed," Paul said. "It was really obvious that it was Matt. He's matured in that way. More than anybody, he's the guy who is most likely to take another player and put his arm around him when he's having a rough day and prop the guy up."

Despite the presence of high-profile leaders, Michigan's most important captain might be the one no one knows.

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