April 15, 2011

Falcons' High-Flying Defense the Talk of Conference Carolinas

by Mark Macyk | LaxMagazine.com

Goalkeeper Kaitlin Booth is a reliable safety valve for No. 15 Pfeiffer's high-risk, high-reward defense. Her 139 saves this season rank third in Division II.

What's that old saying? The best defense is a good offense?

It's true at Pfeiffer, where the Falcons may not have stingiest defense in Division II women's lacrosse, but certainly have one of its most dangerous. A hyper-aggressive style, focused on creating turnovers and setting up the offense, has the team averaging 11.33 caused turnovers per game, eighth in Division II, a couple of decimal points fewer than Adelphi.

When the approach works, as it did in Tuesday's 22-1 Conference Carolinas win over Erskine, Pfeiffer's tough to stop. The Falcons, currently ranked No. 15, have won four straight league games by a combined score of 67-18.

Sometimes the aggressiveness backfires. Lock Haven dropped 18 on them. Rollins and Gannon each scored 16. That's three losses to three teams that will likely finished ranked higher in the South region.

The reward is worth the risk. Pfeiffer (11-5) nearly upset undefeated Limestone two weeks ago, falling 7-6 and holding the Saints to their second-lowest scoring output of the season. They could get another shot at the perennial power at this weekend's Conference Carolinas Tournament.

"We don't have the lowest-scoring defense in D-II by any means," said Pfeiffer coach Dawn Easley. "It's because [the defenders] play so aggressively. They try to make turnovers happen and goals that shouldn't have been scored happen... I'd rather them play this way."

The offensive defense makes sense. Two of the Falcons' top defenders played attack in high school.

Senior Amanda Smith broke the program's all-time caused turnover record during last week's 20-4 win over Lees-McRae. Smith has caused 33 turnovers this season and 90 in four years.

"She's a very intense player," Easley said. "Always goes out to get the turnover. Defense doesn't get a lot of recognition. She's one of those players always looking to make plays and help the offense out."

Smith played attack at Heritage High School in Leesburg, Va., but Pfeiffer recruited her with the intention of switching her to defense. That wasn't the case with Katherine Athens.

The freshman from Huntingtown, Md., has caused 30 turnovers -- and scored 18 goals. The Falcons were strong on offense -- seven players have 20 or more goals this season -- and saw a need on the backline.

"We were playing around one day at practice mixing some stuff up," Easley said. "Next thing we know she's in there. It's still happening right now."

Who better to read an attack than attackers themselves?

"Their lax IQs are very good," Easley said. "They recognize when they're against a weaker attacker because they were attackers. They have an advantage. They're smart, good all-around players."

The defense helps the Falcons score at any time, but the options on offense help them score from anywhere. Seniors Alex Cook (36 goals, 25 assists), Sarah Hebberd (37 goals, 18 assists) and junior Natalie Marvin (31 goals, 25 assists), have all cracked 50 points.

Of course on those occasions where the defense breaks down Pfeiffer has a perfect safety valve. Senior Kaitlin Booth. Only two goalies in Division II have more saves than Booth's 139, and her .476 save percentage ranks 13th.

"I'm really excited about the direction we're heading," Easley said. "We have a lot of senior leadership. Our upperclassmen are really taking it all in stride. They're not looking to be for inspiration."

They won't need inspiration at this weekend's conference tournament at Queens. Not with local rival Belmont Abbey in the semifinals on Saturday and potentially a chance to beat Limestone for the first time in four years on Sunday.

"They went into [the Limestone] game really having the confidence to win," Easley said. "Not 'we'll play hard and maybe we can win.' It was 'No, we can go out there and win.'"

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