February 1, 2012

Forman's Five Takeaways from Champion Challenge

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com

Team USA coach Ricky Fried now faces the task of trimming the national team roster to 24 players.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Three days, 11 games, and one exciting weekend. That's how we'll sum up Champion Challenge, a US Lacrosse event held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Florida, which was capped off by the men's national team's 16-15 overtime dandy over Denver.

In case you're thirsty for more Champion Challenge content — if you haven't already, be sure to read our comprehensive coverage of the event — here are additional observations from the weekend. Or, in the spirit of Pat Forde... five notes, quotes, names, games and minutiae making news in lacrosse.

1. The Decisions

As discussed throughout the weekend, the women's national team will trim its roster from 38 to 24 by the end of the week, and needless to say, there won't be any easy decisions. "Difficult to do, but a great problem to have," U.S. coach Ricky Fried said.

By now, Fried and his staff have held a conference call to discuss what they saw this weekend and start discussing the team's composition for its 2012 summer competition tour in Canada. It's worth noting that Fried repeatedly said throughout the weekend that he's looking for the "best dynamic," and not necessarily the top 24 individuals.

"While the stats are great, we're not going to be stat-based, because everybody on our team can do those things," Fried said. "We want to get people out of the habit of trying to do too much. Do the little things consistently."

But you still want to know the stats, right? We've totaled five games' worth (against Team England, Maryland twice and Northwestern twice) below...

Goals: Dowd 13, Byers 10, Zimmerman 7, Ancarrow 7, Smith 6, Etrasco 5, Munday 5, Schwarzmann 4, Walker 4, McFadden 4, Rowan 4, Berger 3, Donohoe 3, Cannizzaro 3, Tumolo 3, Spencer 3, Bullard 3, Igoe 2, Carey 2, LaGrow 1, Albrecht 1
Assists: Donohoe 9, Munday 8, Rowan 6, Carey 4, Spencer 3, Schwarzmann 3, Tumolo 3, Smith 3, Cannizzaro 2, Zimmerman 2, Dowd 1, Bullard 1, Walker 1, Russell 1, Byers 1, Etrasco 1, Albrecht 1
Saves: Huether 10, Wills 7, Altig 5, McBrearty 1

Interesting that five of Team USA's top eight goal-scorers come from the current college ranks -- Casey Ancarrow and Danielle Etrasco stood out most, to me -- which is by no means an easy task for those players, who had to set aside their school's lingo and style of play.

"They're coming from practice the last two weeks, and they've been engrained as to what they're supposed to be doing, and now we're saying, 'This is what you need to do here,'" Fried said. "Being able to put that aside and compartmentalize is tough. Our college kids [did] an excellent job this weekend of picking up what we want to do, how we want to do it."

On the other side of things, Fried had some intriguing thoughts regarding the 20 college coaches on his roster. How does that translate onto the field? How does it help? Can it hurt?

"It's kind of a double-edged sword," Fried said. "You kind of expect certain things to happen. When they don't, that gets a little frustrating. At the same time, we have to realize with our coaching staff, as they come onto the field, they come as players. We wish they had that balance a little bit. We want them to bring that knowledge, that decision-making ability onto the field a little bit more, and be decisive. I think everybody sometimes gets caught up in trying to do the right thing -- just a good teammate, being in the right place. It's like, 'OK, you can direct a little bit more. Act like you're on the sidelines when you talk with each other.' But it is nice from our perspective. Having that lacrosse IQ on the field is extremely valuable."

2. The Debut

If that's what Denver's defense looks like after two weeks of spring practice, playing against the top players in the world, the Pioneers are going to be just fine. Between Sunday's starters against the men's national team, none had started a regular-season game in their careers, but you never would've known from the unit's play. It was an impressive debut. Nick Gorman, Mike Riis, Harley Brown, Kyle Hercher and Kyle Cannon and Drew Babb, Henry Miketa and others still have some work to do, but they were stout. Team USA coach Kevin Cassese and attacker Kevin Leveille both called the unit "organized."

The result? Though goalkeeper Jamie Faus, Lacrosse Magazine's February cover subject who made 14 saves, saw a barrage of shots — 64, to be precise — most were from difficult angles that weren't on cage.

"Our defense did a phenomenal job in letting me see shots we want to give up as a defense. The midfielders did a great job driving the guys down the alley, helping out inside. We slid so well. It's incredible. All six guys in front of me didn't start a game last year," Faus said. "We knew they were going to shoot it from all over, and we wanted to stick to our rules that we have on defense, and I think we did that. We did the little things really well on defense. We played really good, solid team defense today."

On a few occasions the Pioneers struggled on clears, as they committed several turnovers in the defensive end with Team USA riding hard. The unit also mishandled a few groundballs. Rest assured, coach Bill Tierney will get it cleaned up.

"They're so well-coached," Cassese said. "They're disciplined with what they do, they don't shoot themselves in the foot. On defense they're organized, they make you play unselfishly, and to be honest with you — in essence, we're an All-Star team here, and to get an All-Star team to play unselfishly is really hard to do — so we were at our best today when we were dodging, pass, pass and we were attacking the back side."

Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller had strong words of praise for Alyssa Leonard, who squared off against NU alums Danielle Spencer and Sarah Albrecht on Sunday at Champion Challenge.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

3. The Draw

What happens when two players using the same tricks of the trade go head-to-head? Well, someone has to have the advantage. Women's national team draw control specialists Danielle Spencer and Sarah Albrecht, who both played collegiately at Northwestern, matched up against current Wildcat Alyssa Leonard on Sunday — all learned from and honed their craft under coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, and part of Northwestern's success over the last decade can be linked to their prowess on the draw.

If Sunday is any indication, the Wildcats will control possessions in 2012. Leonard, the sophomore who last year ranked eighth nationally with 3.96 draws control per game, won 15 of 26 draws mostly against Spencer and Albrecht. Northwestern also returns Alex Frank to the mix. The senior ranks sixth in school history with 174 draw controls but defers to Leonard.

Amonte Hiller called Leonard "one of the best" centers she has coached. And that's saying something.

4. The Depth

With Katie Schwarzmann suiting up for the red, white and blue, and star attacker Karri Ellen Johnson sidelined due to an undisclosed non-concussion related injury — not to mention the absence of 2011 graduates Sarah Mollison, Laura Merrifield, Brandi Jones, Brittany Poist, Katie Gallagher and Sara Cooper — Maryland had a distinctly different lineup than used last year. But the two losses to Team USA showed the Terrapins' depth, and that experience will prove useful once the season starts.

"That's a very good Maryland Terps team," U.S. coach Ricky Fried said. "I know the score doesn't necessarily represent that, but we have excellent players at every position, and they have a lot of young kids that are getting their feet wet. This will help them down the road."

Defensive midfielder Iliana Sanza was all over the field, while midfielder Brooke Griffin, along with attackers Alex Aust (20 goals, 22 assists in 2011) and Kristy Black (31 g, 21 a) paced the offense. Aust and Black should get plenty of opportunities in 2012, with opponents paying particularly close attention to Schwarzmann and Johnson.

5. The Details

Coaches often try to create game-like situations in practice, but there's nothing like experiencing something live, against an opponent in a different colored jersey. No matter how hard you try, it's tough to duplicate certain situations, like facing a one-goal deficit with 45 seconds on the clock. Such was the case for Syracuse on Saturday, which trailed Team England 8-7 in the final minute, yet somehow the game ended in a 9-9 tie. It's a lesson for the Orange.

"We set something up, we executed with the go-ahead goal late, with 30 seconds left," coach Gary Gait said. "But then we turned around and gave it back to them, and that's something we can learn from. They won't forget that, the players who made that play, and they'll learn from it. Hopefully we'll be better prepared for it the next time we're in a close game."

Said sophomore attacker Alyssa Murray, whose goal with 43 seconds remaining tied the game at 8: "It was a really exciting game, and to be in a tight game really gives the freshmen a lot of experience. Even though we had the lead with 30 seconds left and we lost it, now we'll learn from that. Now we know where the ball should be, what we should be doing. The fact that it's a scrimmage, it's little mistakes that we're going to learn from, and we'll work past it."

Syracuse was sloppy in the early going — somewhat expected, given that it was the first time playing this spring — but the Orange settled in during the second half. Still, Gait said the team has "a laundry list of things that we can go work on." Gait and Murray pinpointed these areas to detail: riding, clearing, communicating and picking up ground balls.

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