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May 12, 2010

UnCensered: Three Ingredients to Win it All

by Joel Censer | Specia to Lacrosse Magazine Online | Censer Archive

Sean DeLaney returned from a shoulder injury to score two goals and dish two assists against Ohio State for North Carolina. He'll be a difference-maker in the Tar Heels' NCAA tournament pursuits, writes Joel Censer.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Playoffs? You want to talk playoffs? Playoffs?

Yes, Jim Mora, I do want to talk about the playoffs. And in trying to figure out whether a squad has the mettle, fortitude and structural composition to run the gauntlet in the NCAA Division I lacrosse playoffs, keep in mind there are three things teams need to ensure postseason success:
 
1. They need to be able to consistently get stops at the defensive end.
 
2. They need someone (a faceoff guy or long pole usually) who can swing the possession battle in their favor.
 
3. They need a few midfielders (or an attackman) who can consistently beat a pole and draw a slide.

In playoff lacrosse, you’re just not going to get many opportunities to cash in on unsettled situations. Think about it: Everyone’s making more of an effort to get in the hole and stop transition. Players are tightening up and are less likely to throw the over-the-head check that starts a break or the no-look, 30-yard laser to a cutting attackman. And the zebras’ flags might as well be super-glued to their back pockets.

So to score goals you have to generate six-on-six offense. And now that attackmen are usually relegated to finishing or distributive roles, having a couple of middies who can beat their guys and get the defense moving becomes imperative.

Recent history bears this out.

* In 2007, Hopkins beat Delaware and a heavily-favored Duke team in the final four because the Blue Jays controlled the faceoff "X" (or at least neutralized the Blue Hens’ Alex Smith) with Stephen Peyser and Jamison Koesterer. The Jays also had a solid defense led by goalie Jesse Swartzman and defensemen Matt Bocklet, Michael Evans and Eric Zerrlaut, and a nearly unguardable first midfield of Paul Rabil, Peyser and freshman Michael Kimmel.

* Similarly, in 2008 and 2009, Syracuse won because the Orange started playing defense again; had stars in the middle of the field (FOGO Danny Brennan, long pole Joel White and between-the lines sensation Matt Abbott); and a whole host of players who could blow by their guy (Mike Leveille, Kenny Nims, Dan Hardy, Pat Perritt, Steven Brooks and Brendan Loftus).

Even think about teams that didn’t win it all.

* Delaware made an improbable run in 2007 because Alex Smith won every faceoff (until he met Peyser and Koesterer) and the Blue Hens’ offensive stars Dan Deckelbaum, Jordan Hall and Curtis Dickson always drew a crowd.

* Last year, fifth-seeded Cornell were four seconds away from winning a title because it played great team defense, dominated possession with John Glynn at the "X" and could always start offense with midfielders Max Seibald and Glynn (and attackmen Rob Pannell and Ryan Hurley, to an extent) pushing to the net.

* And those beloved 2005, 2007 and 2008 Duke teams that couldn’t close the deal? I like Matt Danowski a lot, but he was always better in transition than beating his guy. Same can be said for Canadian Zack Greer -- probably the best finisher we’ve seen in college lacrosse in the last 10 years. The Blue Devil midfielders -- Matt Zash, Kyle Dowd, Peter Lamade, Brad Ross and Ned Crotty (pre-attackman transformation) -- were all good, but weren’t the kind of first bananas that Kyle Harrison, Kyle Dixon, Rabil, Seibald or even Leveille/Brooks were.

Knowing that defense, possession and guys who can always draw a slide matter most come playoff time, here are the top six players/things I will watch this postseason.

6. Scott MacKenzie - Princeton - Midfielder

On paper, I love Princeton. The Tigers have an explosive attack, great goaltending, athletic, rangy poles who can handle and a bunch of midfielders who can create separation and are good in the middle of the field.

But not everything is clicking.

After watching them play twice in two weeks, I blame most of their woes on their six-on-six offense. For all that’s been made of coach Chris Bates’s new two-man schemes, the Tigers have trouble scoring. (I don’t know if it’s because they don’t have particularly good spacing or if the actions behind the picks are easy to zone up.)

If Princeton’s going to make a late-season run, they’re going to need more from MacKenzie, a skilled and athletic 6’5", 210-pound behemoth who is shooting a paltry 25 percent on the year.  He’ll have his opportunities. With the emergence of freshman slickster Mike Chanenchuk, MacKenzie’s been short-sticked a fair amount.

5. Austin Boykin - Cornell- Midfielder

Is the Big Red for real this year? One minute they are losing to Dartmouth, and the next they are taking the Orange to the wire.

This week, we will watch Cornell play its doppleganger (albeit a poor man’s version) in the Loyola Greyhounds who, like the Big Red, face off well, play tough defense and are methodical on offense. I think Cornell will beat Loyola and is better equipped for the postseason than most people realize.

The Big Red play great defense (I’m a huge fan of converted long pole Pierce Derkac) and Rob Pannell can get it going on anyone (especially now that Loyola’s stud defenseman Steve Layne is smarting over a leg injury).

But Cornell needs to win faceoffs against Loyola stud John Schiavone (60 precent), and the responsibility mostly falls to Boykin (58 percent), a versatile threat who struggled in the second half of the Ivy League Championship.

4. Will Yeatman - Maryland - Attack

I admit I’ve sipped on the Yeatman haterade before. He’s an easy, often slow-moving target, and can infuriate you with how sloppy he can be with the ball.

But during the ACC final, the Terps offense stagnated without the Big Guy working from behind, highlighting his importance for a Maryland team which isn’t great at scoring half-field goals.

I do think Hofstra is an easy matchup for the Terps, though. I just don’t see the Pride having the discipline to avoid fouling or preventing the transition opportunities that make Maryland so dangerous.

3. Sean DeLaney - North Carolina - Midfield

It’s the chirp-du-jour to openly wonder about what’s going on with UNC defense, and for good reason. The formerly stingy group has given up 14, 13 and 14 goals in its last three games against Robert Morris, Maryland and Ohio State respectively.

But I watched the 13-5 ACC semifinal loss to the Terps, and I didn’t think the Tar Heel defense played particularly bad. Instead, I thought the offense had trouble getting anything going (Billy Bitter was frustrated by Brett Schmidt, and Jimmy Dunster isn’t enough of a goal scorer yet) and eventually the Terrapin floodgates opened up.

Luckily for the Heels, stud midfielder/resident tough guy Sean DeLaney is back from a shoulder injury, and can hopefully take a lot of the dodging pressure off of Bitter and Dunster. He scored two goals and dished out two helpers against Ohio State. We’ll see how game ready he is (and if goalie Chris Madalon and the rest of the defense have straightened out their kinks) against a pesky Blue Hens squad on Saturday.

2. Chris Daniello - Syracuse - Attack

I really haven’t been a huge believer in this Syracuse team all year. Yes, the Orange play defense better than everyone else, and yes, Joel White and Jeremy Thompson are two game-changers in the possession war.

But when they’re forced to play six-on-six, they’re just not very effective.

Cornell held Syracuse to eight goals. Hobart held it to nine.

Certainly, the Orange's most effective dodging threat in the half-field is Daniello. He and Jovan Miller are going to need to be assertive for Syracuse to have offensive success.

I do think Army’s a good matchup for them, though. The Black Knights play up-tempo and force the issue, and that’s exactly the type of game that plays into Syracuse’s slick hockey hands.

1. The Press

LMO contributor Patrick Stevens said it best during Selection Sunday when he tweeted, “Virginia-Mount could be the most heavily covered 16-5 game in lacrosse history.” 

I have no idea what kind of impact the subsequent media circus will have on the Wahoos. And who knows how quickly we’ll find out?

Still, with a stingy defense, a three-headed monster at the faceoff and midfielders who can beat their man at will, I can’t see anyone stopping the Cavaliers.

Save the national scrutiny.


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