Energy, Zone Has Wesleyan Back in the Mix
John Raba has been coaching long enough in the NESCAC – this is his 16th season as head coach at Wesleyan – to formulate a theory as to what separates the winners from the losers on any given day in the conference.
"The NESCAC teams are really well coached, I think the team that plays with more emotion that day usually wins," Raba said. "Across the board, everyone has to be involved. Not just the guys on the field. The guys on the bench, everybody's got to be into it for every play for 60 minutes. Whoever does that is the team that prevails a lot of times, because everything else is equal. Everyone can catch and throw and has good coaching, so it's the other little intangibles that make a difference in our league. When it's all equal, there has to be something extra that they have to give. When I watch the film, all of the teams look the same and it could go either way. It's crazy."
It is because of the emotion that Wesleyan is one of the hottest teams in the country after defeating Middlebury, former No. 3 Amherst and former No. 16 Endicott in a three-game span, allowing just a combined 10 goals.
"Getting ready for these games our energy level has been outstanding," Raba said. "Our team came out with tremendous energy against Amherst. Every ground ball, every 50-50, those types of things, we competed in every single one of those. We rode them hard, too. And then patience on offense. Having good strong possessions and not just taking the first decent shot, but quality shots. We didn't try to hold the ball, we were just trying to get them to shift and lose their shape. All of those things helped us win the game."
The Cardinals are 6-1, with the only setback coming against Bates at home in overtime. In that game, goaltender Grant Covington was injured and had to leave the contest. That's about the only thing that has gone wrong for the Cardinals netminder, who has a staggering 75.8 save percentage and a 4.05 goals against average. "That's absolutely ridiculous, especially after five NESCAC games," said Raba.
Why have the numbers been so strong for Covington? He's had a spectacular year – there's no doubt about it. But Wesleyan has also gone back to its signature zone defense that twice had the Cardinals on the cusp of the national title game in the past. After toying with a hybrid zone-man approach and often times a straight man defense last year, Raba is getting back to what made the program successful.
"We're a zone team and last year we got away from that a little bit and this year and we're pretty much back to what we do," Raba said. "That's been one of our things early in the season: if certain guys aren't going to buy into it, they aren't going to play."
Raba said that the short run-up to the start of the season in the NESCAC (teams aren't allowed to start practicing until Feb. 15) can make it difficult to install a true zone.
"You don't really have preseason; you just have a couple of weeks," he said. "Last year, the guys weren't comfortable with the zone, so it took us a while to put it in and get adjusted to it. We were still pretty good last year, we were still one of the top teams in the league, they just weren't that comfortable and they weren't reading it that well. It just takes a couple of guys who aren't seeing it to screw everything up. We really focused on the preseason and said every single day this is what we're going to do. We're not going to go back and forth. This is what we're doing. It feels like we're starting to get a pretty good rhythm – where we need to be and the shots our goalies needs to see to be successful."
As expected, Wesleyan cracked the weekly rankings again this week after a brief visit before getting bounced by Bates, checking in at No. 15. Raba knows it's part of the drill, but he'd love to stay as anonymous as possible because it drives his kids.
"They haven't really felt they are getting a lot of respect lately, and that's fine," Raba said of his players. "I don't want any part of the ranking this week. We play a lot better when we're worried about us just playing, not the other stuff."