Virginia Defensemen Swallow Pride, Embrace the Zone
Virginia's rangy long poles like Bray Malphrus wanted nothing to do with a zone defense when it was first implemented by defensive coordinator John Walker. "What does this guy know? He played attack for four years at Army," Malphrus said of the heated exchanges at the time.
BALTIMORE -- After the last few Virginia players and most reporters cleared from the locker room at M&T Bank Stadium early Monday evening, Cavaliers coach Dom Starsia turned to defensive coordinator John Walker and said: "That goes against everything you believe in sports."
He meant that Virginia has won the national championship over Maryland with contributions from unexpected players in an unexpected way -- not on the power of its best players or in the way they drew it up at the beginning of the season. Backup attackmen and midfielders ruling the day?
And a zone defense? At Virginia?
"If you had told me four or five weeks ago that a zone would have won us a national championship," said senior defenseman Bray Malphrus, "I would not have believed it."
Starsia's exchange with Walker supported what Starsia told reporters before entering the locker room, that he had spent time by himself lately wondering "if I've been doing this wrong my whole life because things that were probably born of necessity this year that just seemed like the right thing to do."
The Cavaliers' zone, which ended up frustrating Maryland's shooters Monday and limited the Terrapins to seven goals, was born of necessity weeks earlier, and to early poor reviews. After starting close defenseman Matt Lovejoy reinjured his shoulder in a loss to Maryland April 2 and was shelved for the season, the coaching staff decided they needed to employ it. Lovejoy often covered the opposition's top attackman, and Cavs needed a way to cope with the loss.
It wasn't an easy transition. Malphrus, who already had reluctantly moved from long stick midfield to close defense prior to season, moved to the center of the zone on the crease, and hated the fact that he couldn't step out and pressure opposing players like he and the other defenders were recruited to Virginia to do.
Starsia had turned over the defensive coordinating duties to Walker, a second-year assistant who in his first year handled the goalies and faceoff units. Walker and Malphrus both admitted to some heated exchanges at multiple practices.
"What does this guy know? He played attack for four years at Army," Malphrus said.
The first day practicing with zone was horrible, said redshirt junior defenseman Chris Clements. In general, the scout team won. Even after the Thursday practice before the Saturday, April 9 game against North Carolina, Walker said the coaching staff wasn't sure if they had made the correct decision.
Clements had moved from close defense to long-stick midfield, and four other underclassmen comprised the defense. Sophomore Blake Reilly took top right responsibilities. A freshman, Bobby Hill, was at the top left. Another freshman, Scott McWilliams, played down low to Malphrus' left. Sophomore Harry Prevas was low right.
New spots for everyone, and playing a type of defense they were not recruited to Virginia to play. Starsia's teams were known to press out, force turnovers and create transition, the thought being the opposition would prefer to play ball control against the Cavaliers' quick-strike approach. They weren't known to sit back in a zone, and pass off players to one another.
"It wasn't easy. We had to change our identity," said senior goaltender Adam Ghitelman. "We recruit at UVA to have defensemen that go out to pressure the ball, take chances, get takeaways. By the end of the season, we almost had the zone in and out -- different situations, different motions. We knew how to react to them and it gave me a better chance to see some shots from the outside. It keeps the ball away from the crease. It's something that benefited me and our defense that lost one of its best players."
When Virginia built leads of two and three goals in the fourth quarter Monday, the Terrapins found it difficult to recover against the zone.
"You can't beat a zone with one pass or one dodge," said Maryland senior Grant Catalino. "It takes multiple passes. Toward the end of the game, when we were down a few, we had to press in situations a little more than we did in the beginning. It's hard to come back on a zone that's played so well during the game."
That last statement would have seemed laughable to all involved in Virginia's defensive philosophy switch with four weeks left in the regular season. Not only were the defensive concepts -- covering areas, switching and passing off players -- new, but so was the adversity that Virginia had faced this season, such as losing two straight games just before employing the zone defense. They were 7-3 with losses to Syracuse, Johns Hopkins and Maryland.
Duke combined for 32 goals against Virginia in two games late in the season, but Virginia allowed only 7.6 goals per game in its final five games.
"Duke was the only team that they ever lost to consistently. Other than that, it was all new to them," said Walker, who before arriving at Virginia spent three years as the associate head coach at the United States Military Academy Preparatory School in New Jersey. "For me, coming from being at a normal school, you're trying to calm them down and make them believe that the wheels aren't falling off the bus if you lose a couple games. Once they realized that and we started having some success, everyone bought in."