April 5, 2012

UnCensered: Looking Closer at the Tar Heels' Game

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com

Attackmen generally finish more than they initiate in today's game, but North Carolina has two electric freshman dodgers in Jimmy Bitter (above) and Joey Sankey.
© Jim O'Connor 

It took nearly two months, a couple ho-hum losses to Lehigh (one which is looking better every day) and Penn, and a Rolodex full of different lineup cards.

But on Sunday, North Carolina justified the preseason hype, taking down top-ranked Johns Hopkins 13-9 at the Big City Classic. Frankly, it didn't even look that hard for the Heels. Faceoff technician R.G. Keenan channeled his inner Alex Smith, going 18 for 25 at the dot, picking up nine groundballs and scoring a goal in transition. The Tar Heel offense -- aided by all those extra possessions, extra man opportunities, and well-timed pick games at goal-line extended -- made quick work of the vaunted Hopkins defense. And Carolina's backline did enough to spoil Chris Boland's return from a broken collarbone.

As described by Lacrosse Magazine's Gary Lambrecht, UNC did it in different ways than the preseason prognosticators expected. High-profile Georgetown transfer Davey Emala ran as a reserve midfielder and on extra man. Former Princeton All-American attackman Jack McBride got just a couple midfield shifts. Ditto for Pat Foster who started last year. Nicky Galasso, a pre-season first team All-American who has been hampered all season by a foot injury, put up two points exclusively on EMO.

Instead, junior Marcus Holman quarterbacked the attack with freshmen stop-and-go savants Joey Sankey and Jimmy Bitter generating most of the offense from behind the cage. Duncan Hutchins, Ryan Creighton, and Canadian Chad Tutton did most of the heavy lifting at midfield.

It was nice to see Carolina clicking on offense and getting some of the Willie Scroggs, Joey Seivold, Ryan Wade mojo back from old. But for me, the win brings up as many questions as it does answers.

Marcus Holman: No Stranger to Reinvention

I remember watching Holman as a freshman. He was rock solid, put up a bunch of points and was ACC freshman of the year. But he seemed more in the mold of a Thomas Wood clone; a catch-and-shoot guy who was going to find space around the goal and take advantage of unsettled situations.

But the past two years he's bounced from midfield to attack to midfield and now back to attack. He's proven he's an elite All-American candidate whose skillset is much more developed than just being crafty around the cage. He can set his feet and unload from ten yards. If he gets a shortstick he's going to the cage. He can even dodge a pole (he blew by Chris Lightner in the second quarter Sunday). He also is a great decision-maker and the heartbeat of the Carolina offense.

I can't think of another player the past decade in Division I who has developed his game enough to in some ways reinvent themselves. From freshman to sophomore year, Steele Stanwick went from finishing on the left side to quarterback-extraordinaire. But that was more about fitting in as a first-year with senior stalwarts (and right-handers) Danny Glading and Garrett Billings than it was about Stanwick not being ready to work from X.

If there's a historic corollary I'd say Holman resembles a more explosive version of Duke's Zach Howell. His first three years, Howell was known almost for being the primary beneficiary of the Ned Crotty and Max Quinzani show. But his senior season (Crotty and Quinzani had both graduated), Howell showed he could lead an attack unit starting two freshmen all the way to championship weekend.

Speaking of which...

The Death of the Dodging Attackman...Wait, What?

Anyone who's followed my Lacrosse Magazine musings knows I'm interested in how the attack position has changed the past decade; that over the past two decades an influx of Canadian forwards, quick slides, athletic defenders and invert offenses have left us with a bunch of attackmen who are generally there to finish more than they are to initiate.

But Sunday, freshmen Sankey and Bitter showed that the dodging attackman is alive and well. The pair of lefty jitterbugs drew Tucker Durkin and Jack Reilly, arguably the two best cover men in nation. Reilly, who has played long stick in 2012, even bumped down to guard Bitter (that's respect). Despite the defensive bonafides on the other end of the aluminum, Sankey and Bitter came in waves, using their turbo jets and some picks at GLE to slice and dice their way to five-and-five. Bitter scored three goals and Sankey added another.

I've never seen anything like it. Rarely these days does a team have one attackman who can consistently draw slides (you can usually count them on one hand in all Division I lacrosse). To have a pair of them is almost unheard of. In 2002, Virginia had freshmen Johnny Christmas and Joe Yevoli cutting it up. 'Cuse had Mikey Powell and Josh Coffman, and later in the decade Kenny Nims and Mike Leveille. More recently, bruiser Garret Thul teamed up with quarterback Jeremy Boltus at Army.

Of course, those pairs were generally a combination of quick feet and broad shoulders. Both Sankey and Bitter, however, are very similar: small, scary quick, very skilled and lefthanded. Bitter may be a step faster (a very small step), but Sankey is probably better off the ball.

Besides wondering what having two initiators behind the cage means for Carolina (it was good having just one back there for Virginia in 2011), the other question is can two freshmen -- with Holman as their guide -- bring the Heels to Foxboro?

There is precedent there. Last year, Duke freshmen Jordan Wolf and Christian Walsh were inserted into the lineup and the Blue Devils made it to the final four. In 2002, Christmas and Yevoli combined for seven points in a heartbreaking overtime loss to the Orange in the semis in Piscataway.

Is North Carolina a Championship Contender?

We know teams that can put up a lot of goals are more likely to make a lot of noise in the post-season. So if the Heels continue the offensive fireworks, I think they're definitely in the conversation. The biggest question, besides what they will do when Galasso gets healthy, seems to be whether they have the athletes on the backline and between the stripes. But with R.G. Keenan playing "make-it-take-it" at the X, maybe it doesn't matter. Creighton's defense-to-offense routine (where was Mark McNeill?) on Sunday was impressive.

What's About Johns Hopkins?

Look, I'm not going to abandon the Blue Jays because they lost one game (after coming off two huge wins) to a motivated Carolina team. But I will say that I worry about this Johns Hopkins squad if they run into a team that can score goals and tilt the possession war in their favor. We all saw what happened in last year's playoffs against Denver.

North Carolina-UVA Preview

Both teams have elite offenses and are going to put up points. Although I think Stanwick's work behind the cage mixed with Rob Emery/Colin Briggs/Ryan Tucker's work up top make the Wahoos a little more versatile.

We also know UVA has a better defense than the Heels (I can't say enough about Matt Lovejoy), while UNC has a significant advantage at the face-off.

But I think the biggest challenge for the Heels, even playing at home, is whether they can shake the whole ACC older brother thing the Cavs have had over them. Since 2007, the 'Hoos have won all five meetings by a combined six goals. Even in 2009, when Billy Bitter turned Ken Clausen's ankles into silly putty in the Meadowlands, the Heels couldn't pull it out. If UNC is going to make their first final four since 1993, getting over the Virginia hump seems like a good place to start.


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