May 9, 2013

Unensered: Maryland-Cornell a Titanic Matchup

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Censer Archive

Steve Mock is a Long Island-native but shows Canadian finishing ability. He's the pefect complement to Rob Pannell and Matt Donovan.
© Greg Wall

In early March, Lacrosse Magazine editor Matt DaSilva emailed me about a potential "Maryland and Cornell in 2013" story. The hook seemed right out of a journalism textbook: two tradition-rich programs that haven't won a national championship in nearly 40 years on a potential collision course for Philadelphia.

Both teams' various snakebites have been well-documented. Maryland has been an NCAA runner-up seven times since winning a title last in 1975. The Terps have been unable to shake the perennial bridesmaid tag despite goalie Brian Dougherty making 46 saves during 1995 championship weekend, or qualifying for the 2011 and 2012 title games with a plethora of gritty, battle-tested athletes, or being the flagship university in a state ripe with homegrown talent.

It hasn't been much better for the Big Red. Over the past four decades, Cornell has had some dominant players — Tim Goldstein, Ryan McClay, Max Seibald, for example — yet its last championship belt was in 1977. In 2009, Cornell's postseason pain could be felt all across the Finger Lakes. The Big Red gave up a three-goal lead late in the fourth quarter of the title game to a confident Syracuse outfit that tied it up on a Kenny Nims dagger with four seconds left before winning in overtime.

This year was supposed to be different. The Terps started off like gangbusters, winning their first six games in dominating fashion. About 350 miles north, Cornell had Rob Pannell, arguably the best college attackman since Mikey Powell, and a host of other weapons: a hyper-skilled and athletic first midfield; veteran long-sticks who can carry and harry; an inside complement in Steve Mock who finishes any spot feed thrown remotely close to his stick.

For both squads, February and March brilliance was followed by midseason hiccups. Maryland went 4-3 over its last seven games, averaging only six goals a game in losses to North Carolina, Hopkins and Virginia. The Big Red meanwhile, had midweek letdowns against Bucknell and Syracuse, and, last Friday, was upset in the Ivy League semifinals by blood rival Princeton.

On Saturday, two teams that looked primed to shake 40-year curses now have to play each other in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

For all their similarities in 2013, the Terps and Big Red are different. Cornell beats teams with a stable full of dynamic offensive players who run by — or in star LaxMagazine.com's blogger Connor Buczek's case — over you. The Terps do things the hard way. They grind for sixty minutes, dominate the possession war, stay disciplined with the ball and stress efficiency. A sort of organized street fight on turf.

Frankly, if either wants to make postseason run, it would be well served taking a page from the other's playbook. If not, well, each of these passionate fan bases have dealt with heartache before. Here's your pregame breakdown for Saturday's 1 p.m. tilt at Byrd Stadium in College Park:

The Pannell Question

Princeton played Cornell twice in six days last week and showed two very different ways to guard Pannell. At the Big City Classic, the Tigers initially stuck their most athletic defenseman on the Tewaaraton finalist and were slow to slide. In a lot of ways, this made sense. Pannell was shooting just a hair above 20 percent, and in Cornell's two losses it was Steve Mock — generally tasked with finishing what Pannell starts — who was either out of the lineup or held in check.

The strategy backfired. Pannell took advantage of the one-on-one matchup and lack of support by torching Princeton for five goals — many of the jaw-dropping, on-the-move variety. Cornell won 17-11, and Pannell was interviewed on national TV about his nine points.

Last Friday, Princeton's defense went back to the drawing board. Freshman Mark Strabo, an emerging defensive star, shut off Pannell all over the field. When the senior did get the ball — mostly off the end line — Princeton slid instantly and from adjacent defenders. More than ten years ago, Virginia employed an identical strategy to contain Syracuse's Mike Powell and Josh Coffman. The Wahoo coaches, realizing that the two attackmen wanted to throw the home run crease feed or skip pass , began forcing them upfield where the only open guy was going to be the one right above them. The right play was often a simple pass that neither Powell nor Coffman was that interested in making.

Similarly, Cornell's offense kept force-feeding the crease and turning the ball over, and Pannell was "held" to two goals and three assists. Princeton won in overtime 13-12 to advance to the Ivy finals.

So what blueprint do the Terps use? Slide quickly from any and everywhere? Or leave a defenseman on an semi-island knowing that Pannell may score another half dozen?

My guess is that the Terps will rely less on gimmicks, and just try to play solid on-ball defense and slide when they have to slide.

Either junior Michael Ehrhardt or sophomore Goran Murray will draw the Pannell assignment. Ehrhardt is a prototypical ACC cyborg that, at 6-foot-5, 210 pounds, is also agile and has a slick stick. Murray is much smaller but has turbojets and the ability to stay on various speedsters' hands. In the four games he's been matched up with Duke's Jordan Wolf, Murray has held him scoreless. Of course, Pannell has both quickness and power. My personal guess is that Ehrhardt is a better matchup as Pannell seems to have a little harder time with guys who can battle him on the corners.

A couple of quick notes when Cornell has the ball on offense:

  • Mock is a unique player. In an era where most colleges outsource their scoring duties to Canadians, the senior attackman is a Long Island bred, cold-hearted interior finisher. The perfect ying to Pannell and Matt Donovan's dodging yang. Whereas Canadians use exclusively one hand — it's debatable whether that's more effective or not — Mock shoots with both his left and right with startling efficiency. He's got a 44 percent shooting percentage. Take one quick look around the American lacrosse landscape, and there just aren't many guys with that skillset. Regardless, Maryland redshirt sophomore defenseman Casey Ikeda will have his hands full Saturday.
  • All bets are off the table if Maryland goalie Niko Amato dominates in cage. The junior has already been through two postseason gauntlets and has been a rock for the Terps all season. He'll have a lot of rubber coming his way Saturday.
  • ESPNU has to be salivating at Cornell's first line going head to head with the Terps' defensive midfield. Maryland long pole Jesse Bernhardt and defensive midfielder Landon Carr are two of the best at their respective positions in Division I. Buczek and Max Van Bourgondien are an elite pair of dodging midfielders, not to mention southpaw Connor English can also get a step. When the second midfield is on, the Big Red would probably be best served if Pannell or Donovan initiate.

Tortoise Pace?

 
There are a few ways Maryland could beat Cornell, writes Joel Censer. A big-time performance from goalie Niko Amato is one of them.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

In regards to each team's Tempo Free Lax adjusted statistics, both are efficient at the offensive and defensive ends. Both face off well. The biggest difference? They play at different speeds. Whereas Cornell is ranked fourth in pace, the Terrapins are 48th. Moreover, Maryland is fourth (Cornell's 19th) in possession percentage. Translation: the Terps — on the strength of their work on faceoffs and an effective clearing game — have the ball a lot and for long periods of the time.

What does this mean for the Big Red? Look, I understand playing fast is part of Cornell's identity. There's a reason they are second in the country in scoring offense, averaging 14.40 goals per game. Defenders Jason Noble, Thomas Keith, Tom Freshour and Jordan Stevens cause turnovers, gobble up loose balls and get up and down the field in hurry. Pannell, Mock, Buczek and the rest of the offense takes risks and has little problem shoving the ball down a team's throat.

But the truth is if this game was played strictly as a half-field affair, Cornell would win. So keeping the turnovers and any full-field transition miscues to a minimum is vital. This isn't to say Pannell should ignore Mock on the inside or Noble and Keith should pass on a 10-yard rip. Instead, the Red will need to pick their spots, be a bit more disciplined with the ball and realize possessions will be at a premium.

As for Maryland, I think the Terps should crank up the heat. They haven't proven — at least to his blow-hard columnist — they can go goal-for-goal with an explosive Cornell offense. Why not try to tilt the possession war and manufacture goals in transition and the riding game? The Big Red aren't particularly deep and don't have Josh Hawkins-like defensive middies that can run from defense to offense. So Bernhardt and Carr should be aggressive on the ride.

Shell of an Offense

I saw the highlights, too. Last Saturday, Maryland dominated Colgate 18-6 as the Terps looked like the offensive juggernaut from earlier in the season. Kevin Cooper played maestro. Owen Blye cut guys up from behind the goal. Chanenchuk, Haus and Jake Bernhardt barreled down the alley and stepped into space. Jay Carlson circled the goal like a buzzard.

Before the game against the Raiders, Maryland's offense had sputtered through much of April and May. Whether they struggled to penetrate or were dealing with a revolving door at the third attack spot, the Terps only scored double digits twice in their last seven games. If they can recreate that early season offensive mojo, they will be an absolute postseason force.

It is worth mentioning that Maryland does have a size advantage over a super talented Big Red backline. Personally, I'm not convinced height matters for defensemen. Noble, Keith and Freshour aren't physically imposing but are elite Division I long-sticks. But I do wonder if Cooper, Blye, and duck-under savant Haus all can potentially create space by putting their shoulders down.

Prediction

There are ways Maryland wins this game. Amato gets hot. Curtis Holmes or Charlie Raffa dominates the faceoff dot. Bernhardt and Carr run roughshod between the 30s. Cooper and the rest of the offense keep it going.

While these Terps are postseason veterans that have proven they play in May, I'm not sure they can score enough goals to keep up with the Big Red. Cornell just has a little more room for error. Red, 15-10.


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