February 20, 2012

Matt Forman's Monday Morning Midfielder

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com Twitter

Loyola's draw specialist Taryn VanThof is out for the season with a torn ACL, and Virginia took advantage Saturday.
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com 

With apologies to Lacrosse Magazine editor and colleague Matt DaSilva, with whom I share a first name and now a column name (but little else), welcome to 2012's first installment of "Monday Morning Midfielder."

In this space, I'll arrange my thoughts on the ever-evolving lacrosse season in this ever-evolving weekly lacrosse column. Think of it like Peter King's "Monday Morning Quarterback" at Sports Illustrated. Only I won't promise to write 10,000 words and consume half of your morning. Instead, I hope to provide observations and analysis from the week that was, bringing the game to life on your digital display — whether you're reading on your computer, phone, tablet or otherwise — that keeps you coming back for more. More of a college sports fan? In the spirit of Pat Forde, this column will highlight the notes, quotes, names, games and minutiae making news in lacrosse.

I want to hear your thoughts on the lacrosse season, too. Feel free to post feedback in the comments section below, send email to mforman@uslacrosse.org or post 140-character snippets on the Twitter machine @matt_forman. And please continue to check out laxmagazine.com all season long for scores, news, updates and much, much more.

That'll do it for the intro. Let's get to the lacrosse.

Virginia: All Business

If you missed my coverage from Charlottesville on Saturday, Virginia's focus was squarely on lacrosse — not the ongoing first-degree murder trial of George Huguely in the town's courthouse less than three miles from Klockner Stadium. The Cavaliers rallied in the second half, defeating the Greyhounds, 14-9.

No doubt, it has been an emotional two weeks for Virginia with the Huguely trial taking place, as another chapter in the sad story unfolded. But coach Julie Myers made sure her team didn't lose sight of its season-opener and wasn't distracted by the national and local media attention.

There were several significant trends from Saturday's game...

Five Takeaways from No. 7 Loyola at No. 10 Virginia

1. Draw Controls

If you had to boil the game down to one element that most affected the outcome, Loyola coach Jen Adams would quickly tell you it was draw controls.

"That was the biggest difference in the whole game. That was a real difference-maker," Adams said. "They had the ball a lot coming out of the draw, and that possession is crucial. That really killed us in the end."

The totals? Virginia 18, Loyola 7. And for the Greyhounds, those numbers show an improvement over the first half's 10-2 result.

What was working so well for the Cavaliers?

"They were placing it well. They were coming up with it in packs. The ball was falling into their sticks, and they had people in the right places at the right time," Adams said. "Their center did a great job of directing the ball out. They were running someone off the line, which we haven't necessarily seen before. I know our girls were hungry, I know they wanted it. They were fighting for it, they were going up there in packs. But Virginia just did a great job coming off the line and getting those balls."

Senior Josie Owen and redshirt freshman Liza Blue, who missed the 2011 season with shin splits, took the majority of the draws for Virginia and collected a combined seven draw controls. Freshmen Daniela Eppler (three draw controls), Courtney Swan (two) and Kelsey Gahan (one), along with senior Lelan Bailey (two), were also in the mix.

Loyola's draw specialist Taryn VanThof (30 draw controls in 2011) is out for the season with a torn ACL, forcing junior Australian Cass Cursaro to take most of the Greyhounds' draws, though freshman Molly Hulseman, who led the team with four draw controls, took several in the second half.

Virginia's draw dominance is a particularly intriguing development given the rule changes for 2012 that restrict the number of players between the restraining lines to three (previously five) from each team and place the ball in the upper third of each head's widest point. Things are much more wide-open, and there's a reduced chance that a player is able to draw the ball to themselves. So the Cavaliers used a different strategy.

"We tried a couple different things in terms of running people on and off in between the 30s," Myers said. "Loyola kind of holds the pocket, tries to put the ball in that pocket, but we were releasing a player into that space. That caught them off guard a little bit."

Said Virginia fifth-year senior Ainsley Baker, who led all scorers with five goals: "We have a lot of feisty people on the draw right now. A couple of the first-year's really get in there, they aren't afraid to do whatever it takes."

2. Yellow Cards

Sticking with the theme of rule changes, Saturday showed the impact of another major shift introduced for 2012. Teams are now forced to penalty kill on both ends of the field rather than only behind the restraining line in yellow card situations. The carded player serves a two-minute penalty, but the foul is releasable.

Loyola was called for five yellow cards, while Virginia was flagged for three, and all but one of those eight player-up situations resulted in goals. The Cavaliers didn't convert a player-up situation when they held a 12-5 lead and were stalling.

"I'd like to be in those situations a lot less. That was something that we struggled with today. It did hurt us," Adams said. "We played multiple times player-down, and they scored off that. That's a momentum killer. That kind of guts you as a team. It made us have to come out of our defensive sets a lot, and that's what makes it tough: You're playing to their offense, as opposed to playing our style of defense.

"Player-up in women's lacrosse, when you've got to contend with shooting space and three seconds, you should put the ball in the back of the net. And Virginia did a great job with that. We had too many yellow cards. Disappointed in our girls for that. We talk about discipline, and we talk about being able to play high-tempo defense without swinging our sticks. As the game got away from us a little bit, so did our discipline with that, and we started to swing. We saw some uncharacteristic fouls that I'm not proud of and the girls will know about after this. We spent too long on the sides."

Though it wasn't a factor Saturday, a coach I spoke with earlier last week expressed concern about the yellow cards being releasable. The coach wanted to make sure that a player called for a foul didn't lose sight of the reason they were sent to the sidelines when committing a penalty. For example, a player gets waved for a yellow card and the opposing team scores 20 seconds later, releasing the penalized player from the sidelines. That player hasn't had a sufficient "cooling off" period, so they don't reflect on the foul and accidentally commit another one. A second yellow card results in suspension from further participation in the game.

3. Virginia's Fresh Faces

Virginia's Owen, Baker, Julie Gardner, Charlie Finnigan and Annie Taylor all will be major contributors this year. They also happen to be the Cavaliers' only seniors — or as they're called in Charlottesville, fourth-years. But Myers brought in an impressive crop of freshmen this year, four of which started Saturday: defenders Eppler and Gahan, attackers Swan and Loizeaux.

"Daniela Eppler was phenomenal. She was huge in our draws, huge in transition. She made some big defensive plays as well. She definitely didn't play like a first-year today. Room for improvement, for sure, but she did a great job and she was fearless," Myers said. "Kelsey Gahan did a great job on defense too, and Courtney Swan had our first goal of the season. She does a great job running both ways. Jess Loizeaux was able to chip in too. We knew we had a first-year class that was really talented and going to help us, and they certainly proved us right."

The Cavaliers brought back 99 percent of their offense from a season ago, as 195 of 197 goals last year were scored by 2012 returners. Adding Swan and Loizeaux to an already-strong attack will make Virginia tough to contain.

On the defensive end, the 'Hoos lost Bailey Fogarty and Liz Downs to graduation, so there were question marks about a unit that allowed 11.67 goals per game in 2011, despite returning Lauren Goerz and Megan Dunleavy. But as Myers suggested, Eppler and Gahan were impressive, as was Florida transfer Lelan Bailey.

4. Loyola's Fresh Faces

Loyola, on the other hand, graduated six of its top eight scorers from a season ago, and also lost VanThof for the season. Sophomore midfielder Marlee Paton is the Greyhounds' only returning 10-plus goal scorer. Paton did her part Saturday, burying a pair of goals and dishing out one assist, but there were extended offensive lulls — including one stretch of nearly 30 minutes — where Loyola couldn't get much going.

"It's about playing a more consistent game of lacrosse. We played in patches," Adams said. "Offensively, we need to command the tempo of the game. There were moments where we got rattled easily, we were dropping balls that we practice for a couple hours every day, and I don't see them drop so many balls then. I don't know if it was nerves, or what it was. We'll go back to that and revisit it to get our offensive tempo really going. We also missed a lot of the net. That's another thing — shooting percentage, putting the ball away when we get opportunities. We were matched up pretty close there with shots on goal (29-27 Virginia). The game could swing our way if we finish some of them."

Freshmen Molly Hulseman and Sydney Thomas started at midfield, while classmates Hannah Schmitt and Annie Thomas started on attack. It's a highly touted group, but it might take time for them to gel.

"Having Hannah Schmitt explode out with three goals — and she had an opportunity put the fourth away — was great to see," Adams said. "I thought the freshmen hustled. They showed a lot of confidence as freshmen, to step up and take opportunities. I don't think Virginia was able to slide off those girls, in particular Hannah or Annie Thomas coming from the side that were threats to score, making Virginia have to play them. There's a tendency coming in as a freshman just to fill a role, as opposed to being a threat. They did a good job of highlighting the fact that they're talented enough to draw some attention. That'll hopefully be something that helps us down the road."

5. Conditioning Level

As our own Clare Lochary wrote in Virginia's season preview for the February issue, the Cavaliers responded to last year's 9-9 record with "a newfound work ethic and a focus on physical fitness. ... Virginia hit the weight room harder than ever [last] fall, along with weekly boot camp workouts. Increased athleticism and better footwork are top priorities."

Their hard work seemed to pay off Saturday. Myers commented in her post-game press conference that "we felt like we were in a little bit better shape, a little bit faster as well, and we wanted to use those two things to our advantage." Adams called Virginia "a very fast and athletic team."

Perhaps the conditioning level showed up most after halftime, when the Cavaliers went on a 6-0 run and seemed to have an extra step.

Stat of the Week

19. The number of faceoffs, out of 20, won by Maryland's Curtis Holmes against Hartford in the Terrapins' 12-6 victory. Holmes, who ranked seventh nationally in 2011 with a 62.9 win percentage (222 of 353), is one of the game's dominant draw artists. "I can't say enough about Curtis at the face-off X," Maryland coach John Tillman said. If the heart of a team's success comes down to results up the middle — at faceoff and between the pipes — Maryland is going to be tough to beat. Sophomore goalie Niko Amato, who stood on his head during the Terps' run to the national title game last year, stopped 12 of the Hawks' 18 shots on goal. We'll take a stab and say Holmes won't continue winning draws at a 95 percent clip. But even a slight improvement over last year's mark means Maryland is going to out-possess its opponents by a wide margin.

Honorable Mention: 2,331. The number of fans that filled Drexel's Vidas Field in the heart of West Philadelphia for the Dragons' meeting against top-ranked and defending national champion Virginia, far exceeding the stadium's listed capacity of 1,500. Don't call me biased because I'm originally from the City of Brotherly Love, but Philadelphia continues to stake its claim among lacrosse-frenzied towns, despite taking a back seat to the metropolitan areas of Baltimore-Washington and Long Island-New York. "Great atmosphere here today," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. "We knew we were going to have our hands full coming in here."

Quote of the Week

"If we're not foaming at the mouth to get back on the field after the way last season ended, then we've got bigger problems that need to be addressed." — Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala, on his team's excitement level before its season-opener against Towson. The Blue Jays rode a dominant second-half performance (22-8 edge in shots, 16-7 in ground balls) to a 12-6 victory. No word on whether Pietramala used the old antacid trick from "Little Giants" at halftime. Can't you see it...?

Pietramala: I use these for acid indigestion.

Preseason All-American goalie Pierce Bassett: What are we going to use these for?

Pietramala: Intimidation.

Awkward/Too-Funny Moment of the Week

After wrapping up work Friday evening at the US Lacrosse National Headquarters, I strolled across University Parkway to Homewood Field, hoping to catch as much of the Hopkins-Towson game as possible. I arrived midway through the second quarter, but I didn't have a ticket or media credential. Knowing the stadium's gates would no longer be guarded for admission shortly after halftime, I figured I would wait outside the stadium's fencing adjacent to the Hall of Fame. Not the best view of the action, but a neat way to soak in the game.

Minutes later, Hopkins legend Paul Rabil, a two-time national champion and four-time All-American in the blue and black, walked toward the stadium's entrance/exit and leaned against the fence nearby. Shortly thereafter, Rabil greeted his girlfriend at the ticket booth and asked for her permitted access. It was denied. Rabil walked outside the stadium. "Sir, is your hand stamped?" a security official inquired. Rabil answered in the negative. "If your hand isn't stamped, you're not allowed to re-enter." Rabil shook his head. "I'm going to the main gate. I'll find my way in," Rabil said with a smile, though slightly flustered.

I didn't see Rabil later that night. For argument's sake, we'll assume the Michael Jordan of lacrosse made it into the game without difficulty, along with his girlfriend.

At the half, the new scoreboard at Homewood Field featured moments in Hopkins lacrosse lore, narrated by none other than Rabil. Don't think the security guard — who, it should be mentioned, was simply doing his job — noticed.

*****

Good day, and good lacrosse.


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