May 26, 2010

Depth Perception: More or Less in the Middle?

by Matt DaSilva | Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff

How far can one team ride three horses?

Will McKee, a converted attackman, gets plenty of time in Duke's deep midfield corps, which employs up to 13 players per game.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

That’s the question facing Notre Dame men’s lacrosse coach Kevin Corrigan, who paradoxically possesses one of the most lethal, but shallow midfield corps of the four teams in this weekend’s NCAA Division I semifinals in Baltimore.

Grant Krebs, Zach Brenneman and David Earl are the Irish’s go-to gunners. Earl has been the turnkey in this NCAA tournament, shifting between the first and second midfield units. His five goals keyed Notre Dame’s first-round upset of Princeton.

“David Earl is our midfield depth,” Corrigan said Tuesday. “David Earl our last game ended up playing on man-up because of an injury. That had been the only thing he hadn’t done for us this year. If we gave him long stick next year, that might complete it.”

Corrigan’s deployment of Earl begs another question: at this critical juncture of the season, is it better to stack your top line and run it into the ground or spread the talent between two lines?

“You ask yourself that question all the time,” Corrigan said Tuesday during a conference call. “What’s the best way to arrange these lines? I don’t know that I have one prevailing theory. Part of it depends on how you want to play.”

Whereas Virginia, Duke and Cornell prefer up-tempo, run-and-gun lacrosse, Notre Dame plays at a more deliberate pace. The Irish slowed down both Princeton in a 7-5 upset of the Tigers in the first round, and then did the same thing by an identical score against Maryland in the quarterfinals.

They can afford to load up on one, super-charged, offensive midfield supplemented by role players like dangerous long-stick midfielder Andrew Irving and man-up midfielder Max Pfeiffer, the tradeoff when Earl plays on the first line.

“They’re so athletic at the midfield both offensively and defensively. It puts a lot of pressure on you to earn possession time,” said Cornell head coach Jeff Tambroni, whose team has returned to the final four despite having to replenish its entire starting midfield. “Their depth through the first, second and third middies on that first line puts tremendous pressure on your defense to keep each one of those guys accounted for.”

Second-line middies have either played crucial roles or been virtually non-existent for recent NCAA champions. Syracuse’s 2009 team got important contributions from Josh Amidon and Greg Niewieroski in its dramatic comeback win over Cornell, but the Orange’s 2008 outfit rode the hot hands of Steven Brooks, Brendan Loftus and Dan Hardy.

In 2007, you would have been hard-pressed to identify a Johns Hopkins midfielder not named Paul Rabil, Stephen Peyser or Michael Kimmel.  Same went for Virginia in 2006, when Matt Poskay, Kyle Dixon and Drew Thompson ran over UMass virtually unopposed.

And yet, coaches continue to preach midfield depth as the X-factor in their sustained success.

The first rule of Project Mayhem: don't ask questions.

* MD1 Tournament Central
* WD1 Tournament Central

“We’re really happy with our two midfield groups,” said Duke head coach John Danowski. “We’re playing five different short-stick d-middies, two long-stick d-middies and six guys on offense. We’re playing 13 midfielders.”

The Blue Devils mine their midfield depth more than any Division I team. Justin Turri (16g, 16a) and Steve Schoeffel (17g, 5a) are fixtures on the first line, but the rotation remains fluid after them. Jonathan Livadas, Will McKee, Mike Catalino and Robert Rotanz are all capable of having big weekends.

Duke and Virginia split their regular season series. Even though neither started, McKee and Catalino were major spark plugs in the Blue Devils’ victory on April 17. They were not as effective, nor did they get as many opportunities, when the Wahoos beat Duke in the ACC semifinals six days later.

“I thought the difference between the first two games of Duke was in the middle of the field,” said Cavaliers head coach Dom Starsia. “One of the keys in this game is going to be what happens between the lines.”

When Shamel Bratton was injured earlier this season, Starsia bumped Rhamel Bratton to the top line and kept him there when his twin brother returned. The result has been an almost unguardable top line of the Brattons plus Brian Carroll.

While John Haldy and Colin Briggs can hold their own, their roles are limited. Virginia's midfield depth -- among other, more serious consequences -- was affected by the arrest of former second liner George Huguely, who's being held on murder charges in the death of UVA women's player Yeardley Love.

Jim Berkman, for one, is relieved to have some midfield depth back at his disposal. Berkman, whose Salisbury team will play Tufts in the NCAA Division III championship game Sunday, survived a quarterfinal upset bid by Haverford almost exclusively on the backs of Sam Bradman, Mike Von Kamecke and Shawn Zordani.

Von Kamecke struggled the first half of the season with an injury. “He’s definitely gained a step,” Berkman said. Second-line midfielder Eric Law also missed 18 games with a broken clavicle. “We’re going to get quality minutes we need on the second line Sunday to give our first line a rest and hopefully generate some offense from that second line we haven’t had.”

Berkman said a coach could gauge a second midfield line’s effectiveness early in the game. The second middies’ jobs: possess the ball, get a run or two at the cage and don’t yield transition.

Thankless? Yes.

But with hot and humid conditions expected this weekend in Baltimore, midfield depth could spell the difference for teams that have come so close to lacrosse immortality.


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