May 16, 2011

Bronzino, Noble Epitomize the Unique Brand of Big Red Defense

by Joel Censer |

Canadian Jason Noble, pictured here driving Jeremy Thompson down the sideline in Cornell's 11-6 win over Syracuse on April 12, says playing box lacrosse teaches you to play defense with your feet.

© Greg Wall

No one would mistake Cornell defenseman Mike Bronzino for teammate Jason Noble.

Bronzino grew up in the leafy Philadelphia suburbs where he was a two-sport star on both the lacrosse field and the gridiron. A compact 180 pounds, the Conestoga graduate was such a rugged physical presence in high school that he was nicknamed "The Beast."

Noble, on the other hand, is an Orangeville, Ontario, native who first started playing lacrosse in the tight confines of the box. A wiry 165 pounds, Noble wasn't exposed to the field game until he enrolled at the Hill Academy in Ontario his junior year of high school. There, coach Brodie Merrill, who reinvented the long-stick midfield position while at Georgetown, helped him transition from playing short stick indoors to wielding six feet of aluminum outside.

Whatever differences between the sophomore long poles in pedigree, strong hands (Noble is a lefty, Bronzino a righty) or dimensions, they're both athletic and skilled defenders expected to do more than just bark out defensive signals and prevent attackers from getting topside. Both bump up to take most faceoffs on the wings, and Noble even takes some himself (19-for-42 this season). Each has had success guarding a variety of offensive weapons: whether it's a stop-and-go waterbug, a bruising attackman, a crafty off-ball finisher or an alley-dodging midfielder.

"They both offer a great deal of versatility," Cornell coach Ben DeLuca said.

Often overlooked in stories about the Big Red -- odes to Rob Pannell's greatness or A.J. Fiore's hot-cold routine in goal probably make for more compelling copy -- is that Noble and Bronzino have come into their own and are enjoying breakout seasons.

Last year, Noble started as the second-string long-stick midfielder behind Pierce Derkac, but was shuttled down low after Bronzino broke his wrist in the preseason. The Canuck experienced some growing pains -- he had never played close defense before -- but ended the season contributing in all 18 games and picking up 56 ground balls. In 2011, he has started all 15 games, leads the Big Red in ground balls (64) and caused turnovers (27), and was recently named honorable mention All-Ivy League.

Much of Noble's success -- and some of his initial discomfort -- can be attributed to having grown up playing box lacrosse. The transition-friendly stripped hockey rinks up north helped him learn how to push tempo, force attackers into tough-angled shots, and dig out tough loose balls in traffic.

"Playing box teaches you to play defense with your feet," Noble said.

Bronzino is showing what he can do with a full season. That early wrist injury made him miss the first 12 games of his freshman year (subsequently opening the door for Noble). Only in the 2010 postseason was he able to flex his ground ball acumen, strength, deceptive speed and cover skills. When the Big Red throttled Army 14-5 in the quarterfinals, Bronzino scored a goal and completely shut down the Black Knights' hard charging 6'4" 220-pound attackman Garret Thul.

This season, Bronzino has continued to impress, and is second on the team in ground balls and caused turnovers. Like Noble, he was named honorable mention All-Ivy.

"He was a big reason we went on a run at the end of last season," Deluca said. "Michael's tenacious, tough and physical."

Most interesting when looking at the pair's success is considering the importance of size for defensemen in today's game. While many teams and coaches often salivate over hulking 6'3'' long-stick "prototypes," Bronzino and Noble are only 5'10".

DeLuca says he doesn't actively ignore size when recruiting, but instead focuses more on finding top-notch athletes who fit into the Big Red system. In the post-Tierney era, where complex slide packages, quick double-teams and a well-honed clearing game are prerequisites to any good defense, it makes sense that the Big Red would look first and foremost for guys with the skills, speed, mental aptitude, passion and athleticism to match.

Mitch Belisle and Pierce Derkac were converted short sticks. Ethan Vedder was a goalie before turning his attention to long pole. There's a lineage of stud Cornell defenders -- from Ryan McClay to Belisle to Matt Moyer to Bronzino and Noble now -- who may have been built on the smaller side, but who all were fast, tough, skilled off the ground, and had great lacrosse IQ.

This outlook also helps explain why Cornell has sometimes broken from convention when rounding out its backline. Big Red star long poles like Mitch Belisle (the 2007 NCAA Defenseman of the Year) and Derkac were converted short sticks. Ethan Vedder was a goalie before turning his attention to long pole. Not to mention there's a lineage of stud Cornell defenders -- from Ryan McClay to Belisle to Matt Moyer to Bronzino and Noble now -- who may have been built on the smaller side of Division I defensemen but who all were fast, tough, skilled off the ground, and had great lacrosse IQ.

"Size doesn't matter much," Bronzino said. "You can play with anyone as long as you match their intensity."

Cornell's recent postseason success, including Saturday's 12-5 victory over Hartford in the NCAA tournament's first round, has been marked by winning the possession war and outworking teams between the stripes. Noble and Bronzino will certainly be crucial for the second-seeded Big Red again Saturday when they face seventh-seeded Virginia in the NCAA quarterfinals at Hofstra -- especially in and around the faceoff circle, where Cornell (46 percent) has struggled.

"Those two [Bronzino and Noble] are some of our best ground ball guys," DeLuca said. "If we lose the faceoff, we want to apply pressure pretty quickly ... We want to make the faceoff a three-on-three battle."

On Saturday, the duo helped neutralize Hartford star faceoff man Tim Fallon (62 percent, 166 ground balls), who was just 11-for-21 in the Big Red's romp over the Hawks.

Against Virginia, Bronzino and Noble will need to again run roughshod against a Cavalier squad that has struggled at times between the lines. Not to mention they have the unenviable task of helping shut down UVA's cadre of big-time offensive threats.

DeLuca, though, has plenty of confidence.

"The sky's the limit," he said. "They have the chance to be two of the best we've had here."



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