May 25, 2012

Elite LSMs On Display For Championship Weekend

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

Loyola's Scott Ratliff has the attitude that has come to define the modern long-stick midfielder: "You can get statistics on defense, you can get statistics on offense, you can help all over the field."
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com 

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Duke, Maryland and Loyola arrived at Gillette Stadium on Thursday, and one by one, each team received requests for Media Day interviews before their banquet dinner. Notre Dame did too, though the Fighting Irish were delayed getting out of South Bend, and thus, landing in New England.

And one by one, CJ Costabile, Jesse Bernhardt and Scott Ratliff were summoned to address the assembled reporters. That, by itself, is not surprising, until considering that Rob Rotanz, Joe Cummings or Eric Lusby — each team’s leading goal-scorer — didn’t get called on. 

If it hadn’t been obvious until Thursday, it quickly became clear: Foxborough would house the nation’s top three long-stick midfielders — at least according to the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association Division I All-America teams, which were announced earlier Thursday. This trio, ranking among the sport’s most dynamic playmakers, would take center stage in the sport’s biggest theater. 

When did college lacrosse reach a point where some of its most identifiable stars played long-stick midfield, a position in the past defined by “guys who couldn’t catch and throw but were athletic,” as Notre Dame defensive coordinator Gerry Byrne described Thursday? 

It might be difficult to identify an exact turning point, although the college eras of Brodie Merrill and Kyle Sweeney is a good start, but the time is upon us where LSMs shine. 

“Now they’re guys who can play offense and defense, who can play all around, box to box,” Byrne said. “It’s valuable because they’re on the faceoffs. They’re covering the best midfielder on every midfield line. They’re often near the top of the box, so they’re involved in a lot of ground balls. They’re an integral part of the defense, which is where long-stick midfielders really do well, and then they come to life on ground balls or leading the break.” 

Bernhardt, Ratliff and Byrne all mentioned Merrill, the former Georgetown and current Philadelphia Wings and Hamilton Nationals star, as the man who revolutionized the role. Byrne called Merrill the “poster boy for the position.” 

Costabile, the Tewaaraton finalist (and debatably, the favorite), was named USILA First-team All-American on Thursday, in part, because of his tremendous faceoff ability. The senior has won 53 percent of draws (133-of-251) this season. But sometimes it appears he’s toying with opposing faceoff specialists, purposefully losing just so he can make life miserable between the stripes and hawking the ball until it pops loose. Costabile ranks third nationally in ground balls (121), and could become the nation’s leader by the end of the weekend. 

Of the bunch, Bernhardt has arguably the best on-ball cover skills, while Ratliff might be the most dangerous in transition. Bernhardt held Rotanz, Virginia’s Colin Briggs and Johns Hopkins’ John Ranagan — all All-Americans — to a combined two goals on 13 shots. Ratliff is Loyola’s seventh-leading scorer, burying 12 goals and dishing out seven assists. 

The impact long-stick midfielders can make on gameday is not lost on Bernhardt and Ratliff. Bernhardt called the position a “great big energy booster” while Ratliff described it as “a stat-sheet filling spot.” 

“I definitely think it’s more valuable [than it was in the past],” Ratliff said. “Now, you’re seeing the position evolve to where we're really playing offense and defense. That’s what I really love about it. Anytime I stay on defense too long, I get tired of it. Anytime I keep playing offense, I get tired of getting beat on. So it’s kind of that perfect mixture of playing both. That’s why a lot of guys playing the position are getting a lot of notoriety. You can get statistics on defense, you can get statistics on offense, you can help all over the field — ground balls.” 

Said Bernhardt: “I definitely think it’s more important now than it was in the past. It’s one of the utility positions. You can make anything happen. It’s such an up-and-down game. Stick skills are so good nowadays. It’s that game-changing position, I would say. For some of the guys at the position, to make that takeaway check at the middle of the field, or come down and score that goal off the faceoff. It’s a big momentum shifter.” 

Funny thing is, these do-it-all dynamos couldn’t have predicted this a few years ago. Costabile and Ratliff grew up playing both ends of the field, grabbing a short-stick or a long-pole depending on what their team needed or the situation. Bernhardt went to College Park, Md., expecting to play close defense, and at times thought he might play there in 2012 after the Terrapins graduated every member of their starting close unit. 

So it’s a hybrid position that takes a special set of attributes to play well, and one that’s transforming before our eyes. 

In an era of lacrosse when defensive players are increasingly athletic and slide packages are increasingly complex, it’s becoming harder to score goals in 6-on-6 settings. Who fills the void? In some cases, the long-stick middies. 

In other cases, well… there’s Notre Dame. As Byrne said, “we’re not looking for our long-stick middie to score 15 goals. We’re looking for guys who are looking to prevent 15 goals. You can’t have one eye on the offensive end of the field, because then you’re not going to be your best on the defensive end of the field. That’s really important to the way we play. That calculus has to be the part of the equation.” 

The Irish’s starting long-stick middie Bobby Smith offers an interesting parallel to Costabile, Bernhardt and Ratliff. Notre Dame’s suffocating half-field defense relies on selflessness and trust in the system, in which Smith plays a significant role. 

“We don’t ask Bobby to be that guy,” Byrne said. “But he obviously has that ability.” 

In Notre Dame’s 12-10 quarterfinal defeat of Virginia on Sunday, ESPN analyst and sideline reporter Paul Carcaterra said on the game’s broadcast that coach Kevin Corrigan gave Smith an earful for shooting in early offense. Corrigan wanted smart offensive possessions that yielded good looks. Then, right at the start of the fourth quarter, Smith picked up a loose ball after a faceoff and charged down the field, ripping a shot that rattled in the back of the cage past Rob Fortunato. 

No matter the team, system or style, on Thursday one thing was obvious: the long-stick midfielders are going to make an impact in championship weekend. 

Foley With Irish, Status Unknown 

Notre Dame junior midfielder Ryan Foley, who was injured in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s win against Virginia, traveled with the Fighting Irish to Foxborough, Byrne confirmed. It’s unclear whether Foley will be cleared to play this weekend. 

Foley suffered an apparent concussion against the Cavaliers with 7:41 to play in the fourth quarter, immediately after scoring a goal to give Notre Dame a 9-8 lead. Virginia’s Scott McWilliams Foley lay motionless on the PPL Park turf for nearly 10 minutes before being taken off the field on a stretcher.

He went to a local hospital with his family, and preliminary tests came back in his favor. En route to an ambulance, Foley twice, raised an arm and gave a thumbs-up sign, eliciting cheers from players and fans. 

Foley Tweeted at 5:10 p.m. Sunday evening: “Thanks for the twitter love everyone. I am in fact alive and more importantly were goin to the final four! #Irish.”

Costabile Will Be Primary Faceoff Taker

Expect Costabile to take the majority of faceoffs Saturday against Maryland.

In Duke's first round tournament game against Syracuse, Costabile operated on the faceoff wing and Brendan Fowler and Greg DeLuca took the draws, with Duke head coach John Danowski opting to "try to take the load of CJ, if we needed to." But the load is back on Costabile now. Fowler broke his collarbone in the third quarter of the Syracuse game (he had surgery to repair the injury this week) and DeLuca started off 1-of-5 in the quarterfinals against Colgate and was replaced by Costabile, who went 14-of-20.

"It will primarily fall on CJ, " Danowski said Thursday of Saturday's faceoff plan, "but if CJ struggles, Greg DeLuca and perhaps either Henry Mayer or Jack Rowe would be the next guys in line." – COREY McLAUGHLIN

Speech From a Patriot

At the annual final four banquet dinner Thursday evening on the club level at Gillette Stadium, New England Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was the guest speaker for the four teams in attendance before players and coaches hit the buffet line.

McDaniels mentioned that when he grew up in the Canton, Ohio-area there wasn't a lot of lacrosse, but that he and members of the Patriots coaching staff have taken to the game, following the lead of head coach Bill Belichick's well-publicized love for the sport.

At one point, McDaniels asked those who had won a national championship and those who had a lost in the championship game to raise their hands. The Duke players from the 2010 title team raised their hands for the former and those from Maryland's runner-up team last year raised for the latter. "Two totally different experiences," he said. "I'm in the same boat. I've won them and I've lost them. It's great to win them and it's no fun to lose them."

McDaniels was dressed as he would be on the sideline, with a hooded sweatshirt and visor, having just come from Patriots' organized team activities practice. He apologized for his appearance to start the speech, saying he "just came from our third practice of the season."

He ended by speaking to all the players: "It's going to be a special day for somebody here this weekend." – C.M.


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