September 18, 2007

Sept. 18, 2007

Note: This article appeared in the "Lacrosse Classroom" section of Lacrosse magazine in August 2007. If there's a topic you'd like to see covered in the "Classroom," e-mail section editor Matt DaSilva at mdasilva@uslacrosse.org.


"Dodge the shorty."

It has become a unilateral philosophy in lacrosse to get the ball behind the cage or to the top of the restraining box and expose a short-stick midfielder and his mere 40 inches of reach.

In April, 15-year-old Robert Braddock of Deer Park, Texas, sent an e-mail to Lacrosse magazine, requesting: "I really think that you should consider doing a `Classroom' on midfielder defense."

For sources, we went to the Philadelphia Barrage's Matt Zash and the Denver Outlaws' Benson Erwin. As defensive midfielders in offensive-minded Major League Lacrosse, Zash and Erwin are rare entities among professional lacrosse players.

Zash, a former All-American and one of the nation's top two-way middies at Duke, contends he is only fulfilling a "rite of passage" in the MLL as a defensive specialist.

Selected by the midfield-heavy Barrage in the 2006 MLL collegiate draft, by necessity, Zash became a "d-middie." It meant manning the wings on faceoffs and neutralizing the MLL's most dangerous dodgers from the top of the restraining box, two roles he filled rather well in Philadelphia's win over the Denver Outlaws in the 2006 MLL championship game.

Erwin, who might best be known for scoring the overtime goal on the fly in Johns Hopkins' turbulent 2005 NCAA semifinal against Virginia, was among those designated to play only defense in college. He continues in that capacity for the Outlaws.

If you're looking to differentiate yourself on defense, here are a few guidelines that will make them think twice about dodging a shorty.

LM: What are the most common attributes of a good defensive midfielder?

Zash writes: Defensive middies are required to be fast up field, aggressive on ground balls, posses great stick protection in traffic, and make smart decisions once the ball is over the midline.

Converted defensemen will generally be "stay-at-home" players. They're the most physical players on the field because they feel the need to compensate for lacking that extra distance between themselves and offensive players. Short-sticks don't try to take the ball away. They are more concerned with solid position defense. In college, players like [Duke senior] Mike Ward take everybody's candy. However, in the MLL, the sticks are too good for shorties to go crazy trying to force loose balls.

Mentally, short-stick defensemen are unselfish. They have to be, or they'll ride the pine. They are responsible for the intangibles (getting up field for fast breaks, sprinting all the way back to the crease to prevent unsettled situations, boxing out on the face off, etc.) It's hard work with little instantaneous reward. Rewards come with championships.

Erwin writes: Selfless. Get lost in team concepts. Have a blue-collar mentality. Be the one that wants to get the ground balls, who wants to play sound defense both on and off the ball, who wants to spur transition and advance the ball to the offense.

Aggressive. A defensive midfielder has a hard-nosed mentality, someone who is attracted to contact and physical play.

Athletic. You must be able to move quickly and adjust to offensive advances.

LM: What drills/exercises can you perform to become a d-middie?

Zash writes: To become a better short-stick defenseman, you should always be working on ground ball skills, goalie outlet skills (especially bad pass drills), and basically anything that has to do with fast breaks.

Teams always try to pick on the short sticks. Practicing one-on-ones and two-on-twos is a must. It is especially important to practice from behind the cage, where many offensive players are now carrying their shorties to prevent fast breaks going the other way.

Practicing slide-and-recovery drills will help you understand the concepts and schemes that go into your team's package. To be a good short stick defenseman, you should know: who is responsible to slide at all times; who is responsible for taking that man's spot once he leaves; and who is helping out off-ball and on the "three" slide.

Erwin writes: Jump rope. It's always helpful to have quick feet.

Work on ground balls. Ground balls are the most important part of the game. Focus on developing fundamental ground-ball skills. (1 - Stay low to the ground; 2 - Keep two hands on your stick; 3 - Explode through ball; and 4 - Run to daylight.)

Hit the wall. Develop stick skills early. A great d-middie is comfortable with the ball in his stick, and may be able to get a shot or two in transition as well.

LM: Are there any other insights/comments on the position?

Erwin writes: Lacrosse is becoming more and more specialized, which creates opportunities for those players who do want to play defensive midfield.

Colleges are looking for aggressive players who can get ground balls, are smart in transition, and can play great defense. Most coaches will take effort over finesse.

Defensive midfield is a hard, thankless position, and it takes a lot of effort. What you lack in stick skills you can make up for in effort and hard work. Pride yourself on getting groundballs, stopping your individual defensive match-ups, sliding on time, etc. Coaches and teammates appreciate it more than you may think.

Zash writes: My comments are to the coaches at the youth level.

Midfielders should be taught how to play midfield. Scheming with specialized positions on the youth level, to me, is irresponsible. The kids who you thrust into these roles are most likely not the "talented" ones...yet. They're the kids who you just don't trust on offense because they can't dodge or shoot like a few others.

But who knows what kind of body type and player this kid could be once he grows and matures? Take the time to teach and coach, instead of developing schemes to win games. Skill development and overall positive athletic experiences are most important. As a youth coach, if your goal is to win a championship, do the kids a favor and let them know it's not too late to sign up for baseball (where they could possibly learn something).

For the young players: Always strive to develop your entire game. The above recommendations and drills on becoming a good short stick defenseman apply to all midfielders. Midfielders are offensive, defensive and transition players.

Practice the position, not the role.
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