Short-stick midfielders are like offensive linemen in the NFL. The only time most fans know about them is when they are getting beat.
There are exceptions and Towson has two of them in Jack Adams and Zach Goodrich. You can add long pole midfielder Tyler Mayes to them, also. Since the postseason started, the Tigers are allowing just 6.75 goals per game.
Opposing coaches and television commentators certainly know Adams, Goodrich and Mayes.
"In today's game, offenses seem to always go after the short sticks," said former UMBC and Johns Hopkins coach Don Zimmerman, now a commentator for ESPN. "Go after the short sticks, try to draw the slide, bang the ball, and look for the high-quality shot. So Adams and Goodrich being the short sticks, they're challenged, and they were challenged by Penn State on Saturday."
"But not only on Saturday did they hold up, but they've held up all year," Zimmerman added. "They're athletes, they're tough kids, they're fundamentally sound, they play within the system. So the plan of attack for most teams of going after the short sticks means they're going after two of Towson's best players."
Towson has another big challenge Sunday when the Tigers (11-4) play No. 2 seed Syracuse (13-3) in an NCAA Division I quarterfinal game at noon at the University of Delaware. The Orange has two of the best offensive midfielders in the country in Sergio Salcido (17 goals, 33 assists) and Nick Mariano (34 goals, 15 assists). Most teams have defended them by either doubling one or sliding hard to them early.
Adams, Goodrich and Hayes have been so good they don't need the help. They've handled every opponent one on one.
"The bottom line is their defensive midfield unit. The kid 33 [Mayes] is the Defensive Player of the Year," said Drexel coach Brian Voelker, whose team lost to Towson twice in 2017. "The thing that really sets them apart is Adams and Goodrich. Those guys are monsters. Our offense is really predicated on running by guys and moving the ball, and we just couldn't do that. We knew it was going to be a challenge with those guys, but when you don't have many opportunities, it can be tough."
Just three opposing middies have scored a total of five goals against the Tigers in three postseason games and Penn State's middies were held scoreless last week in the Tigers' 12-8 opening round NCAA tournament win. Overall, including the postseason, 28 different midfielders have scored a combined 45 goals this year against Towson and of those 17 were starters who accounted for 32.
That's impressive. That's intimidating.
Goodrich and Adams are prototypes. Goodrich, a sophomore from Kent Island High, is 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds. Adams, a senior from Hereford High, is 6-3 and 210. Both are athletic, long and lean. Both have long arms, run well and can change directions with ease.
"Our philosophy isn't that we don't want to slide," Towson coach Shawn Nadelen said. "We don't want to leave anyone hanging out to dry. But we are fortunate to have two short-stick midfielders who can get their hands on people."
Goodrich said: "With Syracuse, they are a very good off ball team. They are good on ground balls. So we're going to have to be really good on ground balls, ride hard and play really smart. Playing with Jack and Mayes has been an honor for me. They're four-year guys, and I'm a sophomore. So I've learned everything from those two. Watching those two play is unreal. Mayes is a great long pole middie, and Jack is just teaching me everything he taught me throughout the season."
Mayes never takes a break. A lot of teams play with two long pole middies but Mayes is on the field for every opposing team's offensive possession as well as on a wing for every face-off.
"Mayes holds his own with that long stick as a take away artist," Zimmerman said. "So if a team decides, 'Hey, let's go after Mayes here,' now he has the ability to put the ball on the ground with the caused turnover. They're solid. They're veterans, and they are very confident in their abilities, and they should be. They work hard, and they're productive."
They also helped out Towson's close defense and goalies as both positions struggled early in the season because of new faces. Mayes, Goodrich and Adams kept the pressure off while those guys matured. They had to think less because they didn't have to slide as much. Instead, the close defensemen only had to focus on the attack.
"When you have a strong unit, you can bank on those guys doing their jobs and not maybe have to slide," Nadelen said. "As young and as inexperienced as our close unit was this year, it took some time for those guys to get to know each other as a whole."
The defense appears to be peaking at the right time. The Nittany Lions entered last Saturday's game with the No. 5 ranked offense in the country, averaging more than 13 goals a game. They were held to eight. But Syracuse has a different style. The Orange's strength is at midfield and Syracuse is averaging 12.4 goals.
It comes down to this: If Towson can control the tempo on offense and Mayes, Goodrich and Adams play well, few fans will notice them. If Salcido and Mariano are having big games then no one will forget them.
It's part of the job.
"When I first got there I was on the offensive end but that changed," Goodrich said. "You have to do what is best for the team and now every day we go out and push each other. We go out and win individual matchups. It's what we do. It's our role."