Two years ago, Brian Cooper started 18 games at close defense, ranking third on Maryland in caused turnovers and fifth in ground balls. The following season, he was asked to move to short-stick defensive midfield.
But Cooper didn’t view it as a demotion. He was an offensive midfielder at Archbishop Spalding and had been recruited by the Terps as a short-stick defensive midfielder. And with the close defense welcoming then-sophomore Casey Ikeda back from injury and then-freshman Matt Dunn into the fold, Cooper saw an opportunity to pair up with Landon Carr and solidify the defensive midfield.
“I enjoy playing short stick more just because my entire life, I’ve always played with a short stick,” Cooper, now a senior, said Tuesday. “I’m more comfortable with it. The long pole is fun, but with the short stick, I get to dodge a little more and it’s exciting to run up and down the field. There are definitely a lot of positives for both, but playing short is what the team needed because we have a lot of really talented close guys coming to school or coming back from injury last season. So it wasn’t a really big deal. I would play wherever the team needed me.”
Cooper quipped that the only difference for him has been playing with a stick that is three feet shorter than the long pole. But he has had the same tenacity that helped him accumulate 36 ground balls and 20 caused turnovers in 2012.
Cooper is currently tied with Ikeda for second on No. 1 Maryland (5-0) in caused turnovers (five) and ranks fourth in ground balls (14). He has contributed to a defense that ranks third in Division I in goals allowed (5.6 per game).
But as a short-stick defensive midfielder, Cooper doesn’t get nearly the attention that he might have gotten as a starting close defenseman. Cooper said he is taking the same approach that was taught to him by former Terps Dan Burns and Landon Carr, a pair of short-stick defensive midfielders drafted by teams in Major League Lacrosse.
“I think defensive midfielders in general, it’s an underappreciated position, but I think it’s a pretty challenging one,” he said. “So I have a lot of respect for the guys who played here – guys like Dan Burns and Landon Carr, who really helped me my freshman, sophomore and junior years in developing into a good player. … I’m just trying to play as well as I can. It doesn’t matter if I have a long pole or a short stick. My mindset doesn’t change. We’re a team defense.”
With opposing midfielders boasting the strength of linebackers and moving like sprinters, Cooper’s ability to defend with a short stick is incredibly valuable, coach John Tillman said.
“Brian Cooper is so important to us,” Tillman said. “He’s a guy that if he’s not practicing, you know he’s not there. The energy that he brings, just the leadership, the toughness, the heart; he’s a guy that is critical for us. He brings a lot of experience. He does a great job with the younger players. When I think of a Maryland player and the toughness you want to have as a Maryland player, Brian is a guy that comes to mind. He never takes a drill off. He never takes a practice off. He makes guys around him better.”
Cooper said he has noticed that opponents generally shy away from dodging against the team’s close defensive trio of Ikeda, Dunn (Loyola High) and junior Goran Murray and senior long-stick midfielder Michael Ehrhardt. That means more action for Cooper and sophomore Nick Manis (Severn), which is just fine with Cooper.
“We focus on sitting down and playing good defense,” he said. “… The guys on close are so good that teams usually try to dodge to the goal against the short sticks rather than trying to go through Dunn, Casey, Ehrhardt or Goran. So I get a lot of opportunities to get dodged against, and when that happens, I just try to play fundamental defense and let the offensive guy make a mistake. If can check his hands and get the ball on the ground, obviously I love doing that.”Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun