Salisbury, winner of 10 NCAA titles in 20 years, is back in the spotlight, having risen to No. 2 in the latest United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association poll, and a substantial amount of credit should go to the defense.
Anchored by senior goalkeeper Alex Taylor (6.12 goals-against average and .598 save percentage) and a pair of 2013 second-team All-Americans in senior defenseman Josh Martin and sophomore short-stick defensive midfielder Preston Dabbs, the unit has surrendered just 6.1 goals per game. Only one opponent has reached the 10-goal mark against Salisbury (7-0) thus far.
The program has featured stingier defenses, but coach Jim Berkman said the current unit is just as strong.
“We’re not giving up that many goals,” he said Tuesday morning. “We’ve got a great goalie, and it all starts there with an All-American-type of goalie. We’ve got three athletic, fast close guys that can all guard people. There’s really no weakness down there. I think we’ve got outstanding D-middies, which is the key to any defense. We’ve got an All-American long-stick in [senior] Zeke Smith and a backup long-stick that takes the ball away probably better than Zeke does. So as a unit, it’s a pretty good unit. But it’s still early. It’s only seven games into the season. It’s definitely a good unit with a lot of experience, too.”
The defense has also created its opportunities. The unit has caused 94 turnovers, which is the most in a season-opening, seven-game stretch since 2009 when that squad forced 99 takeaways.
Berkman said the defense’s philosophy has remained the same, but said: “Maybe we’re not overextending and guarding guys because the game has changed, the players have gotten better, the sticks are harder to get the ball out. So we’re probably not guarding guys as tightly all over the field as we used to, but I think our basic slide packages and all of that kind of stuff are the same.”
The Sea Gulls will test their defense against No. 7 Washington College, which has averaged 13.0 goals en route to a 5-0 record. Shoremen coach Jeff Shirk said Salisbury’s close defensemen try to get into their opponents’ heads with some talking and some stickwork, and it will be important for his attackmen to keep their emotions in check.
“It’s one of those things where it’s a confident group, it’s an athletic group,” Shirk said. “They take advantage of all their strengths, and there are a lot of offenses that step onto the field against Salisbury and experience that and are beat before the game ever really gets going. So I think the big thing we’re stressing to our guys is, understand how they play and the approach they take. To me, it’s as much a mental game as it is a physical game because I feel like we can match up physically. It’s a matter of being prepared mentally for them because I’ve seen other teams that have played Salisbury fold from a mental aspect as soon as those guys have gotten into their heads. The approach we’re taking is that they’re a very good team and they’re very athletic and we’ve got to be ready to go.”