Maryland’s defense, considered in the preseason to be the team’s strength after the graduation of four starters on offense, is living up to the billing.
The No. 3 Terps held Duke to season lows in goals and assists and a season-worst scoring drought of 26 minutes, 26 seconds in Saturday’s 10-6 victory over the No. 1 Blue Devils at Byrd Stadium in College Park.
Maryland’s goals-allowed-per-game rose from 4.7 to 5.3, but that was bound to happen unless the Terps (4-0 overall and 2-0 in the Atlantic Coast Conference) kept the reigning national champion Blue Devils to four goals or fewer – which hadn’t been done since Feb. 18, 2012 when Notre Dame hammered out a 7-3 win.
Duke (4-1, 0-1) suffered its first loss because the offense could not figure out Maryland senior goalkeeper Niko Amato, who finished with a season-high 17 saves.
“I thought he was terrific,” Duke coach John Danowski said of Amato, who is 5-2 against the Blue Devils. “But every time we see him, he’s been terrific and really consistent. I mean, 17 saves in a college lacrosse game, you could make the argument that if he had 12 saves, he would have played really well, and we would’ve won. With that being said, their defense does a great job in front of him, which allows him to see contested shots, shots under duress. It’s not just all him. It’s certainly the defensive group in front of him and the way they’re coached.”
Similarly, Amato spread the credit for the defensive performance with his teammates. The unit held then-No. 2 Syracuse to 10 goals below that team’s season average in a 16-8 dismantling on Feb. 22 and limited Duke to almost eight goals below its average.
Amato said the chemistry the defense has developed over the past few years has helped Maryland move, slide, and communicate almost effortlessly.
“For most of us, it’s our third or fourth year together,” he said. “So we’ve really grown to know each other a lot, especially this year. Younger guys are stepping up, we’re more familiar with our coaching staff, we’ve got returners and Coach [Kevin] Conry and [volunteer assistant] Jesse [Bernhardt]. So that really helps us out a lot. We still recognize we’ve got some things to improve upon defensively, and we’re going to continue to keep growing and keep pushing each other.”
The defense has solidified while making some important changes in personnel. Senior Michael Ehrhardt has shifted from close defense to long-stick midfield, and sophomores Matt Dunn and Nick Manis are starting on close defense and short-stick defensive midfield, respectively.
Junior defenseman Goran Murray said the defense has barely missed a step despite the new faces and new roles.
“Together as a unit, after last year and this year, we’ve kind of bonded a little more and more throughout the year,” Murray said. “We’ve been keying in on our film, keying in on and buying into that this is a team defense. We’ve had matchups, and you can talk about matchups. You can talk about who’s guarding who and how that attackman is a great attackman. We’ve got guys on defense, and everyone on our defensive unit across the board can play with anybody. But together with that mentality and coming out for games, we’ve just approached every game like we’re going to square up and battle with everybody.”
* Duke senior attackman Jordan Wolf’s two goals were his first in four career games against Maryland since Murray joined the team in 2012 and assumed the primary responsibility of shadowing Wolf. In the previous three contests, Wolf had taken 11 shots and had nearly as many turnovers (three) as assists (four). But Murray downplayed his matchup with Wolf. “From the start of this week, we just said that we’re not going to worry about matchups, and we’re going to play team defense,” Murray said. “I just stuck to that from the first minute to the last minute to the last second. It just ended up working better throughout the game – making plays as a group offensively and defensively.”
* The Terps’ failure to clear the ball on one attempt in the second quarter against Duke was the first time this season that they had not made one clear in a period. Part of the problem was that several defensive players had a difficult time scooping up rebounds and beginning the transition from defense to offense. Coach John Tillman said the team began working on several fixes during halftime, and Maryland succeeded on 8 of 9 clears in the second half. “Getting halftime was probably good for us, settling down a bit,” he said. “We looked at some clears, making sure that we were organized. We had some younger guys in spots. We just wanted to go over it again. We actually worked on the clears a little bit more the last couple days, knowing that might be a little bit of an issue. I think the guys got a chance to see that, and we made better decisions.”
* After winning 19 of 26 faceoffs, picking up 11 ground balls and scoring two goals in the Terps’ 16-8 thumping of then-No. 2 Syracuse on Feb. 22, junior Charlie Raffa had a much more difficult time against the Blue Devils. He won just 8 of 19 draws, but did collect a game-best seven ground balls and scored one goal during the team’s pivotal 7-0 run. Raffa’s outing had something to do with Duke senior Brendan Fowler, last year’s Most Outstanding Player in the NCAA tournament who won 11 of 19 faceoffs. “Fowler’s terrific at the X,” Tillman said. “We love Charlie. But give Fowler a lot of credit. He is a really tough player, and he’s really good, and he’s as advertised.”