At Stevenson, playing defensive midfield is almost as much about athleticism as it is about defensive commitment. A unit composed of long-stick midfielders Chad Williams, Ryan Rubenstein and Warren Pumphrey and short-stick midfielders Connor Curro, Dylan Muti, Marcellus Preston and Peter Green must keep an opponent’s midfielders at bay and turn defense into instant offense.
“You’ve got to get your best athletes out there, and that’s what we have,” said Williams, a freshman. “We have a bunch of athletes that are willing to put 110 percent as a team and play good team defense.”
Added Curro: “We stress on it a lot, getting up and down the field and clearing and transition. It’s a grind.”
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As the No. 4 Mustangs (21-2) prepare to meet No. 3 Rochester Institute of Technology (19-2) in Sunday’s NCAA tournament final at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Curro is the leader of the defensive midfield as the Lutherville native and St. Paul’s graduate ranks fourth among the defenders in ground balls (47) and tied for fifth in caused turnovers (18). On Tuesday, he was named an honorable mention All American.
Stevenson’s defensive midfield shut out Salisbury senior midfielder Eric Kluge and limited junior midfielder Greg Korvin to a single assist in last Sunday’s 12-6 win in the semifinals. Lynchburg senior Vin Curran and sophomore Campbell Armstrong were blanked in the Mustangs’ 13-7 victory in the quarterfinals.
“The defensive midfield has been great all year,” coach Paul Cantabene said during a conference call Tuesday morning. “It’s really led by Connor Curro, who we think is one of the best D-middies in the country and has done a great job.”
Another key component has been the emergence of Williams, an Ellicott City native who played attack at Marriotts Ridge before shifting to midfield in the fall. But in the preseason, Williams asked Cantabene and the coaching staff if he could trade his short stick for a long pole.
“I felt like I could help out the team more there,” Williams said. “It was the right position for me. [But] it was difficult for the first couple weeks. I had to adjust to a longer stick from a short pole. It definitely took a while to get used to.”
Stevenson already had a pair of long-stick midfielders in Rubenstein (Boys’ Latin) and Pumphrey (St. Mary’s), but Williams was so earnest in picking up the nuances of the position that he impressed Cantabene.
“He just wanted to play,” Cantabene recalled. “He didn’t think he was going to play with the midfielders that we had. So he asked for the change and we were open to it. We thought he did a great job with it, and his attitude was unbelievable, being so open to it and so happy with the change that he just made the most of it, and now it’s paying off by playing in all of these tournament games and becoming a guy we’re counting on.”
Williams, Curro and the rest of the defensive midfield will be in the spotlight against the Tigers, who have four midfielders among the team’s top six in scoring. Sophomore Kyle Aquin scored four goals on nine shots and junior Taylor Wisman scored once on six shots and added one assist in RIT’s 12-11 overtime loss to the Mustangs on Feb. 27.
“I just remember their team being a lot of Canadians,” Curro said. “They throw it inside a lot. So we’ve just got to keep it tight and keep our sticks in the lanes.”
Said Cantabene: “They attack from the midfield a whole lot. That’s where all of their offense comes from with picks on the side and everything. So the play of our defensive midfield is going to be crucial in this game. But they’ve faced good midfields all year like Lynchburg and Salisbury and Tufts. We saw them earlier in the year. So those guys understand what they’re in for, and I expect them to play well.”