It took him awhile to adjust to the role, after playing as an offensive midfielder through high school, but Cornell senior defenseman Mitch Belisle now embraces the idea of being a stopper.
Over the past two seasons, the Severna Park High alum has mastered the art. His recent work is a quiet reason Cornell (6-0) is the first team to remain No. 1 for consecutive weeks.
The Big Red features outstanding scorers in attackmen David Mitchell and Eric Pittard. But Cornell's calling card has been its defense, which has allowed just six goals per game.
During a recent two-game road swing, the defense came to the fore behind senior All-America goalie Matt McMonagle and Belisle, the Big Red's premier cover guy. In a 7-4 victory at No. 10 Army, Belisle stuffed leading scorer Justin Bokmeyer, who had one assist. In a 7-6 win at No. 6 Duke, he held Player of the Year candidate Matt Danowski to two goals.
"It's something I look forward to every week," Belisle said of his game-to-game responsibility of checking the other side's top gun. "It's a stress I enjoy.
"[McMonagle] bailed me out a couple of times [against Duke]. I just battled [Danowski] for every loose ball, in every one-on-one, forced him to pass off as much as I could."
Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni saluted an offense that has absorbed the loss of first-team All-America midfielder Joe Boulukos. But he said the pulse of the team originates at the other end, where the defense, once a predominantly zone unit, now relies on aggressive man-to-man coverage and is more comfortable pressing out to force turnovers.
"Mitch has been a wonderful leader and extremely selfless since the day he walked on campus," Tambroni said. "He's not a flashy defender. He's a blue-collar guy who's going to be in your gloves and in your face. The tougher the assignment, the tougher he gets. He and Matt set the tone in practice about who we want to be."
Ultimately, Cornell wants to be where it hasn't been since losing the 1988 title game to Syracuse -- in the NCAA tournament final four. The Big Red suffered one-goal losses in the quarterfinals in 2002 and 2004.
When Massachusetts made a memorable run through the NCAA tournament last May, all the way to a 15-7 loss to Virginia in the championship game, the Minutemen figured to drop off. After all, UMass said goodbye to seven strong seniors, led by Player of the Year candidates in attackman Sean Morris and defenseman Jack Reid.
The defense is holding up its end in 2007, giving up an average of eight goals. The offense, which lacks a consistent feeder and finisher -- Morris was both -- is a different story. UMass is scoring just 7.9 goals per game, is shooting a paltry 21.8 percent and has dropped four games by a combined six goals. Saturday's 10-8 loss at Loyola encapsulated the Minutemen's season. UMass outshot Loyola, 47-26, and fell to 2-5.
"We're getting opportunities to score, but we're not doing it," UMass coach Greg Cannella said.
UM's goalie shuffle
Last fall, Maryland figured returning All-America senior Harry Alford would be its starting goalie, with junior Jason Carter and freshman Brian Phipps backing up. Then, Alford had shoulder surgery in November, Carter broke his collarbone in early February, and Phipps was thrust into the net.
Alford has been practicing for more than a week and could be ready to start by mid-April, but Phipps is playing so well that he could present Terps coach Dave Cottle with a delicate decision.
"I'm not going to take away Harry's senior year. We're going to need Harry. But Brian is playing great," Cottle said. "Carter looks like a serious redshirt candidate."