Short stick, tough job

The Baltimore Sun

Navy sophomore Geoff Leone was living a nightmare only a defensive midfielder knows. Under 80-degree sunshine at Homewood Field, with the Johns Hopkins offense taking constant aim at him, Leone was fading fast as he tried to overcome painful leg cramps.

The Blue Jays were dominating possession time and relentlessly attacking the Mids' short-stick defenders - especially Leone.

During a second-half comeback that led to a 10-9 Hopkins victory, Blue Jays midfielder Brian Christopher took Leone behind the net, ran past him, circled the crease and scored. Soon after, midfielder Michael Kimmel blew past Leone from up top and scored.

"Those are the games you live for, but physically, that was one of the most tiring games I've ever played in," Leone said. "You know people are going to keep coming after you. You play defense as a team, but time and time again, [short-stick midfielders] are going to get singled out. "You're sometimes on an island out there. You're not going to let your guy go by you. You're going to take a beating. That's why I think it's one of the most fun positions you can play."

Welcome to the life of a "d-middie" or "short stick," as they are called in lacrosse circles. They are the marked men, the only two without a 6-foot stick among the six defenders in front of the goalkeeper. Their job goes beyond mustering the stamina, quick feet, skillful checking and love of contact required to cover offensive midfielders who are among the top athletes on the field.

"They're the most underappreciated guys in our sport," Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "They are expected to play great on-ball defense and great off-ball defense, play the wings on faceoffs, pick up ground balls, ride, clear, push the ball in transition and sometimes stay out there on offense. What don't they do?"

"Get down, get dirty, go get a tough ground ball, keep your guy from scoring," Loyola coach Charley Toomey added. "If you do your job, you go unnoticed."

The defensive midfielder doesn't accumulate goals, assists, saves, win faceoffs or a ton of ground balls. He doesn't hunker down near the net, where close defensemen mark opposing attackmen.

The short stick doesn't roam around the top of the defense, where the long stick, the leader of the defensive midfield trio, takes on the opponents' best midfielder and tries to generate turnovers, often out in the open, with flashy checks and ground-ball scoops.

"Long sticks have gotten to be like movie stars compared to the short-sticks," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said.

"D-middies are the most respected players on the team," added Maryland coach Dave Cottle, who recalled how, after the 2004 season, then-senior defensive midfielder Paul Gillette was the runaway vote-getter by his teammates as the Terps' MVP. "His name got called at the banquet and the place went absolutely nuts. Not bad for a guy who scored four [actually three] goals, huh?"

Bull's-eyes

The rise of the short-stick midfielder began 20 years ago. Before 1987, all six defenders played with long sticks. To increase scoring, the NCAA introduced a single, short-stick defender to the mix. In 1990, it added a second short stick and restricted defenses to four "poles." That created a pair of bull's-eyes for offenses to attack.

What fun it was for former Navy midfielder Mark Kapral, who converted to defensive midfielder and played there in 1988 and 1989. In both years, Navy lost to eventual champion Syracuse in the NCAA tournament. Both times, Kapral had to confront the legendary Gary or Paul Gait, one-on-one.

"[Syracuse] would set their picks, and you knew the Gaits or someone else was coming after you," Kapral said. "But Army was the toughest. They always did everything in their power to isolate me all day - behind the goal, way up top, wherever.

"I wore full sweats every day in practice, no matter how hot it was, to keep me light on my feet [in games]. Playing short stick is all about body positioning. You can't go for the home run checks."

Since Kapral's days, an emphasis on specialized units has put an ever-increasing premium on the value of the d-middie, while the vintage, two-way midfielder has been dying off. There are still exceptions, such as UMBC junior Terry Kimener and Hopkins junior Paul Rabil, who take lengthy shifts on defense. But over the past decade, the short-stick midfielder, whether identified as a high school recruit or converted in college, has become quite the prize.

Since they are forced to operate all over the field, short-stick midfielders, despite being raw at times in stick skills, often are among the best pure athletes on the team.

For example, Maryland senior Jimmy Borell, out for the year after breaking his ankle last month, has been timed in 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and his many one-man clears result from bursts of speed some tailbacks would envy. Borell's in-your-face defensive style, resembling a cornerback playing bump-and-run, also fits Maryland's rough-and-tumble philosophy.

"It's definitely not the pretty guy on the team," said Borell, who drew on his experience as a football safety in high school when the Terps converted him from offense to defense as a midfielder.

That Borell-like speed also is crucial in the transition game. Take a team such as Virginia, which plays a run-and-gun style and looks for great athletes in its defense to fuel the fast break it loves to use. That leads Starsia to seek outstanding athletes with a mean streak - often football players - to fill the d-middie rotation.

It shows with players such as junior Will Barrow, who excelled as a cornerback and didn't start playing lacrosse until his freshman year at Baldwin (N.Y.) High, primarly to keep in shape for football.

Bit of 'swagger'

In a 7-5 victory at Hopkins on March 24, Barrow's fast-break goal - one of only three this season - followed a save by goalie Kip Turner and staked the Cavaliers to a 5-2 halftime lead. Virginia stretched it to 7-2 before a tired Barrow allowed two late goals after getting beat.

"There's a cornerback swagger to playing that position. You can change the momentum of a game so quickly," Barrow said. "Most of the time, teams are going to dodge against two people, and that's the short sticks. That's where the shots are going to come from. [After the Hopkins game] I was still breathing heavily after I got out of the shower."

Ex-Hopkins defensive midfielder Benson Erwin had his share of exhausting days with the Blue Jays. Erwin also was revered in the locker room. He never said much. And he never stopped bullying offensive threats as a shut-down cover guy who helped make the Hopkins man-to-man and zone alignments airtight.

Erwin also made two memorable plays as a senior during the Blue Jays' 16-0 championship season in 2005. In a midseason clash with Duke, he poked the ball loose from first-team All-America midfielder Matt Zash in overtime, got Hopkins into its offense, then watched attackman Kevin Huntley win the game.

Then, in the classic come-from-behind, 9-8 overtime win over Virginia in the national semifinals, Erwin scored his fourth goal of the year on a fast break to win it.

Yet, it's the grunt work that Erwin, the fourth overall pick in the Major League Lacrosse draft in 2005, loves more than anything about being a d-middie.

"I had that innate aggressiveness in high school. I liked giving out the hits as opposed to getting them," he said. "It's about stopping my man one-on-one, making it easier on the defense around me. It's about doing all of the necessary things - sliding, playing the ball, forcing the offense to do things they don't want to do. It's a thankless job, and my best games are when I'm flying under the radar and nobody hears from me."

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

Some notable d-middies

Present

Who Year School Gary Lambrecht's comment

Will Barrow Junior Virginia Former star high school CB might be fastest player on team

Jimmy Borell Senior Maryland Out with broken ankle; his cover ability and 4.4 speed will be missed

Geoff Leone Sophomore Navy Next in a recent line of excellent short sticks at the academy

Ed Douglas Senior Duke Walk-on has become key to the Blue Devils' fast break

Ben Staines Senior North Carolina The glue of a much-improved defense

Past

Who School Gary Lambrecht's comment

Benson Erwin Johns Hopkins The unsung hero of the 2005 title team; Blue Jays miss his hard-hitting approach

Kyle Baugher Princeton 2001 title team was in a panic after he broke his wrist in the semifinal win over Towson

Paul Gillette Maryland Scored three goals in 2004; voted runaway team MVP

Clipper Lennon Navy His transition work in 2004 pushed Navy to the NCAA title game

J.J. Morrissey Virginia On last year's undefeated offensive machine, he often was the spark

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
68°