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Move to a zone defense has helped Towson women to 4-0 start

The Towson women's lacrosse team has been in the zone en route to a 4-0 mark, the Tigers' best start since 2010.

With a veteran line defense, the Tigers have returned to playing a backer zone and the change has paid off. The Tigers are allowing just 4.75 goals per game. Against the three opponents they also played last year — Monmouth, UMBC and Loyola — they allowed 14 fewer goals.

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Tigers coach Sonia LaMonica said her coaching staff made the change because of some of the new rules, especially the downgrading of the three-second penalty from a major foul to a minor foul. Now if a defensive player remains in the 8-meter arc more than three seconds within a stick's length of an opponent, the opponent isn't awarded a free-position shot.

That makes a zone much more appealing and LaMonica said she believes more teams will pick up the increasingly popular defensive strategy.

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"I think you're going to be seeing more and more zones as more and more coaches see the advantages," she said. "I think teams need to be able to move the ball effectively and play good team offense when you're facing a zone. It gets harder when you have one or two go-to players who can beat people one-v-one. If you can't move the ball and not everyone on the offensive end has good stickwork, you're going to have trouble against a zone."

So far, the Tigers have made a smooth adjustment from the high-pressure man-to-man they ran last year. Junior Kelly McQuilkin (Atholton) and senior Emily Roth (Severn) started last season and redshirt senior Nadio Podo, a 2014 starter, is back after missing a year with an ACL tear. The Tigers have added sophomore Tianna Wallpher (Mount Hebron), an America East All-Rookie selection last spring at UMBC.

Having such a veteran group helps freshman goalie Angie Benson, who has a .500 save rate.

The Tigers soon face a few more tests for their zone, especially when they travel to No. 3 Florida on March 14, before beginning play in the Colonial Athletic Association, where they finished second last spring.

Newcomers bolster Maryland's defense: The biggest question facing two-time defending national champion Maryland coming into this season was: How would a rebuilt defense handle the challenge of top Division I competition?

If Saturday's 8-7 win over No. 5 North Carolina in a rematch of last year's title game is any indication, the No. 1 Terps will be fine.

The Terps slowed a Carolina offense considered one of the best in Division I averaging 15.75 goals over its first four games, including 15 in a loss to No. 3 Florida.

All-American Alice Mercer (Century) and veteran Nadine Hadnagy lead the way, but freshman Julia Braig (St. Paul's) and juniors Morgan Torggler (Severna Park) and Alex McKay (Marriotts Ridge) and redshirt freshman Steff Holmes (McDonogh) have been impressive through the Terps first three games.

In her first complete game, freshman goalie Megan Taylor (Glenelg) made six saves and held the Tar Heels to just one goal in the first half, earning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Week honors. She finished with eight saves.

"We had a great day on defense when we were struggling on the offensive end," Maryland coach Cathy Reese said. "We were just really disciplined. No one was swinging. No one was fouling. We were helping each other out well. Our slides were where they needed to be. We kept them off the 8-meter. We were just really smart defensively."

Veteran midfielders Taylor Cummings (McDonogh), the two-time Tewaaraton Award winner, and Zoe Stukenberg (Marriotts Ridge) also play key roles on the defensive end.

"The test is if we can keep it going," said Reese whose Terps face No. 2 Syracuse and No. 3 Florida in the next two weeks. "Carolina has such a good offense so obviously you're pleased as a coach when you can hold them the way that we did. I think we struggled clearing the ball a little bit, so that will be the next piece. Our defenders need to continue that transition piece and clear it out so we get it to the offense better."

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Florida keeps climbing: If you're No. 2, you don't want to play Florida.

The Gators have taken out both teams ranked No. 2 in the early going — beating North Carolina, 16-15, on March 20, and Syracuse, 11-10, on Tuesday.

If they can get past No. 8 Stony Brook on Sunday, the Gators likely will claim the No. 2 ranking for themselves, setting up a potential No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown with Maryland on March 19 in Gainesville. Maryland won the first meeting between the two programs, 16-6, a year ago.

Starting off at No. 8 in the Inside Lacrosse preseason media poll, the No. 3 Gators improved to 5-0 with a poised performance against an Orange team that won 17 of 23 draws including the one in overtime.

Mollie Stevens (Queen Anne's) caused a turnover after the overtime draw and Sammi Burgess (McDonogh) got the ground ball, eventually passing to Stevens for the game winner 66 seconds into what is now sudden-death overtime from the start. Goalie Mary Sean Wilcox (Notre Dame Prep) had nine saves and allowed just a goal apiece to two of the top attackers in Division I, Kayla Treanor and Halle Majorana.

Quick hits: Since 2006, the average margin of victory in Maryland-North Carolina games has been 2.5 goals with neither team ever winning by more than five. … Navy is 103-1 when it holds opponents to fewer than 10 goals. … Florida's 11-10 win over Syracuse on Tuesday was the fourth time in the past eight meetings the winner was decided in overtime. … Mount St. Mary's goalie Steph Rurkowski ranks second in Division I in saves per game with 15.

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