Navy men's lacrosse wreaking havoc with increased emphasis on riding

Bill Wagner
Contact Reporterbwagner@capgaznews.com

Head coach Rick Sowell said in preseason that Navy men’s lacrosse had placed increased emphasis on riding the ball.

Sowell wanted the Midshipmen to make that element of the game a weapon and was quite pleased with the results he was seeing in practice.

Navy has been a dominant riding team through two games this season, making it very difficult for Vermont and UMBC to move the ball upfield. The Catamounts and Retrievers were a combined 27-for-50 (54 percent) on clearing attempts against the Midshipmen.

“It’s been a major point of emphasis and I think the guys are feeding into it. I’m very proud of the way we’re riding so far,” Sowell said after Navy beat UMBC 11-6 last Friday night.

Riding refers to the efforts offensive players put into preventing the opposing defense from clearing the ball. It is a difficult task and most lacrosse teams average 80 percent or better on clearing opportunities.

Last season, Navy had an 85 percent clearing rate while opponents were even higher at 89 percent. However, new rules implemented for the 2019 season have made it more difficult to clear and led coaches such as Sowell to stress riding more than ever.

The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved a visible 80-second shot clock on every possession. The shot clock includes a 20-second clearing count, during which players must advance the ball across the midfield line with the over-and-back provision in effect.

If the team in possession of the ball is not in its offensive half of the field when the visible shot clock reaches 60 seconds, it is a violation that leads to a turnover.

“You now have 20 seconds to clear the midfield, which puts a lot of pressure on the defense and automatically forces it to hurry more than in the past,” Sowell said. “In reviewing the new rules, I thought, ‘Man, the longer we force them to clear the less time they’ll have to play offense.’ I think the timing rules make riding even more important.”

Of course, Sowell had to evaluate Navy’s personnel and be sure it was capable of riding harder. An ineffective ride can sometimes be counter-productive as it leads to easy opportunities on the other end.

Truth be told, former attackman Jack Ray – a four-year starter – was not naturally built to be a rider. The lumbering 6-foot-6, 248-pounder just did not have the foot speed to do the job properly.

Ray’s graduation caused Navy to revamp the attack and there are two first-year starters on this season’s unit – senior Patrick Walsh and freshman Nick Cole. They joined sophomore Christian Daniel, who showed last season he was very capable of riding.

“I did take a close look at our personnel and knew Christian Daniel was a scrappy attackman with good speed and quickness,” Sowell said. “One of the reasons we moved Pat Walsh to attack is because he’s a good rider. I wasn’t sure how Cole and (Jack) Sweeney would do as plebes, but they certainly have the athleticism to be able to ride.”

Having a group of athletic attackmen is integral to being a good riding team since they are the ones harassing opposing defensemen. Sowell said that along with a healthy dose of desire is a good start.

“I think the biggest key is everyone having a strong commitment to it,” Sowell said. “A lot of it is effort and want-to. You have to really commit to hustling like crazy and going after guys.”

Daniel agreed with that assessment and said the attack unit has totally bought into the concept of being defenders with short sticks.

“It’s almost like a pride thing to get the ball back if you turn it over. So I would say the key is the mentality. We want to make it really tough for the opponent to clear the ball,” the Northern-Calvert graduate said.

Navy’s coaching staff has spent considerable time designing various ride strategies while also working with the attackmen and offensive midfielders on fundamentals and technique.

“We’ve had to break some bad habits. We’re not trying to hit home runs with wrap or over-the-head checks,” Sowell said.

Most teams employ an open ride in which every player locks on a man and tries to prevent them from getting open for a pass while chasing whichever defender has the ball. A drop-back ride is similar to zone defense in football with the attackmen and midfielders responsible for certain areas of the field. There is a combination of the two in which four offensive players drop back in zone while two attackmen chase the ball.

“As attackmen, we have worked really hard on pressing forward and getting on the hands of defensemen,” Daniel said. “We’ve also worked a lot on the back end of our rides to cover up those cross-field long passes that tend to be open.”

Daniel and the other attackmen have been instructed to run with any defenseman trying to clear the ball and harass them with repeated checks. It’s all about working hard and wreaking havoc, he said.

“A lot of it is an attitude. There is a certain skill to breaking down and knowing how to run with defender and when to throw certain checks,” Daniel said. “You have to be tenacious and aggressive. We’re working hard to deliver a lift check or poke check to knock the ball loose. We’re doing a good job of doubling the ball on sideline or middle of field.”

Navy goes immediately into riding mode whenever there is a change of possession – be it the result of a goalie save, shot clock violation or turnover. There is nothing more uplifting for the offense than to succeed in getting the ball right back.

“Overall, we’re getting a lot of extra possessions and scoring goals as a result of riding back,” Sowell said. “If we score within five or six seconds of a ride-back it really pumps a jolt of energy into our guys.”

Maryland head coach John Tillman has studied tape of Navy’s riding unit and come away impressed. Tillman called the opposing clearing rate of 54 percent “absolutely tremendous” and praised the Midshipmen for being so successful in that area.

“I see a group of Navy guys giving great effort and really hustling. They are really getting after people in the riding game,” Tillman said.

The Terrapins visit Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium on Saturday for a high noon showdown with the Midshipmen and Tillman said it’s important to be in attack mode against an aggressive riding team.

“We want to beat the ride and give ourselves scoring chances on the other end,” Tillman said. “It’s almost like an odd-man rush in ice hockey. You can create a numbers advantage if you attack it the right way.”

Sowell admitted there is some “risk-reward” to applying nonstop pressure in riding situations.

“It is like breaking the press in basketball so there will be times when teams will score,” he said. “We’re confident we’ll create more scoring chances for ourselves with this philosophy. We’re creating some stress and there is a cumulative effect of wearing down the defense with the ride. It takes toll when defensemen are constantly under duress.”

Tillman’s comments attest to the fact opponents must now game-plan for Navy’s ride. That alone provides a certain advantage.

“We’re definitely pleased with the results so far. It’s nice to see the effort we are putting into riding pay off these past two games,” Daniel said. “Teams feel rushed with the shot clock and defensemen want to get the ball out of their sticks. I think our ride is good enough to put stress on the opposing coach to focus on that part of the game during the practice week.”

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