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Short-stick defensive midfielders pivotal for Maryland and Loyola heading into NCAA men’s lacrosse quarterfinals

Roman Puglise and Matt Higgins don’t know each other personally, but there’s a certain level of respect between the short-stick defensive midfielders for the Maryland and Loyola Maryland men’s lacrosse programs.

“Just watching him, I think he’s one of the top D-mids in the country,” Puglise, a Terps senior, said of Higgins. “The way he plays the game is very aggressive, very fast off the ground, and very physical. You can tell that he’s got the mindset of putting his head down and going to work, and that’s what a lot of guys in our position have.”

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Higgins, a Greyhounds graduate student, said when he watches Maryland games, his eyes gravitate toward what Puglise does with classmate Alex Smith.

Navy's Nick Cole moves the ball against Loyola Maryland's Matt Higgins in the second quarter against Navy at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis on April 3, 2021.
Navy's Nick Cole moves the ball against Loyola Maryland's Matt Higgins in the second quarter against Navy at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis on April 3, 2021. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

“They’re awesome, they’re great players,” Higgins said. “The Maryland defense is filled with great players, and they play really well as a unit. Those guys, they’re really aggressive, really disciplined, and it’s always fun watching them, especially at your own position because it’s kind of cool to see how people play in your shoes knowing how difficulties that come with it and the discipline you need to succeed.”

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Puglise and Smith for the No. 3 seed Terps and Higgins and junior Payton Rezanka for the Greyhounds lead the short-stick defensive midfield position for their respective teams. But they have also enjoyed some considerable help.

Puglise has racked up 19 ground balls, three caused turnovers, one goal and one assist, and Smith has compiled five ground balls and four caused turnovers for Maryland (13-0), which meets No. 6 seed Notre Dame (8-3) in an NCAA Division I tournament quarterfinal on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. at Arlotta Stadium in South Bend, Indiana. That duo is backed by junior Joshua Coffman, a Severna Park resident and graduate who has amassed 18 ground balls, five caused turnovers, four goals and two assists, and junior Chase Cope, another Severna Park resident and graduate who has two ground balls and one goal.

Vermont's Liam Limoges passes the ball to teammate J.J. Levandowski despite getting a stick under the chin from Maryland's Alex Smith on May 16, 2021.
Vermont's Liam Limoges passes the ball to teammate J.J. Levandowski despite getting a stick under the chin from Maryland's Alex Smith on May 16, 2021. (Amy Davis/Baltimore Sun)

Rezanka has totaled 25 ground balls, 15 caused turnovers, two goals and one assist, and Higgins has accumulated 20 ground balls, 15 caused turnovers, one goal and one assist for Loyola (10-5), which will tangle with No. 2 seed Duke (13-2) in a quarterfinal on Sunday at noon in South Bend. The pair is complemented by senior Matthew Benus, who has four ground balls and one caused turnover, and sophomore Will Sherwood, a Severna Park resident and Archbishop Spalding graduate who has six ground balls, one caused turnovers, one goal and two assists.

Neither of the aforementioned players garner headlines like their teammates Jared Bernhardt and Aidan Olmstead have, but their importance to their team’s postseason fate is no less important, according to ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich.

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“They’re the first line in the front line of any defense, and the position is — in what has become a matchup-driven strategy — critical,” said the former All-American goalkeeper for Johns Hopkins, who will provide commentary for Sunday’s games. “They’re the cornerbacks in football. The corners allow you to do things with your safeties in your pass rush or pressures. If your corners aren’t any good, you have to spend a lot of time supporting them, committing safeties to help them or playing more zone.”

While exploits of Syracuse’s Gary and Paul Gait spawned daring attackmen and the abilities of Johns Hopkins’ Kyle Harrison and Paul Rabil tantalized future midfielders, the icons for short-stick defensive midfielders have been a relatively newer breed perhaps best exemplified by Syracuse’s Matt Abbott and Towson’s Zach Goodrich. And Maryland and Loyola have produced their own role models in Dan Burns and Isaiah Davis-Allen for the Terps and Josh Hawkins and Pat Laconi for the Greyhounds.

The short-stick defensive midfield position is one that has been long on scrutiny and short on accolades, but that does not seem to bother those who play it.

“We’re the grittiest group of each team because we do most of the dirty work, but don’t get as much recognition as we might usually get in the media,” Rezanka said. “I’m not really into all of the hype. Even when there are fans in the stadium, I just tune them out.”

Kessenich said the ability of Maryland and Loyola to develop their short-stick defensive midfielders has aided their units. The Terps rank 10th in Division I after surrendering only 9.77 goals per game, while the Greyhounds are one slot behind after giving up 9.80 goals.

Maryland's Roman Puglise (8) recovers a loose ball during a game against Johns Hopkins on March 6 at Maryland Stadium in College Park.
Maryland's Roman Puglise (8) recovers a loose ball during a game against Johns Hopkins on March 6 at Maryland Stadium in College Park. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Sun)

“If your shorties can handle their matchups, that makes your job so much easier,” Kessenich said. “If they can’t, then you’re in damage or crisis mode for the whole possession, knowing that those guys need help. If they can give you five to six seconds of good on-ball coverage, that eats into the shot clock and then they have to move the ball, and the next thing you know, that 80-second shot clock is down to 20 seconds, and then the offense is limited. So if those guys can bob and weave their way and handle their matchups and their initial thrust, then it really pays off defensively.”

At Loyola, the short-stick defensive midfielders are entrusted with helping transition the ball from defense to offense. They are integral in the Greyhounds leading the nation in clearing percentage at .906.

“We really try to get it to our short-sticks early in the possession as most teams do to let them — as we call it — punt return it out,” coach Charley Toomey said. “We feel like we’re in a really good spot if the ball is in our short-sticks’ hands deep in our defensive end, that they can leg it out themselves or they can make the right decisions as to who to throw it to under a little pressure.”

At Maryland, the short-stick defensive midfielders have emerged as potential threats in transition offense. In the Terps’ last six games, Coffman has registered two goals and two assists, including one goal and one assist in a 17-11 victory over Vermont in Sunday’s first-round game, and Puglise tested Michigan’s defense with a shot in a Big Ten tournament semifinal.

“As you’ve seen in recent weeks, we’ve gotten some really good looks in transition because those guys are good going from defense to offense,” coach John Tillman said. “They can dodge guys, they can push. If you don’t cover those guys, they can shoot and score. It’s just a luxury that we don’t take for granted. We’ve had some really good defensive type of middies, but we haven’t really had four guys that can push the ball from D to O and play this well on that end. So we’re thankful for those guys. We reap the benefit of that in a lot of different ways.”

The midfielders said more than caused turnovers and goals in transition, their greatest satisfaction comes when they can force an offense to commit an 80-second shot-clock violation.

“It’s about playing fundamental defense and playing our system to turn the ball over and get the ball to our offense so that they can score,” said Smith, who replaced senior Jake Higgins after the Hampstead resident and Gerstell graduate sustained a season-ending lower-body injury April 18. “When they can’t get a shot on goal in 80 seconds, I think that’s the most satisfaction you can get out of our position.”

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Both Toomey and Tillman said they feel comfortable enough to leave their short-stick defensive midfielders on attackmen if there is a switch. Kessenich speculated that the Greyhounds might even have a plan to assign Higgins to shadow Duke graduate student attackman and Tewaaraton Award finalist Michael Sowers in Sunday’s quarterfinal.

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Higgins, without confirming such a plan, said he would welcome the chance to match up with Sowers.

“If that’s what the coaches think is the best game plan to kind of mitigate his skill and his numbers, I would be down for it 100%,” Higgins said. “Michael Sowers is obviously a generational player. So it would be a tough task, but it would be something that I would 100 percent accept.”

Whether it’s Sowers or a member of a third midfield unit, the short-stick defensive midfielders said they don’t mind being viewed as the most vulnerable pieces of their respective defenses. In fact, they welcome the challenge.

“If you want to dodge at me, go ahead,” Puglise said. “I’m just going to keep working to try to do what I can do to help the defense around me. At this point, I kind of expect it and know that it’s coming. So do what you have to do, and I’m going to have my guys around me to help me.”

NCAA men’s lacrosse quarterfinals

Sunday at South Bend, Indiana

>> Loyola Maryland vs. No. 2 seed Duke, noon

>> No. 3 seed Maryland vs. No. 6 seed Notre Dame, 2:30

TV: ESPNU

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