As the teams ran out onto the field for the men’s lacrosse final four last year, there was one common thread among three of them. Maryland, Towson and Ohio State all had dominant short-stick defensive midfielders.
The Terps had the best tandem with Isaiah Davis-Allen and Nick Manis, which was one of the main reasons they won the national championship.
“You can’t win one without good defensive people,” Maryland head coach John Tillman said.
As much as almost every sport tends to emphasize offense these days to increase the entertainment value, it’s always the grunt guys that form the foundation and carry teams.
There is little glory in being a short-stick defensive midfielder. You’re seldom on the TV highlights. No one wants your autograph. The only time reporters write about you is when you’re getting lit up for goals. In overall appreciation, a short-stick defensive middie is the equivalent of being an offensive lineman in football.
“There is that negative connotation,” Loyola Maryland head coach Charley Toomey said. “But when you look at most teams, the toughest kids in the program are usually those guys.”
Good ones can be hard to find. Just ask Tillman, who had to replace Manis and Davis-Allen, or Towson head coach Shawn Nadelen, who has Zach Goodrich back this season but not Jack Adams.
It’s easy to identify top scorers in high school. And you like defenders with long arms and long, lean torsos where you can add a few pounds.
But how do you identify a short-stick defensive midfielder? Worse yet, how do you tell them at age 16, 17 or 18 that their skill set might not be appropriate for the college game and you might want to take the ball out of their stick?
“I can’t recall ever recruiting a kid saying he was going to be strictly a defensive middie for us,” Toomey said. “Sometimes it can be a challenge for them in the transition because they are used to scoring goals and having that gratification.
“They grew up on that side of the field, but you explain to them this could be an opportunity for playing time and if they develop, they could get back on that side of the field.”
You aren’t able to play the piano until someone moves it and puts it in place. The short-stick middies are the piano movers.
Maryland men's lacrosse coach John Tillman
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A lot of players never go back. They like to stay on the dark side. Davis-Allen and former Loyola standout Josh Hawkins could have been dynamic offensive players, but instead became All-American defensive midfielders.
The best ones just slip into beast mode.
“Early on in their careers, they might lack a little in the skill set, so you move them over and allow them to start there. But you really don’t know where they’re going to end up in two years,” Tillman said. “But it will be apparent if your heart isn’t in it. There has to be a want. You need to be great on detail. It’s a thankless job, so you have to be a team-first guy. That’s why those guys are the most respected guys on the team.”
The good ones are ground-ball warriors who never get tired. They can work an opponent to one side of the field and just grind them down. The mindset of a short-stick defensive middie has to be as strong as any player on the field except maybe the goalie.
Going head to head with another short-stick player is not the ideal match up. Eventually, you’re going to get beat, but you have to prevail.
These guys come in all shapes and sizes. Davis-Allen was 6 feet 3 and 180 pounds while Goodrich is 6-2 and 185. Hawkins was 5-11 and 205, very similar to current defensive midfielders Ryan Terefenko of Ohio State and Brian Begley of Loyola.
There is no prototype because some scorers are quick and fast, and some are big and physical dodgers. Each team carries about four to five defensive midfielders on the roster, and three regularly rotate per game.
Sophomore midfielder Jakob Patterson shared his perspective on his career high-tying four goals – including the game-tying tally – in the No. 1 Albany men’s lacrosse team’s 11-10 win against No. 2 Maryland on Saturday.
“The best ones are very competitive — they know they’re going to get beat,” Tillman said. “They’ve got to be able to move quickly and be good communicators because they play off-ball. They have to know the other positions as well. It’s like having a good cornerback. If they can shut that player off, then you don’t have to slide off and help. You can slide and help in other areas.”