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Navy's Matt Rees advances the ball in the fourth quarter. Tof a 2016 game against Air Force
Navy's Matt Rees advances the ball in the fourth quarter. Tof a 2016 game against Air Force (By Paul W. Gillespie / Capital Gazette)

Long-stick defensive midfielders are lacrosse's most versatile athletes. They stand out because they do it all. They are charismatic playmakers carrying a tool box full of skills.

What's their job? A better question might be, "What don't they do?"

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Long-stick midfielders, abbreviated as LSM, play a vital role on every team. The job description mirrors that of a Swiss Army knife. It includes: Face-off ground balls, defending the opponent's best midfielder, clearing the ball up the field, creating and supporting transition offense while generating scoring chances and riding the opponents clear. Some even play man-down defense. It makes for a busy game day.

Here's a look at some of the most dynamic LSMs in the nation.

Matt Rees, Navy: Rees is a 6-foot-5 senior from Boys' Latin who benefited from playing three sports (basketball and football were the others) in high school and spending a year at the Navy Prep School in Rhode Island. His stick work is deft, he has a strong game sense and he uses his length and wing span to cause chaos. The economics major is averaging five ground balls and three caused turnovers per game. Rees has a knack for air-traffic control, batting down passes and creating turnovers.

"I'm able to knock down passes or pick them off by studying the opponent's offense and knowing the looks it's trying to get," Rees said. "Once I feel comfortable with the movement of the players, I put myself in a position where I can lure the offensive player to throw the ball to my man, and I react to the ball and pick it off."

Connor Keating, Penn: Keating is a 6-3 junior who led the nation in long-pole scoring in 2016 with 13 goals and four assists. He scored a critical transition goal in Penn's win Saturday over Virginia.

"Connor is the most talented stick-handling defender I've ever been around," Penn coach Mike Murphy said. "I think his knack for it comes from the fact that he was a midfielder his whole life until high school coach John Nostrant (Haverford), wisely gave him a long stick before his junior year."

Penn is a program on the rise. "We've been aggressive pushing from defense to offense since 2013, and Connor has helped us immensely in that capacity," Murphy said. "Not only can he handle and score, his range is uncommon."

Matt Neufeldt and Nick Brozowski, Maryland: Neufeldt, an Illinois native who played at Culver Military Academy in Indiana, missed 2016 with an ACL injury and has been sharing shifts with Brozowski this spring. Neufeldt has two goals and one assist. He has bat-like radar on loose balls, gathering 57 during his freshman season in College Park.

"It comes down to hand-eye coordination and anticipation," Neufeldt said. "It's important to be able to see one step ahead of the play and get to a spot where you think the ball will end up. You have to have quick hands to get ground balls in tight traffic."

Brozowski, a sophomore from Massachusetts, has scored three goals this year. "Our personnel has allowed us to pick up the tempo and try to catch opposing defenses off-guard," Brozowski said. "If we find space, we'll try to put the ball in the back of the net. I like to spark transition because it can be a big momentum-changer."

Both have hockey backgrounds and push the pace as offensive weapons.

"Playing hockey there's no real set plays —there's a lot of thinking on the fly," Neufeldt said. "Hockey translates, whether it's fast break and knowing where the trailer is or whether it's getting back on defense and knowing who will be the head-man. Having my stick down on the ice and controlling the puck at my feet translates directly to picking up ground balls. I'll instinctively pick up the ball and automatically do a little toe-drag move to shake an opposing player."

Brozowski suffered a scary hockey injury, cutting his leg as a high school senior, and didn't see much lacrosse action in 2016. Now healthy, he's a weapon for coach John Tillman.

"I started lacrosse as a short stick and didn't enjoy it, but when I was given a long pole I was able to translate my hockey moves to lacrosse, especially with ground balls," Brozowski said.

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John Sexton, Notre Dame: Sexton was an accomplished high school football player in Massachusetts and he earned second-team All-American lacrosse honors last year after compiling three goals, 44 ground balls and 18 caused turnovers.

"I'm confident that the guys I play with will let me know when it's a good time to press out and when it's smarter to be conservative," Sexton said. "This confidence allows me to be aggressive when appropriate but also to never sacrifice the integrity of our defense."

Sexton runs hip-to-hip with the ACC's most feared dodgers while throwing pokes, slaps, and wrap checks. Sexton's footwork and cutting ability are exceptional; it fosters a disruptive mentality.

"My coaches in high school were always encouraging me to be creative, and gave me freedom," he said. "My favorite part of being an LSM is the creativity and the chaos. I love being able to play on both sides of the ball. Whether it's a big ground ball at the end of a game, or a takeaway to switch the momentum of a game, I feel like I'm involved in every play while I'm on the field."

Larken Kemp, Brown: The second team All-American from Connecticut scooped up 92 ground balls in 2016 while adding six goals and 12 assists. He is a human vacuum cleaner whose mastery of the six-foot pole is like watching an SEC baton twirler. Kemp also has hockey in his DNA.

"Growing up playing competitive hockey, I have always viewed my role as that of a puck-moving defenseman," he said. "Taking pride in my defense but being ready to play a complete 330-foot game. Understandably, people tend to overanalyze goals and assists, but in reality, my constant mission is to own the ground, create turnovers, attack space, and force offensive-minded players to become off-ball slides and fills."

Kemp doesn't merely push fast breaks; he often stays on the field as part of Brown's quick-strike offense, blurring the positional lines while thriving in the gray areas of the role.

"Larken is a great competitor who expects excellence," Brown coach Mike Daly said. "He has a great stick, but his instincts are better than anyone I've seen. He anticipates when and where the ball will be, where he needs to be, and he's an amazing playmaker and a winner."

LSM appeal

In a scripted era of over-coaching, LSMs are free-flowing. They are on-the-field artists whose role demands defensive acumen, ball-handling and fitness. Good LSMs are like middle-distance track athletes who possess endless energy. They can sprint 25 shifts or more per game.

"Balancing the chaos in the middle of the field with making smart decisions that help your team on both sides of the ball is the biggest challenge," Sexton said. "It's easy to get caught up in a hectic moment and over-extend or push the fast break too much, so being able to take a deep breath and know when it's a time to pull the ball out or a time to drop into the hole on defense is critical."

Rees' success for Navy on the offensive end is a source of pride, and makes the job more fun.

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"At Navy, we talk about finding other ways to score besides six-on-six, and I like to push the ball in transition," Rees said. "It took me a while to understand the transition game, scanning the field as you are running down to the offensive end. I view the offensive portion as an add-on to me making a play on the defensive end."

LSMs are the front-line soldiers, fighting the one-on-one battles that translate into team wins. They have mastered many skills and their impact is undeniable. These playmakers are worth the price of admission.

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