I recently watched an old college lacrosse game from the 90's featuring Johns Hopkins vs. Syracuse University. A couple of things stood out to me. First of all, just how dominant and versatile the (bothers Gary and Paul) Gaits were (both Gaits on each wing on every faceoff). Second of all, it reminded me how much the defensive position has changed. It had me thinking about why I was attracted to the position in the first place: watching Dave Pietromala, Pat McCabe flying around the field throwing over the head checks, and crazy ding dong and wrap checks. I remember religiously practicing those checks on anyone and anything that was around me when I had my long pole in my hands (on and off the field). Now I can count the number of times I put the ball on the ground in one season on one hand.
The defensive position has drastically changed since the days of Pietromala and McCabe. It has become less about just "defending" and putting the ball on the ground than in the past. With the recent advancements in stick technology, the presence of the "take away" check has diminished. Defense has become much more about body position, strength, footwork, leverage, and angles. In most cases, less is more, and majority of defensive systems are conservative and low risk. So how do you separate yourself as a defensemen in today's game? Become more offensive! It sounds counter intuitive, but because defending has become simplified, the other aspects of the position become much more important: clearing the ball, picking up ground balls, pushing transition, etc. Especially with the recent NCAA and NLL rule changes, it encourages a faster "two way" style.
Beyond the technical side of the position, defensemen all seem to share some intangible qualities. Why was Ray Lewis a great linebacker? Sure, we have to acknowledge his size, athleticism and skill. But watch Ray's pregame routine -- or listen to him talk about football -- and you quickly understand why he is linebacker. Can you picture Ray as a quarterback? He makes the position fun to play!
Some would argue that if I had the stick skills of a Kevin Crowley or Brendan Murndorf I wouldn't choose to be a defender. It's the same in other sports. Why does a DB in football become a DB? Because he can't catch! I think we are starting to see a change in this kind of thinking in lacrosse. Defense requires as much skill as the other positions.
I cringe whenever I see a youth lacrosse player under the age of 15 playing with a long pole. Think about how much time a long pole handles the ball in practice at that age. Think of the drills in a typical practice: odd man situations, 1 vs. 1, 6 vs. 6, etc. With exception of 10 minutes of line drills, when would a defensemen ever get to handle the ball?
It is no coincidence that some of the best ball handling defensemen in field lacrosse all had experience playing with a short stick growing up (and most of them happen to play for your Philadelphia Wings) I think that is the biggest barrier to entry for players hoping to play in the NLL, your ability to handle the ball. Guys like Kyle Sweeney, Joel White, Kyle Hartzell, CJ Costible are offensive defensemen in the field game and represent the direction of the position. These are all players that can defend, but defending is just one of many things they bring to the game.
So if you are currently a young defensemen, please do not neglect your stick skills. Practice and play with your stick as much as any middie or attack (that means also caring about how you string your stick). And if you are a third line high school middie, and you are fast and athletic, but struggling to get on the field, maybe think about picking up a long pole. Remember that Champ Bailey is a just a failed wide receiver and it has worked out OK for him! It is all about finding your place on the field.
We are approaching a critical weekend in our season with the Wings and have the opportunity to clinch a playoff spot with two wins!