NCAA Lacrosse 2014: Game flow dictates Duke close defense

Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports Network

Peter Koutroumpis, Triangle Sports NetworkA

Peter Koutroumpis – editor@trianglesportsnet.com

DURHAM, N.C. – The defending NCAA-champion and top-seeded Duke Blue Devils (15-3) will have their hands full against the fifth-seeded Denver Pioneers (15-2) in the semifinals of the 2014 NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship Tournament at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, Md. on Saturday.

How both teams establish their offensive pace of play will influence the other’s defensive pace.

At some point, when one dominates the other, it will be the team that makes the proper adjustment on defense quickest and most effectively that will make the difference to earn the win.

Duke starting goalkeeper Luke Aaron pointed out the approach his team has taken throughout the season.

“It’s one of those things when other teams are trying to dictate the offensive flow, we’d like to give it right back to ‘em,” Aaron said.

“At the same time, if a team is holding the ball for two, three minutes possession, it’s equally important that we stay with the fundamentals and not get too out there and not get too chaotic with it. Obviously teams are going to be able to do that (hold the ball), it’s up to them, but It’s also up to us dictate our tempo during the game and try to keep it on a roll.”

That’s what the Blue Devils defense has been doing all season.

While Duke’s offense is averaging 15 goals per game, at the other end of the field, Aaron and backup keeper Kyle Turri, along with the defensive unit of Chris Hipps, Casey Carroll, and Henry Lobb, has done its job to keep teams at bay long enough to earn wins.

That’s what they did when they beat the Pioneers 14-10 back on Feb. 15 as Aaron officially took over the starting job when he relieved Turri and at the time made a career-high nine saves to earn his first win of the season.

From that point on, it’s been Aaron’s cage to defend at the beginning of every game, currently sporting a 14-3 record on the year.

He’s played the position as part of Duke’s overall defensive unit and hasn’t been a one-man wall in slowing and stopping other teams’ offenses.

Getting help from his coach as well as the team in front of him has allowed him to be in the best position possible to make stops when he’s needed to make them.

“I trust every defenseman out there; I trust every guy on the team,” Aaron said.

“It they’re out there (wide), they know what they’re doin’. As a unit, if one guy goes, then we’re all goin’. I defer to them and they defer to me, but I think it’s equal trust.”

That trust and guidance also comes from how Duke head coach John Danowski has prepared his goalkeepers, working with them on technique and scouting other teams’ shooters with them, and getting to know them better.

That ability to understand when he has to make a change in goal to preserve a win or spur his team on to score more goals has been an intangible facet of Duke’s success this year.

However, Danowski doesn’t make it a habit to change keepers on a regular basis, but does it with more of a cautious read-and-react process and mindset.

“I’m not as courageous as Coach Tierney who splits his goalies regardless of what’s going on because he feels he’s got two starting goalies,” Danowski said during a recent coaches’ teleconference on Tuesday.

“We probably have two starting goalies as well. I’m a little more conservative than coach Tierney I guess. It’s like a relief pitcher. Sometimes with your starting pitcher, the fastball is not happening or the curve ball is not breaking, and you need to bring in a reliever. I think we feel the same way, that if for whatever reason Luke is struggling or we need to make a change, I think everybody on the team feels very confident. Kyle Turri’s record last year was 14-and-1 as a starter, so I don’t think anybody would bat an eye defensively if they turn around and look at who’s in the goal.”

That’s exactly how Aaron described it.

“It’s really up to him,” Aaron said.

“He can tell when one of us is on or one of us isn’t. Especially in weekly practices going on two years now with both of us, me and Kyle, it’s one of those things where’s he able to feel it out. He’s the head coach, so whatever he says goes, so we just follow it.”

The Blue Devils defense will be fully tested against a Pioneers offense that is ranked third nationally and averaging 13 goals per game, sitting just one spot behind the Blue Devils.

Duke’s scoring defense sits 24th nationally and averages close to 10 goals against per game, while Denver’s sits higher in sixth spot, allowing a few less goals against (8) per game.

However, one’s eyes can start to glaze over eventually when trying to compare numbers between these two teams.

In the end, it will come down to which defensive unit will get the job done.

Hipps, Carroll, and Lobb have anchored the Duke back end for a majority of the season and as a unit have compiled 33 caused turnovers and 102 ground balls.

Each long pole defender has a role that he fills accordingly and all three have complemented one another well throughout the season.

They are very similar, yet have individual strengths that have allowed them to understand who they are and what they bring into the game to defend the cage successfully in front of Aaron or Turri.

“We’ve always tried to be big, athletic, tough, fast and extremely disciplined,” Hipps said.

“We’ve kind of found throughout the season that we have all those things come together naturally to us. Just listen to what the coach is sayin’, being athletic, and being very disciplined. What we’ve been looking for and workin’ on a lot is more of an I.Q. – understanding where you need to be, what’s goin’ on with the intricacies of the defense.”