In recent years we have seen fourth-year DI lacrosse programs make jumps, though the term “jump” has taken on different meanings for different programs. For the Jacksonville Dolphins, it meant posting their first winning season (8-5). For the Michigan Wolverines, the jump came in the form of winning their first B1G game over Rutgers. (Yes, Michigan’s fourth season was also the first season of B1G lacrosse, but they posted a combined 0-10 record against future B1G teams in their first three seasons.) For the Marquette Golden Eagles, year four meant winning their conference tournament and hosting an NCAA tournament game.
For the Monmouth Hawks, that fourth year is now. Head coach Brian Fisher’s squad has improved steadily each season: from 0-13 to 6-8 to 7-7. Last year’s Hawks may have been even better than their record suggests; they played five one-goal games (and lost four of them). Watching their season opener against Villanova, you get the impression that this team’s fourth-year jump will be as high as its defense allows it to be.
Fisher, who coached at Notre Dame for six years prior to joining Monmouth in 2012, has built a defense reminiscent of Fighting Irish assistant coach Gerry Byrne’s defenses. The Irish have the athleticism to win one-on-one matchups, but they pride themselves on playing help defense. Every player is on the same page when they slide, forcing the toughest passes on the field and, in turn, mistakes.
Last season in settled sets, the Hawks’ defense allowed the fifth-best assist-to-turnover ratio (0.36). That continued on Saturday, as they never let Villanova (who led NCAA with an 0.89 assist-to-turnover ratio in settled sets) get comfortable in the six-on-six. The Hawks held their slides when certain players were on-ball and sent early support at other times, constantly keeping one of the most efficient offenses in the country on its toes.
Like all great defensive performances, Monmouth’s began in net with Nick Hreshko. The senior from La Salle College H.S. (Pa.) took home MAAC Defensive Player of the Week honors for his 15 saves -- but his energy on run outs like these were what set the tone for his teammates. Look at that fist pump when Hreshko gets the call from the ref.
One of the benefits of being a young program is that Hreshko has developed familiarity with all his defenders over the past four years. No defender has played more minutes in front of him than his teammate since high school, Andrew Grajewski.
On-ball Grajewski was dominant. The only goal he allowed was early in the first quarter defending a pick at X; it looked like the Hawks -- who tried to fight through picks early -- adjusted their two-man game rules after that, and they had more success switching. Between Grajewski and junior Garrett Pfeifer (who held Christian Cuccinello to 1-for-11 shooting), the Hawks have two defenders who can control their matchups without a slide.
However, in a help-heavy scheme, controlling your matchup isn’t your only responsibility. And when you smother your opponents’ drives from X like Grajewski and Pfeifer did, your opponent will stop testing you.
After being stifled by Monmouth’s big men in the first quarter, Villanova began inverting to keep Grajewski, Pfeifer and Ryan Atkinson above goal-line extended. The Hawks’ defensive leaders continued to make plays by sliding. Here Grajewski arrives on the ball-carrier’s hands with a poke check strong enough to spearfish a 600-lb. tuna.
One of the reasons the Hawks can fly around the field this way is because they pick and choose the matchups they slide to. Along with Grajewski and Pfeifer, there’s another matchup the Hawks rarely (if ever) slide to: short-stick defensive midfielder Grier Wilson.
Not many short-sticks can hold goal-line extended when playing behind the cage, and even fewer can do so against All-Americans. Wilson displayed an ability to drop step, change directions and run with anyone on the field. He regularly matched up with All-Big East midfielder Jake Froccaro (40G, 16A in 2016) and his younger brother, Joey (19G, 11A as a freshman). Every time, he punched hips and drove them to the wide areas of the field. When Joey Froccaro attempted a swim move, Wilson reminded him that the pool’s not open in February.
The other reason Fisher’s team can play a matchup indifferent style: The long-stick midfielders know how to play down low. Lots of long-stick midfielders are take-away machines who camp out at the top of the box and look to leak out for outlet passes. Monmouth’s poles -- Neil Ruppert (17CT in 2016) and Gordon Phillips (5CT in 2016) -- are well-rounded. Put them behind the cage in a big-little two-man game, and they’ll survive. It’s not about homerun checks; instead, it’s about polished footwork and holds.
There will be games when pressing out on the ball-carrier gets Monmouth in trouble. It’s a difficult style to sustain over 60 minutes. When you’re repeatedly sinking to the crease, closing out on shooters, sinking, closing out, sinking and closing out -- that’s when you’re susceptible to hitches and face dodges. Flood the ball-side with too many bodies, and next thing you know you’re sealed off from the shooters on the weak-side.
Those goals are going to happen, especially when you’re playing a shooter like Jake Froccaro. The Hawks didn’t want to slide from Froccaro. They tried to turn him into the primary dodger rather than giving him an opportunity to catch the ball and square up a recklessly approaching defender. However, it’s tough to pressure the ball and slide quickly if you’re not willing to slide from one (or more) specific offensive player(s).
When you have the unique personnel that Monmouth has, the returns (i.e. a top-five assist-to-turnover ratio allowed) of an aggressive defensive scheme will often outweigh the costs (i.e. occasional step-down shots).
Monmouth received votes in the Inside Lacrosse media poll for the first time in program history. If they can pick up a win at Hofstra on Saturday, then they’ll deserve a top-20 rank. With a defense like this, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which their first-ever senior class leads them to the MAAC championship and potentially the NCAA tournament.