In a hectic season there’s one team that has been steadily climbing the polls. After receiving votes in Week 1 and Week 2, Army jumped to #16 -- then to #13, then #10, #8, #7, and now, #6.
Army’s lone win against an above-.500 team was in the Carrier Dome on February 25th. It feels like media poll voters are waiting to see the Black Knights take down another Top 20 opponent before ranking them much higher. Head coach Joe Alberici’s squad will have four chances to prove themselves down the stretch; their remaining opponents (Boston University, Navy, Loyola and Notre Dame) are a combined 25-14 (.614).
More specifically, those games will be a test of the Army defense, which is ranked second in scoring defense (6.80 goals allowed per game) and fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency (per analyticslacrosse.com).
The Black Knights’ slow-to-go sliding scheme has worked for them, but it isn’t for everyone. You need special on-ball defenders to play his way, especially at the short-stick position. Army’s rope unit looks (and dresses) more like a linebacker corps than a lacrosse team. With numbers in the 50s and 90s, it’s no surprise to see guys like short-stick defender John Ragno pummel alley dodgers after driving them wide.
Ragno won’t get national recognition because he doesn’t rack up the sexy stats. No points, no caused turnovers. He simply drives his man wide of the cage. One stat that he does deserve credit for: Army allows the fifth fewest shots on goal per defensive possession (0.64) in D1.
That number is tough to digest. Pair that with Army’s face-off dominance (Dan Grabher is winning 67.2%) and you have a team that only allows 15.4 shots on goal per game. Seriously, 15.4 shots on goal per game? Brown lets up 14.5 goals per game!
Look around the field, and you’ll see why the Army defense is so tough to crack. Along with Ragno, defensive midfielders Matt Bowman (#15) and Anthony George (#56) barely budge. Inverting Bowman results in the ball-carrier hitting the turf (or shooting through a strong check) more often than it results in a shot on cage.
That type of step-for-step defense suffocates offenses. The poles are as physical. LSM Jon LaMonica (30GB, 8CT), close defenseman Reaves Klipstein (24GB, 7CT) and close defenseman Dom Ricca (6GB, 5CT) handle their matchups week-in and week-out. Sophomores Danny DeSanti and Griffin Schultz take runs without skipping a beat, too. If you’re not going to slide, then you can’t get beat on-ball. All of these dudes own that responsibility.
Sophomore defenseman Johnny Surdick is fifth in the nation in caused turnovers per game (2.33) and a serious All-American candidate. Whether he’s at X or at the top of the box -- fighting through picks or jumping picks -- it doesn’t matter. He’s making plays.
Those caused turnovers will be crucial down the stretch. If Army can’t put the ball on the ground, then these last four teams will find ways to make them rotate. That’s the benefit of playing a Bill Tierney style of defense; when you regularly bring the double teams and unsettled situations to the defense, you never let them get comfortable.
Army doesn’t depend on that. They’ll bank on their athletes being bigger, faster and stronger on an island than yours are. So far, that has worked. Warning: This clip is incredibly boring -- but that’s what solid on-ball defense looks like. It starts with Surdick’s make-up speed to keep Jules Heningburg below goal-line extended, and it ends with Surdick picking off a pass after nobody on Rutgers could break down their defender.
There’s never an out-of-control approach for the offense to beat. You won’t hitch or top step their defenders when you catch it, because they never really sink to the middle when you don’t have it.
Certain actions have been Army’s Achilles’ heel. Syracuse scored on a few razor picks, and Rutgers was able to shake their man on the wing. For the most part, those are isolation-heavy actions. There aren’t many outlets, and that’s what Army wants. They’ve allowed 3.4 assists per game by daring teams to beat them one-on-one.
That scheme has brought them to #6 in the IL/Maverik Media Poll. And if BU, Navy, Loyola and Notre Dame can’t beat the Black Knights defenders one-on-one, it could bring them much higher.