Defense not quite as dominant for UMass women’s lacrosse

Unforced errors one issue for Minutewomen on defense

Collegian+File+Photo

Collegian File Photo

By Thomas Haines, Assistant Sports Editor

So far in 2019, the Massachusetts women’s lacrosse team has leaned heavily on a shock-and-awe attack, averaging 17.6 goals per game, which is good for third in the country.

Led by redshirt senior Kiley Anderson who has already tallied 41 goals, UMass (7-3, 2-0 Atlantic 10) has racked up a series of big wins in the first half in the season, including blowouts of Davidson and Virginia Commonwealth last weekend to start off A-10 play. Besides Anderson, four others – Cassidy Doster, Kaitlyn Cerasi, Hannah Palau and Stephanie Croke – have scored at least 18 goals and propelled the Minutewomen to a strong 7-3 first-half record.

But the other side of the ball is more of a concern. Near the end of the VCU game, the Minutewomen got three yellow cards in less than 20 seconds and proceeded to allow two man-up goals.

“I want to see improvement on the unforced errors,” coach Angela McMahon said. “We can’t give another team that’s talented, as talented as George Mason, an opportunity to have the ball when they’re not forcing that. So, if someone’s going to make a play, we want to make them work for it, versus having that be on ourselves and I think we can do that through our mental prep as well. Just really valuing the ball, slowing ourselves down and not being so quick to make decisions.”

The fouling issues on the defensive end have led to free-position shots for opponents and again, UMass has been below par, allowing a 54.8 percent conversion rate for its opponents on those “eight-meter shots” and a total of 40 goals on free-position shots through the first 10 games.

“Obviously we don’t want to foul, it’s just honing in on the little things that will put us in better position there,” McMahon said. “At the same time, it’s going to happen. The rules of lacrosse are not necessarily in the defense’s favor, and eight-meter plays are going to happen. For us, it’s actually upping our pressure more and getting outside of that, what they call the critical scoring area, so if a foul occurs, it occurs outside of that [area] as opposed to inside.”

Beyond just the free-position shots, though, the defense has lagged behind the dominant attack. The Minutewomen are allowing 13.5 goals per game for just a four-goal average margin of victory, and they have caused just 83 turnovers in the first 10 games. Unlike the scoring numbers, which rank among the best in the country, UMass’ defensive stats are on the edge of the top 50.

More concerning, however, is the reliance on the powerful offense – particularly that shock-and-awe approach early in games – to win. The Minutewomen are 8-1 when scoring first and 0-2 when their opponent scores first. The defense has not yet proven its ability to buckle down and spark a comeback, as the three games where UMass trailed by halftime turned into its three losses.

Although McMahon said that jumping out to an early lead was “critical” for the Minutewomen, she was also quick to point out that the defense has been stepping up as the season has progressed.

“They’re confident,” McMahon said. “I love our speed and athleticism back there. It’s just tweaking some things and doing it in the practice setting, so it’s just a correlation from practice to the games.”

Unlike the attack, where the top five scorers are all juniors or above, the defense is heavily-reliant on younger players. Of the six midfielders and defenders who started against VCU, four were sophomores or freshmen (the other two were midfielders Doster and Croke, who have a greater impact on offense). For the first eight games of the year, the Minutewomen were also relying on freshman goaltender Gina Carroll with junior Lauren Hiller injured.

Although that youth and inexperience can cause problems – like the three yellow cards against VCU, all of which were incurred by sophomores or freshmen – McMahon believes it’s been a positive overall start for UMass.

“I think our youth actually helps us a lot because they bring such a great energy and buzz about them,” McMahon said. “It’s just righting the little things, especially in tight games.”

While the defense hasn’t been particularly bad and hasn’t stopped the Minutewomen from posting a strong first half of the season, it could still be an area of concern for a UMass team with lofty goals. While neither of this weekend’s opponents, George Mason and Saint Joseph’s, boast especially potent attacks, a strong defensive showing this weekend would be an encouraging sign as UMass aims to retake its traditional spot atop the A-10.

Thomas Haines can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @thainessports.