Better to go unnoticed: Inside the mind of a short stick defensive midfielder
Matt Hill embraces his role as a specialist and a leader in the UMass defense
May 23, 2022
Matt Hill stares down an opposing midfielder in the defensive zone. Locked in. Eyes on hips. Ready to cut off shooting angles.
Tension and volume build on both sidelines. For the Massachusetts men’s lacrosse team, words of encouragement echo through Garber Field. Matt Knote calls out instructions from the crease while the rest of the Minutemen hype up Hill — the short stick defensive midfielder. On the offensive sideline, only four words are spoken. The four words that light up the mind of offensive midfielders every time they’re uttered.
‘You got a shorty!’
The offensive player makes a move but can’t get through Hill. So instead, he passes it off to his teammate.
This sequence happens over and over again, and Hill, he’s used to it. He relishes those four words. He takes pride in the chance to make a stop on defense even with the pressure stacked against him.
“You’re going to be the one that’s getting dodged on [by attackers] every possession, so you have to be ready and aggressive to win your matchup,” Hill said. “But at the same time, if you do get beat you have to be ready to make the right rotation and have trust that your team is going to slide to you and defend it properly.”
Short stick defenders fly under the radar in most games. They aren’t ripping shots past goaltenders on the offensive end, and they aren’t the players that usually cause turnovers or lay big body checks on the defensive side of the ball. But the role they specialize in has a major effect on wins and losses.
Teams design their offenses specifically around attacking the short stick midfielders. The offensive midfielder can start the play either at the top of the box or behind the net, make a move in isolation and either free up space for their own shot or draw a slide and feed the open player on the backside of the play. It’s a proven method for scoring goals used by nearly every offense in college lacrosse.
Inversely, defensive midfielders have one job: stop talented offensive players from taking advantage of the mismatch. For Hill, that has never been an issue. He’s faced talented lacrosse players his whole life.
“We grew up playing together,” Matt’s brother, Kevin Hill said. “Always in the backyard, playing catch, shooting and stuff like that.”
Matt is one of three brothers that all played lacrosse at the high school and collegiate level. John, the oldest, played attack at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Kevin was an offensive midfielder who totaled 250 career points in high school before transitioning to Division I lacrosse at Penn State. With the Nittany Lions, Kevin specialized in man-up scoring, but in his junior season he finished second on the team in goals and points.
Matt was always a little different from his older brothers.
There wasn’t a lack of offense in Matt’s game; he scored 125 points of his own in high school. He just had a knack for more than goals and assists. He wanted to do the little things, picking up ground balls, fighting for possession, diving towards the end line after shots. The things that go unnoticed.
“He was always the do-it-all guy,” Kevin said.
Scrappy. Blue collar. Every day guy. All words used by coaches, teammates and siblings to describe Matt’s play style. Those traits didn’t come from nowhere. Being the youngest of three boys, Matt felt like he needed to prove himself. His toughness was built in the backyard playing around with Kevin and John.
All three loved to shoot on goalies and play in a competitive environment against each other. Firing shots on an empty cage was fun and crucial to development, but it was a little too monotonous sometimes. They had more fun when one of the brothers hopped in net.
The only problem? Nobody played goalie. And none of the three had the pads or desire to step in net and take live shots from the other two. They came up with a solution, though.
“We used to do that all the time,” Kevin said. “Just whipping the ball at each other, and then [one of us] would get pissed if you got too close.”
Those backyard battles made Matt a tougher, better competitor and developed a strong mindset. Matt was willing to do anything to win.
By the time he made it through high school, Hill was a proven two-way midfielder committed to playing Division I lacrosse for the Minutemen. But coming into his freshman season, UMass coach Greg Cannella didn’t need an extra offensive midfielder. He had more than enough scoring talent at the midfield, headlined by Jeff Trainor and Billy Philpott.
What he needed was a defensive specialist, and Hill embraced that role immediately.
“You [could] have a guy that maybe is a little disgruntled because he’s just playing defense and he’s not going to get his name in the paper from week-to-week, he’s not going to score a lot of goals or anything like that,” Cannella said. “Maybe [some guys’] egos get bruised, but that’s not the case with Matt.”
“It’s very unselfish.”
Hill didn’t complain, he just put his head down and got to work homing in on the nuanced details of being a defensive midfielder. Playing defense with a short stick makes it hard to force turnovers and rip the ball away from offensive threats, and even if Hill was able to make those checks in high school, it would be difficult to execute them at the college level.
Instead, he focused on his footwork. Moving with the attacking player, staying glued to his man on and off-ball. Without a long pole in hand, he can’t afford to get beat because recovering with a back-check is nearly impossible. His main job is to stay in front of the player across from him.
Hill’s transition to full-time defense was made easier by his high school basketball career where he was more defensive minded. That experience gave him a baseline to build on in lacrosse.
“A lot of the footwork and rotations are pretty similar,” Hill said. “So, it was pretty natural to come into this role.”
Hill learned all the intricacies that came with his newly specialized position and played in every game of his freshman year except for the season opener. The following summer, he went right back to work improving himself in the same place he learned so much about the game as a child. His backyard.
Kevin’s senior season was supposed to be in 2019 – the same year of Matt’s freshman campaign – but he redshirted it. Kevin was preparing to come back to Penn State’s lineup in 2020 and needed to keep his offensive skillset sharp at the same time that Matt was looking to improve his defensive capabilities. That summer was a perfect opportunity for both of them.
Suddenly, after so many years of playing around in the backyard in a competitive, albeit fun and somewhat silly way, the brothers found themselves taking live reps against each other to develop further.
“That was fun to come full circle and go one-on-one against each other sometimes,” Kevin said of that summer.
Matt got better through practice, but more importantly, he gained confidence in himself and quickly became the go-to defensive midfielder at UMass. His growth on the field allowed him to see success and play in every game of his sophomore, junior and senior seasons.
Off the field, Hill was equally hardworking and a caring person. He took pride in his schoolwork and in developing relationships with the people around him. He was such a lovable person that Cannella even described him as “someone you’d want your daughter to marry.”
All of those aspects collided naturally into a mentorship role. As he got older, younger players started looking up to Hill, and just as he embraced his role as a defensive midfielder, he embraced his impact on the next group of Minutemen as a captain in 2022. All he wanted to do was win and push the people around him to be their best, so being a captain fit him perfectly even as one of the more soft-spoken players on the team.
“The responsibility of leading is a lot different for him,” Cannella said. “He’s not a ‘bang your head against a locker’ kind of guy. He’s a lead by example and lead by integrity, and I think he’s really improved his leadership ability and skill.”
On the field, off the field and on the stat sheet, Hill is quiet. In four seasons, he has one career goal and 10 caused turnovers. The numbers don’t tell his story. As long as Matt doesn’t get badly beaten and doesn’t take a penalty, he did his job well. He wants to fly under the radar, and his brother likes it that way, too.
“If you don’t get noticed, most of the time it’s better,” Kevin said.
Not everybody knows who Hill is, but his teammates understand what he brings to the table. His quiet intensity and desire to win makes Matt who he is: someone everybody can look up to and rely on. UMass goalie Matt Knote sees him as a spark plug.
“It’s kind of hard not to look at him and want to play for him.”
So, every time Matt Hill stares down an offensive player, locked in, with eyes on hips, ready to cut off an angle and prevent a goal, he knows that his teammates appreciate what he’s doing for them.
He is the prototypical short stick defender.
Colin McCarthy can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @colinmccarth_DC.