By CHRIS MACKOWIAK
After a 10-6 regular season loss at York College (Pa.) back on April 12, a Capital Athletic Conference (CAC) Championship looked bleak for the Salisbury women’s lacrosse team as the title game then ran through York, Pa.
However, the sun shined brightly on the soaring Sea Gulls that day as they raised their fifteenth consecutive conference championship alongside head coach Jim Nestor. A dominant second half marked the 7-2 win over the top-seeded Spartans, in which Salisbury went on a 4-0 run over the final 30 minutes of play.
“I think we’ve just switched our defense up over the last few weeks and it’s been really working. We just dominated the entire second half. We just work really well together in this defense with ‘the backer.’ It’s gone really well,” SU senior defender Kayla Miller said.
One change in scheme on defense may have paved the way to a CAC Championship for the Sea Gulls: ‘the Backer.’
“We just saw the whole level of intensity come out much higher with that defense,” coach Nestor said.
Following a tough 0-2 final week of the regular season, the Salisbury coaching staff saw the opportunity for change on the defensive side of the ball. In their final two games against then-ranked No. 1 TCNJ and No. 7 York, the Sea Gulls gave up 10 and then 6 goals respectively.
An already strong defense got an upgrade with the new ‘backer’ strategy. This scheme mainly involves an additional defender following closely to the ball while an opposing player is in possession. The additional defender covers a few feet back from the defender directly ‘on-ball.’ In essence, the additional defender covers any potential gaps, or runners that may appear in front of the cage.
With a defender on a separate assignment, one offensive player is left open. However, this specific open offensive player is always designed to be the player directly across the fan in the opposition’s offensive set. This ends in a low-chance for the opposing offense to find this player.
Another bonus of this defensive style is that double teams can quickly be utilized when opposing offenses bring attackers in possession behind the cage.
Coach Nestor says he had the thought to try something new following the loss to TCNJ. After the new defensive scheme worked extremely well against Mary Washington in the CAC Semifinals, an 11-5 SU win, the head coach kept it in the game plan for the CAC Championship Game.
“In those last couple games, our defense really sparked our offense: creating turnovers, giving us more [ground] balls, but for the whole week that led into [the CAC Championship Game] we were talking about possession too,” coach Nestor said.
“We had to be more aggressive on our groundballs. We had to be more aggressive on that draw control.”
That the Sea Gulls did, winning the ground ball battle 11-9 and splitting the draws 5 vs. 6 with York. Now with the NCAA Tournament on the horizon, Salisbury looks to keep momentum rolling in practice this week to prepare for the opponent ahead. For Miller, the team has not let up a beat, getting down to business right away.
“Coach [Nestor] does a good job keeping us focused. We’re gonna be having fun out here, but we need to be getting better at the same time. So he does a really good job at mixing both of those to keep us focused because it is a long two weeks,” Miller said.
After the CAC Championship on Saturday, the Sea Gulls will not see game action until May 13 at the earliest. That is a two week gap and the largest between games for the team all season.
With an automatic berth under their belt via the conference title, the Sea Gulls know they are in the tournament, but now it is a matter of staying fresh and keeping up the intensity.
“At practice, we’re making it as intense as possible to prepare so that if a team does run [a backer] we can know what we’re doing and how to break it down,” coach Nestor said.
New defensive schemes from SU’s own defense allows Salisbury’s offense to adjust and learn what they might see down the line in the NCAA Tournament from unfamiliar opponents.
“We’re looking at other teams and saying ‘okay these four teams run this type of a defense, but there’s a little twist to their defense,’ so we’ll throw it in with our defense so our offense is prepared,” coach Nestor said.
The Sea Gulls will continue to practice and refine their new strategies this week until they find out their opponent Sunday night. At 9:30 p.m. Sunday, the NCAA will hold their Division III Women’s Lacrosse Selection Show, where they will reveal the field and whether Salisbury will host a few games or not.
Until they find out their opening round opponent, fans will see the Sea Gulls continue to work on their own craft out in Sea Gull Stadium. Away from the technicalities inside the success of a defensive scheme, the greatest change for the team in the conference tournament may have been just that: playing together as a team.
“We just played as a team and you could obviously see it out there,” Miller said.