In last Thursday’s 13-7 NCAA Quarterfinal win over James Madison, the Syracuse Orange women’s lacrosse team did something that they haven’t done a ton of this season: they won a game primarily on the strength of their defense.
We’ve spent much of our time on the defensive end of the field this season lauding the incredible performances of Delaney Sweitzer in net as the backbone of this Orange team.
And while Delaney played great in this game, making seven saves for a .500 save percentage and grabbing three ground balls and one caused turnover, it was really the defense in front of her that shone the brightest in helping to send SU back to Championship Weekend.
They were outstanding in shutting down a James Madison offense that features one of the best offensive players in the country in Tewaaraton finalist Isabella Peterson. The Orange held her to just two goals on six shots in this game after she scored seven goals (eight shots) and nine points the game before against Maryland.
The most impressive part about what the defense did was how well they limited scoring opportunities for the Dukes. They were only able to muster 21 total shots in the entire game, and cashed in only seven of them. Let’s take a closer look and put the stats in terms of possessions:
JMU had 32 offensive possessions in this game. 18 of them ended in a turnover, seven of them ended in a goal, and seven of them ended in a save or a shot off the pipe. So, that means that 56 percent of their possessions ended in a turnover, and only 44 percent of their possessions ended with them getting the ball on cage. It’s definitely not a good sign when your offense isn’t challenging the goalie even half of the time, and much of those struggles for JMU in this game can be credited to the Orange defense.
Back-to-back defensive stops for the Orange.— Syracuse Women's Lacrosse (@CuseWLAX) May 18, 2023
How we feelin' 'Cuse fans?!?! pic.twitter.com/L96NNCDUq5
One of the big reasons why the defense was able to have so much success in this game was an important personnel decision made by the coaching staff. Kayla Treanor and Caitlin Defliese (Ed note; Apparently the decision was suggested by Kenzie Kent). The staff decided to move Coco Vandiver from the crease spot back to the outside spot she occupied earlier in the season, and replaced her at the crease with Tessa Queri.
“[The defense] knew exactly what they were going to run and how they were going to run it,” said Kayla in the postgame press conference. “And the defense was so prepared. We also made a big adjustment moving Tessa to defense, which I think really benefited us”.
The results of this game clearly speak for themselves on how that move helped play a role in the success of the defense. Tessa had a phenomenal day, knocking down passes, scooping up ground balls, and finishing with three CTs and six GBs for a huge overall game. Coco was strong, too, finishing with two GBs and one CT. The move paid big dividends.
But, beyond this game, I will be very curious to see if Kayla sticks with this move in the Final Four against Boston College this Friday. I expect that they will because, in my opinion, this move is one that plays to the strengths of both as defenders.
Coco, who was the only ‘Cuse player named to the ACC All-Freshman team this year, earned that accolade primarily on the back of her work as an outer-edge defender in the first half of the season. I think she struggled a little bit once she made the transition to the crease spot to replace the injured Bianca Chevarie.
She was simply more productive before the initial switch. Coco has 14 GBs and 14 CTs this season, and nine of each of them (64 percent) have come in games when she played on the outside position. In other words, she knows how to make plays better from the outside than around the crease. Her athleticism is based primarily on her quickness and speed, both with her feet and her stick skills, and those attributes are better utilized on outside/up top defending players who are running in more open space.
Meanwhile, Tessa has primarily been used as a defensive midfielder in her two years at SU. But I think the move is also beneficial to her, as well. A graduate student, Tessa has vastly more experience at the college level, which can be important for the complex role of playing defense around the crease. While she also possesses good lateral quickness, she’s probably better suited to handle to physicality of the position and what it requires from an on-ball defense and ground ball perspective.
Of course, the real winner of this move was the defense as a whole, which gained two players being put in better individual situations. The real question now is will they stick with it for the BC matchup.
Obviously, BC’s offense is one of the most talented and deepest in the country, so we certainly shouldn’t be expecting a repeat defensive performance. But, I think sticking with the move would still prove useful given how effective the Eagles were at scoring around the crease in the first meeting.
Dealing with the likes of Jenn Medjid, McKenna Davis, Belle Smith and Kayla Martello is a huge step up in competition, but that just means that the defense needs to be put in the best position possible to slow them down as much as they can. And I think a good first step is sticking with the newfound personnel change.