(Photo: Jodi Vosika/ASU Lacrosse)
Since head coach Chris Malone arrived, Arizona State lacrosse has consistently found its way into the top 10 of defensive statistics in the MCLA, most notably in the goals allowed per game category.
Will this year’s defensive unit live up to that legacy?
Returners: The core unit for the Sun Devil defense heading into the 2014 season could be what separates this team from any other team in the Southwestern Lacrosse Conference. Ian Connell and Zach Mendoza were among the premier defenders in the MCLA last year, and both will be returning with the experience of three consecutive Final Four appearances.
Having two defenders that can immediately take the duties of covering each team’s best and second-best scoring threats will single-handedly make it difficult for opposing teams to stick to their traditional offensive gameplan.
Connell is a ground-ball machine (he recorded a career-high 63 in 2013) and earned his way onto the MCLA’s 2nd All-American team. Mendoza, known for his aggressive on-ball stick defense, was a 3rd team All-American.
Losses: Connell and Mendoza notwithstanding, this isn’t the same unit that it was last year. Missing is the leadership and premium defensive work of the now-graduated Jon Little. Little provided more than consistent work on defense – he was often the physical enforcer along the perimeter – he was also counted on for his leadership.
“Jon Little was a captain, he was a leader, and that really can’t be replaced,” Malone said. “But I know we’ve got guys that are coming in who can bring a lot of leadership to the table.”
Replacements: There are a lot of options to fill the holes, and while there might not be the same leadership available that Jon Little was able to provide, there is certainly no shortage of talent.
Nick McEneany is coming off of a freshman campaign in which he saw ample playing time off the bench. He provides versatility around the perimeter and can also work inside if necessary.
“Nick (McEneany) is a guy who played a lot of minutes for us last year, and he could make some big strides in 2014,” Malone said.
Also key could be the powerful defense of senior Jesse Gutierrez, who plays an aggressive body-check defense that strikes fear into many opposing offensive players. Brian Braasch, at 6 foot 4, could also be a physical threat to be reckoned with on the ASU defense.
Weakness: It’s hard to locate a weakness in this team’s defense, but if anything can be called sub-par, it’s the physicality along the perimeter. Long-range shooters tend to fail against the Sun Devils, but when teams turn to penetrate, they’re often able to find success getting through the first wall of defense.
Strength: The mental and emotional soundness of this defensive unit make it extremely tough for any team to build runs. Many featured players have played in so many important games throughout their career that the anxiety and nervousness that should accompany a big moment no longer applies. This is the advantage to the long-term success ASU has endured: it breeds tough, battle-worn players that don’t shy away from big moments.
Underrated Characteristic: The most underrated quality in this Sun Devil defense is its communication and passing ability. Its core is of players that rarely force the ball and can turn offensive if necessary. The transition is a crucial part of lacrosse, but the patience to slowly allow a play to develop instead of forcing it can be an underrated talent, one that this defense has proven it has.