Stellar defense leads lacrosse team

Matthew Cummings

Redwood's defense is composed of juniors Liam Bourke, Peter Mascheroni, Oliver Madison, Matt Kennis, and Carl Mesker, and senior Henry Mesker.
Redwood’s defense is composed of juniors Liam Bourke, Peter Mascheroni, Oliver Madison, Matt Kennis, and Carl Mesker, and senior Henry Mesker.

It is 6:30 on a Friday evening, the soft hazes of dusky pink and purple creeping ever so slowly across the Corte Madera Creek and swirling around the goal posts of Bob Troppman Field.

“Lift! Lift!” Patrick Brown is screaming. A stout, muscular man about 15 years removed from an illustrious college career as a goalie for Pennsylvania’s West Chester University, Brown is now the defensive coach for the Redwood lacrosse team.

The defense is facing trio after trio of offensive players.

Between each possession, they start bobbing and leaning a bit, swaying confidently. The sound is muffled by their helmets but it is still clear they are rhythmically chanting the hook to Chief Keef’s “Love Sosa.”

Junior Peter Mascheroni runs alongside an opponent. Mascheroni, a long-stick midfielder, has been out for the past few weeks with an ankle injury.
Junior Peter Mascheroni runs alongside an opponent. Mascheroni, a long-stick midfielder, has been out for the past few weeks with an ankle injury.

The rhythm doesn’t stop when the possession starts. Chief Keef didn’t write “I’m hot, I’m hot,” or “I got shooter, I got shooter,” but the simplicity of the statements is superficially primitive – a result of systematic preparation – enough to suit his songs. Unlike “God, y’all some broke boys,” however, these communications carry a complex subtext.

The “hot guy” is the one who will rotate to an attacker who has just beaten his defender, while the responsibility of defending a shooter includes closing out under control, and allowing the goalie to see the shot as it is released.

Putting the concepts into motion requires an acute understanding of angles, quick decision-making to process threats posed by attackers, and tremendous reactions and athleticism to move as fast as their minds.

They do it, though. The defense has helped lead the team to an overall record of 18-6. Redwood was upset by Novato in the MCAL championship, but after beating number three seed San Ramon Valley and number two seed Monte Vista, the sixth-seeded Giants will face off against the Hornets again on Friday at Novato for the NCS title.

The entire Redwood starting defense is composed of third-year varsity starters, and stocked with All-MCAL first team selections in Liam Bourke and Matt Kennis, as well as a skilled third defender in Carl Mesker. Goalie Oliver Madison and long stick midfielder Peter Mascheroni were both All-League honorable mentions last year. Senior Henry Mesker, a long-stick midfielder with superb conditioning thanks to his military training, has filled in admirably for Mascheroni while he has been sidelined with a recent ankle injury.

So as Friday afternoon turns to Friday night, offensive group after offensive group trudges back to midfield, frustrated by the iron fortress around the goal.

Head coach David Grose keeps repeating himself, begging the offense to generate some spacing. Brown keeps repeating himself too, commanding the defense to stay packed in tight.

The offense is no slouch, led by the dynamic Brown-bound junior Patrick Tracy, along with seniors JP Josi and Regan Kelly, a soft-handed finisher around the crease.

Senior Henry Mesker runs upfield with the ball. Mesker, who has trained through high school for a military future, excels with his conditioning.
Senior Henry Mesker runs upfield with the ball. Mesker, who has trained through high school for a military future, excels with his conditioning.

But after roughly 25 possessions, the net has snapped maybe two or three times. To put that in perspective, the average points per 100 possessions in college lacrosse this year was around 30. Do the math. (Such advanced statistics are not kept at the high school level.)

Finally, Grose decides he’s seen enough.

“Last one,” he bellows.

Five seconds later, Madison and Bourke and Kennis and Mascheroni and Mesker and Mesker have successfully thwarted the offense’s foray towards the goal, deflecting a pass, forcing a long savable shot, or simply taking the ball. Back to the bobbing it is.

The defense functions as a fairly seamless unit, but the game still sometimes comes down to individual matchups.

Kennis often draws tough matchups like St. Ignatius’ Joe Lang.

Lang, a junior who has already committed to Harvard, is the best player on a Saint Ignatius team ranked 20th among US high school teams by Inside Lacrosse.

So when Kennis was tasked with guarding Lang in Redwood’s April 11 game against SI, he could only hope to limit him, not stop him.

The plan seemed to be working – with 10 seconds left, Redwood was leading 10-9 over the powerhouse from the city. With four seconds left, SI’s Peter Alimam loaded up a shot from about 15 feet, rifling it past goalie Oliver Madison to tie the game and force overtime.

Junior Matt Kennis guards Sacred Heart attacker Frankie Hattler in a Redwood victory earlier this year. Kennis often draws tough assignments such as Hattler, a dominant player for the Gators.
Junior Matt Kennis guards Sacred Heart attacker Frankie Hattler in a Redwood victory earlier this year. Kennis often draws tough assignments such as Hattler, a dominant player for the Gators.

In overtime, Lang sealed a win for SI with a 10-foot bullet of a left-handed shot that snapped the net. Even though Kennis gave him very little room, skillfully shuffling his feet to stay in front, Lang was still able to score the decisive goal.

Such is the plight of a defender guarding an elite scorer.

Even though Lang finished with an impressive stat line of five goals and two assists, Kennis did a tremendous job all day, according to SI coach Chris Packard, who told the Marin IJ that Kennis guarded Lang better than anyone has all season.

Against star offensive players like Lang or Sacred Heart’s Frankie Hattler, Kennis said it is important not to gamble on stick checks.

This rejection of turnover-seeking stick checks is preached heavily by position coach Patrick Brown, who stresses “vanilla defense” in teaching his players.

“Stay in between your man and the ball, don’t throw wild checks,” Kennis said. “What [Brown] says a lot is just use your feet because defense really all comes down to your feet, if your feet are in position and you’re running with your guy. The best defender has the best feet. So he really emphasizes that – he doesn’t emphasize so much the stick checks and taking the ball away.”

Instead of stick-checking in the traditional manner of coming down on the opponent’s stick with the long pole, Brown constantly yells at his defenders to “lift up,” attempting to force the ball out from underneath and cause a “groundball.”

“You can still take the ball away,” Kennis said. “It’s kind of like a risky thing, if you chase stick, you’re more likely to get beat. If you’re playing basketball and all you’re doing is swiping at the ball, they can run right by you. We have some guys on our team that are really good at taking the ball away but we don’t always press for that.”

Bourke, who was described as very skilled at picking up such loose balls by an online scouti

ng evaluation from a tournament last summer, may have plenty of opportunity to use the skill in the future.

Bourke is farther along in the recruiting process than the other four junior defenders, having already committed to play Division I lacrosse at the University of Michigan.

Michigan coach John Paul, who is not allowed by the NCAA to speak about future recruits until they sign letters of intent, noted on an early March ESPNU College Lacrosse podcast that his team struggled significantly with winning groundballs.

Bourke led Redwood last year in groundballs.

The recovery of groundballs is an area in which defenders can turn their good defense into quick offense by taking the ball up into the attacking area in transition.

In the championship game against Novato, Bourke took off on a skillful fastbreak up the field, drawing the attention of two unnerved defenders, each one taking one hesitant step away from their attackers.

Junior Oliver Madison makes a save in the goal. Madison has been a starter since his freshman year.
Junior Oliver Madison makes a save in the goal. Madison has been a starter since his freshman year.

Bourke quickly faked out the defender on his left, feeding Josi on a backdoor cut with a deft pass. Josi committed a crease violation, but the play was emblematic of the way defenders contribute to the team’s offense.

When Bourke, who describes his transition game as his biggest strength, takes off on such breaks to pressure the defense, communication is required to hold a midfielder back on Redwood’s half of the field to prevent offsides.

This responsibility usually falls to Madison, who, as the goalie, is the most talkative member of the defense, directing traffic and aiding defenders in knowing when and where to rotate.

Each defender stressed the importance of proper rotations and solid help defense. When an attacking player “dodges” past his defender, another defender must quickly rotate towards the crease to pick him up. This, however, frees up the man he was guarding, requiring another defender to make what is called a “two slide.”

In a system so reliant on communication, Bourke said it helps that all the defensive players are friends off the field.

“Being that close makes it a lot easier to be tough on each other,” Bourke said. “I think I like it when Matt, Carl, or Oliver are tough on me, and I think they like it when I give them advice too because we don’t take it personally.”

Although the defenders are a goofy group that loves to joke around, they always demand the best out of each other.

“In practice sometimes, it might not come off in the nicest tone,” Kennis said. “But we all want to reach our full potential and that’s what we’re trying to do when we get on each other.”

Bourke said that even if one of them might give harsh advice at times, the moment is quickly forgotten as soon as they are laughing together after the game.

Bourke said he and Madison have always been willing to take advice from each other, praising the goalie’s receptiveness to his ideas.

Madison does not just lead the defense in its communication, but also supports the system with his improved ability to make difficult saves. In fact, he has gone so far as to stop wearing sweatpants in the goal this year because he said he now feels confident enough saving shots below his waist.