Players shift, slide, rotate and lock into defenders with magnetic effect. The scene looks like a human chess board, with the intent of preventing penetration and paths to a netted fortress.
This is the Darien boys lacrosse team’s defense in action, and while it may appear less glamorous than the spectacular fastbreak goals for which the program is known, its effectiveness is no less important to victory.
The Blue Wave (12-4, 10-0 FCIAC) opened the season with a defensive unit that returned just one starter, Tyler Strub, and another regular contributor. Led by Strub, the group has brought attention to a position that almost always is overshadowed despite the way it has stymied opposing scorers.
That was never more evident than last Saturday, when Darien held New Canaan scoreless for the first 32 minutes of a 12-4 win that likely secured the top seed for the FCIAC Tournament. The pairings will be released tomorrow.
Darien coach Jeff Brameier said the secret to the success of his defense is the same as in the past: continuity.
“It’s the strength of the program that the kids just come up really playing together through their high school career, and it’s just a matter of kids waiting their turn,” Brameier said. “But it isn’t like these kids haven’t played in our system. They know what to do. I think that speaks a lot to how we run things, and kids are ready to step into a role and pick up the slack of graduating kids. This group is no different than last year’s group.”
Strub is the anchor. He usually is matched against the opposing team’s most dangerous player, and his one on one battles are seldom lost.
“He likes to get after it,” Brameier said of Strub. “He’s a physical player. If I have a blue collar kid on my team he’s definitely one of them. He gets out there with that physical approach. He takes on the challenge. He likes to be tough and physical. The key thing is he doesn’t give up too many easy shots. You’re not going to get wide open shots when you’re being covered by him.”
Listening to Strub, the secret ingredients are equal parts brawn and intelligence.
“I like to be very physical and play on the hips,” Strub said. “We have very good scouting reports from Coach B, so I’ll know everything going into the game, so I’ll just try to man on man dominate physically so I can force him into an uncomfortable position.”
Strub said he was instructed in the Blue Wave way last year by top defenders like Andrew Darby and Matt Gould, and now it is his turn to play a leadership role.
“The players last year really took me under their wing,” Strub said. “They were really impressive players and really good at team defense so I learned a lot. I’m just trying to pass that on, and communication is something we always strive for.”
This year the defense has relied on the collective play of Strub, Connor Olson, Blake Cellar, Pierce Hoyda, Sam Cragin and Andy Demopoulos, a sophomore goaltender.
“We had only had two returning poles but we have a smart group of guys, a solid goalie, so as soon as we found our way with communication we could run more complex defenses,” Strub said. “In school we actually have a lot of overlapping classes so that helps because you talk throughout the day about lacrosse so you get a bond on a deeper level. On the field the intelligence of the defense really lends well to communication. Our defense does extremely well in the classroom and it really shows on the field because our communication is never lacking.”
Demopoulos has been perhaps the biggest revelation, providing instant excellence at a position that has long been a program strength.
“He has definitely emerged,” Strub said. “Last year as a freshman on the varsity you knew he was going to be something special, but he has taken off and he’s quite a goalie to play with. I’ve never played with a bad goalie at Darien but he is definitely following in the footsteps of Ryan Cornell and Sean Collins. He’s finding his voice. It’s a little slower but his saves are just amazing. You can’t ask for a better goaltender.”
Strub’s versatility has afforded Brameier greater options with his gameplans.
“We have the flexibility to move him around. He’s capable of covering middies, he’s capable of covering attack,” Brameier said. “We’re very much a system of going at matchups and seeing who takes on certain kids and what works best. Tyler stepped into that role where we’re going to give you one of the top guys on the field and he’s done a great job of doing that.”
Now the Blue Wave will focus on adding its sixth straight FCIAC title. Its run of four successive state championships was ended last year by Ridgefield.
“We have risen to the occasion but we can’t rest on our laurels,” Strub said. “We need to keep going, keep pushing ahead.”