Coming into Saturday’s matchup, the University of Massachusetts’ eleventh-ranked defense was the story, but in the end, Yale’s backfield proved to be the unsung hero.
The Elis’ five-game losing skid came to a halt Saturday with a 9-8 victory over No. 19 UMass (6-5) in double overtime. Though the statistics may not show it, the Bulldog defensive unit was the reason for the close score. Implementing a defensive zone, the Elis managed the high-powered Minutemen offense for the last 22:34 of the game, holding it to just one goal in that time.
“As the game went on, our defense gained a lot of confidence,” defensive midfielder Greg Naso ’04 said.
Confidence did not come without a price — the stalwart defensive effort came on the tail end of a five-goal UMass run. While some defenses might have folded in frustration, Yale had seen this scenario before.
“We’ve been getting in trouble with our defense digging itself in a hole — especially in the third quarter,” crease defenseman Gray Ecklund ’06, referring to the Elis’ previous outing, against Albany April 14.
Starting in the third quarter, Albany took control with a five-goal run and the Yale defense was left without answers.
“Now we’re getting used to being patient,” Eklund said.
Against UMass, the Bulldogs employed a bunker zone rather than man-to-man coverage. The intention was to keep the Minutemen from taking shots within ten yards from the goal.
“[UMass had] quick players with good sticks, and we believed that a zone would slow down their offense and force them to take outside shots,” Naso said.
For the most part, the strategy was successful.
“Every zone has its holes and every now and then they would find the seams and get the shots off,” goalkeeper Jordan Ellis ’07 said.
Even when the Minutemen penetrated, Ellis proved mighty, making seven of his 15 stops in the fourth quarter alone.
“[Ellis] has been the backbone of our defense out there,” Ecklund said. “He’s made crucial saves and great decisions.”
While Ellis is thought of as the central defensive element of the Elis, he credited the weak-side defense — midfielders Naso and D.J. Barry ’05 — for keeping UMass’ main offensive threats under wraps.
“It’s tough playing short-stick defense because all of the shooters want to go against them,” Ellis said.
But for the Bulldog defensive unit, toughness is a way of life.
“We pride ourselves on trying to be the toughest team in the nation,” Ecklund said.
With this mentality, though, the Bulldogs acquire more than their fair share of penalties. While the Eli defense was able to stifle four of the seven Minutemen man-up opportunities, they might not fare as well against upcoming opponents.
“We’ve done a good job in the past few weeks to limit [penalties] and keep our playing [style] tough but smart,” hard-hitting defender Ian Cadieu ’06 said. “Penalties can never help, of course, so we’ll keep trying to limit our fouls.”
With four games left in a season marked by inconsistency, the Eli defense is finally falling into place.
“Between Gray [Eklund] and his positive attitude, Ian [Cadieu] and his more aggressive side, Todd [Montgomery ’04] and his experience — everyone plays a good role and we’re starting to get a good handle on how to work off of each other,” Ellis said.
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