A good defense can protect a team from being scored on; an excellent defense starts the next offensive play. Yale’s defense is learning how to become excellent.

In last night’s game against Fairfield, Yale played with a 3-4-3 defensive formation, the same formation they have played with all season. Yale head coach Rudy Meredith said he has three players who can do the job and he runs the 3-4-3 because of his available personnel. A man with such confidence in his defense was proved right in the 2-1 victory.

The Bulldogs dominated play in the match and had many offensive opportunities to score, but the reason they stayed in the game is because of the defense. The three women in the back, captain Christina Huang ’07, Hayley Zevenbergen ’09 and Mary Kuder ’08, were everything but made out of stone in the second half of the game. Their only breakdown leading to the only Fairfield goal was early on, and it might have cost them the game.

“We came out a little slow in the first half,” Zevenbergen said. “I just want to forget about [that half].”

The defenders picked up the level of play after halftime, and began to defend in the offensive third, Huang said. They held off the Stags offense while also being a part of the Eli offense. In this capacity, the defense was able to spark the Yale offensive presence which forced in two goals in the second half.

“What we’re trying to do is defend in our offensive third,” Huang said. “We have some hardworking frontrunners so we look to combine a lot with the [Eli] offense.”

Huang, who recently returned from an injury and played outside defense this game, spoke highly of her fellow defenders.

“With [Kuder], [Zevenbergen] and me or Terri [Williamson ’09], we have a very solid back,” she said. “And with Sophia [Merrifield ’10] as a defensive mid, we have a pretty stable back line.”

The Bulldogs were able to defend in this way because of their comfort with the 3-4-3 formation. Meredith’s confidence in his players is echoed in their own reliance on each other. Both Huang and Zevenbergen acknowledged the support the other defenders give them on the field. A team win like the one last night also helped build the players’ confidence in their own play.

“Every game we get a little more confident,” Huang said. “Mary and Hayley are very reliable.”

Last night’s game was particularly interesting because the Stags were playing with a 4-5-1 defensive formation, matching up only one forward to Yale’s three defenders. Even though the Stags only had that one forward, they broke through the defensive line to score one goal.

“We still had to take care of that one forward,” Zevenbergen said, laughing.

The Elis will be taking on Dartmouth next Sunday, who play a 3-5-2 formation, adding an extra forward and extra pressure on the defense. The players said they are unconcerned about the additional forward. Zevenbergen said the team is more used to playing formations similar to the Big Green’s.

Playing with an extra forward will force the team to change their style of play from last night’s game, but they still feel that they can defend in the offensive third like they did against the Stags, Huang said.

“It just takes more organization,” she said. “I’m pretty sure we can get the job done.”

The real test will be carrying this defensive excellence into the Bulldogs’ next match in Hanover. The players’ attitudes and Meredith’s vision for the team seem to predict just that.