In field hockey, few plays are more dramatic than a key defensive save. They're not terribly common. Only one player this season, Columbia's Maeve Doherty, has more than five.
But when they happen, they're crucial and have the potential to be jaw-dropping. In the midst of chaos, often in a crowded shooting circle, a defender has to make a split-second decision, act like a goalie and keep the net safe.
"I’ve really appreciated the power of a defensive save," Davidson's Courtney Byler said. "It can get your team out of a rut in the middle of a game. It can be the make or break point of the game."
To get a better idea of how the best defenders in the country handle those moments when they're pressed into action, NCAA.com talked to a handful of the country's leaders in defensive saves, including Byler (four defensive saves this year) and Doherty (a nation-leading six defensive saves this season).
What goes into a defensive save, and what’s going through your mind when you make one?
Erin Menges, William & Mary "The first thing I think about is backing up my goalie. I’m a post on corners, so if they’re not hitting it right in the center of the cage I’m usually prepared to stop the initial shot. I assume it’s coming to me or the other post. For corners especially, I know it has to be below a certain height, so stay low, keep my stick on the ground, make sure I don’t pop up. And obviously you can drag flick it, which, it’d go high, so just realize it can be bad if you don't handle it well. Obviously you can’t perfectly prepare for it, or perfectly play it. It’s mainly reactive."
Maeve Doherty, Columbia "A lot of it, mine in particular, is just being in the right spot at the right time. A lot of it is inherently willing the ball away from the goal. You’re not scared of getting hit with the ball, you’re just scared of getting it away from the goal. I default to my keeper; she’s covered in foam so she can make a save better. If it’s coming at me, it’s about that reception or deflection off the baseline."
Christen Pennington, Villanova: "Usually when we make a d-save it’s pretty fast, because everything’s happening so fast. You have to be really focused, and be watching everything that’s going on. If the goalie misses the ball, it’s your responsibility now. It’s nerve wracking because you’re back there and it’s just you, and it's up to you to keep it up. You have to be composed, because if it’s a bad clear, you could end up putting it right back on the opponent’s stick."
Courtney Byler, Davidson: "I think by now, as a junior, I’ve developed the knack for knowing where to step in order to have a defensive save. It’s kind of second nature if the ball’s coming towards me. It’s a pivotal point in the game, and it’s something that motivates our team. It’s almost as if we’ve scored, it’s a momentum shift that everyone call rally around."
Marlena Koellner, Sacred Heart: "You can’t get in the way of the goalie doing her job. We practice it a lot, so when it comes game time all the players are ready. When the ball’s coming, everyone has communication. If the goalie calls it, it’s hers and we know to back away, but if we can tell she might not get it, we have to step up."
What's your particular technique, or trick of the trade, you use for a defensive save?
Erin, W&M: "I think, for me, I’ve never been coached. It’s basically just trapping the ball. I just wait for it to come to me. I don't know if that’s the best way to do it? [Laughs.] I think it’s just about reaction time. I’d rather be reactive to it, rather than proactive. If I make the first move, they could see it and do something else."
Defensive save by Pennington!— VillanovaFieldHockey (@VillanovaFH) October 22, 2016
Maeve, Columbia: "I like to stay relatively low to the ground because I’m tall. It’s easier to start there and go up from there. It depends on the shot as well: if it’s on the ground you want to make the reception first so it doesn’t bobble over your stick, and if it’s in the air you don’t want to assist the ball into the net."
Christen, Villanova: "A lot of working and communicating with the goalie, and then body positioning. You have to keep your feet facing out, not facing towards the goal, because if they’re facing the goal you could deflect it in. You also need the proper stick angle, tilted down. If it’s tilted backwards you can smack it in."
Courtney, Davidson: "Following the ball as it moves across the circle, and having the hand-eye coordination, and being ready for the unexpected. Maybe it pops up, or maybe it stays on the ground. And there’s an important trust between myself and the goalie, I know she can come up with key saves, but she also knows I have her back in case a ball comes off her pads, I’ll be there to finish off the job."
Marlena, Sacred Heart: "Having good hand-eye coordination is a good thing, and making sure you have a good grip on your stick, a strong grip, just to make sure the ball can’t get through your stick no matter how hard a player hits it."
What's the most memorable defensive save of your career?
Erin, W&M: "I think the most memorable one was when we played Duke first game this season, and I had two back to back. They were ranked No. 1 at the time. I remember, they got another corner right after the two saves, and just hearing the chatter about, “How did she just do that?” Those are exciting, especially playing a team that level.
Maeve, Columbia: "There are always the fun ones when you’re diving, the last-ditch effort. I tried one vs. St. Joe’s, it unfortunately didn’t work. [Laughs] Those are cool, because you’re not really thinking about it, just giving it your all to will the ball away from the goal. When I see other players do that, I’m always like, ‘Oh wow, respect.’"
Courtney Byler with 3 assists and two defensive saves tonight so far! pic.twitter.com/lnJfXy2l0u— Davidson FH (@DCFH) September 30, 2016
Christen, Villanova: "I think my most memorable was probably last year, my freshman year, my first college d-save. We were playing Old Dominion and we were tied, something like only five minutes left, I had a big defensive save late in the game and we ended up going to OT."
Courtney, Davidson: "There was one save last year, I can’t remember who we were playing, but it was a close game, battling back and forth. It was a conference game. There was one save where I basically dove from the left post to the right post to save it, not even meaning to. It was basically like a hit and pray, a dive, hoping I’d stop it. After I’d done it, I didn’t even realize I’d done it. It was almost just instinct to just protect the goal. And we ended up winning the game."
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Marlena, Sacred Heart: "There was one in high school, a hard shot got lifted over the goalie, and I had to dive and jump in the air at the same time, to reach the ball before it went in. [Laughs.] It was probably very interesting to watch."