April 1, 2010

By Amy Farnum

The University of Pennsylvania women’s lacrosse team has developed into one of the top programs in the nation over the last decade, and defense has been an integral part of the Quakers’ rise to the elite level of the sport.

Head coach Karin Brower Corbett preaches playing defense as a unit, and the approach is something that has worked well for the No. 6 Quakers (8-1) as they currently lead the nation in scoring defense, allowing a miniscule 5.56 goals per game.

“For the last three years we’ve really stressed teaching defense and positioning as a team defense,” said Brower Corbett.  “We don’t rely on one or two kids to make it work.  They still need to be good one-on-one defenders, but it’s about the team concept and their positioning and being able to see ball and girl well.  In some ways, expecting that your teammate might get beat so you’re already there.”

The concept has been embraced by not only Penn’s core defenders, but also goalkeeper Emily Szelest, who topped the nation in goals against average for last season, and currently paces Division I with a 5.72 GAA.

“We put a lot of emphasis on what Karin calls ‘hedging’ and being ready for the slide and then setting up quickly after we have that helping slide there,” said Szelest.  “With the support we give each other, we are rarely in a defensive one-on-one situation.  We try to have our teammates there, and that’s what makes us impenetrable when we have our good games because we can watch ball and watch girl and know when we are needed to support our teammate that is marking the ball.”

The Quakers, who have advanced to the NCAA semifinals in each of the last three years, have given up double-digit goals just once this season in an 11-6 loss to the-No. 4 North Carolina, and have not allowed more than seven goals in any other contest this year.

“We try to limit our opponent shots as much as possible, and make them work really hard to get a shot and create opportunities for themselves,” said Brower Corbett.  “We also watch what our opponents’ strengths are on the attack, and their tendencies, and try to take that away from them.”

Szelest has a lot of confidence in the defenders in front of her, although she does admit goaltending can be mentally challenging.

“(Goaltending) has its’ mentally testing moments, and it has its’ beautiful and exhilarating moments,” said Szelest.  “Being the last line of defense, it is hard to make up for a mistake.  As a goalie, you have a split nanosecond to make your decision – you don’t have a few minutes to make up for a goal that possibility went in.”

But, despite the challenge, Szelest enjoys experiencing the artistry of teamwork.

“I love watching our team when we click,” said Szelest.  “It’s like we’re painting a picture. I can’t play music, even though I absolutely love it and the melody, but I play lacrosse, so maybe that is like playing a melody.  It’s like a performance or a piece of art.”

Brower Corbett is hoping the Quakers can create a teamwork masterpiece when they face No. 2 Maryland on April 2.  The Terrapins are 11-0, and have already defeated five Top 10 teams this year.

“Our early loss to North Carolina was a good thing for us in that we really had to work some things out,” Brower Corbett.  “Maryland is one of the most athletic teams that I’ve seen in a long time, and they have a lot of kids that can score.  It is going to be really important that we play as team against them.”

After the Maryland contest, Penn’s schedule does not get any easier.  The Quakers host Columbia in an Ivy League match-up on April 4, and then welcome top-ranked and five-time defending NCAA champion Northwestern on April 9.

“I think we are a team that likes to rise to the challenge, and we get very excited about getting a chance to prove ourselves,” said Szelest.  “We love the challenges that teams like Maryland and Northwestern pose to us.  Maryland is definitely very good.  We’ve been waiting for these big games for awhile.  It’s a choice – we definitely have the talent and the skill and worth ethic – and right now, it’s about choosing to play with heart in this game.”

Maryland and Penn will meet on Friday at 7 p.m., at Franklin Field.  The game will be regionally televised, with TCN carrying the game in the Philadelphia region and CSN Mid-Atlantic showing live coverage in the Maryland-D.C. Metro area.