With Stifling Zone D, Denver Gives Stony Brook Taste of Own Medicine


Denver defender Audrey Schreck tangles with Stony Brook's Nicole Barretta. The Pioneers' defense coerced the Seawolves into committing 24 turnovers Sunday in an 11-7 victory — Denver's first-ever win over a top-five ranked team.

DENVER — What a difference a year can make.

Twelve months ago, the Denver women’s lacrosse team played at Stony Brook and was on the short-end of an absolute beatdown. The Pioneers lost on the scoreboard by 13, they trailed in the shot department by 16, and to any lacrosse eye, they were completely outmatched.

But on Sunday morning at Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium when the two teams met again, the convincing winner by an 11-7 score was Denver — with a capital D.

No. 12 Denver held No. 5 Stony Brook to just seven goals, the lowest total for the Seawolves’ high-powered offense in 63 games, dating back to March 2016. The Pioneers’ zone was outstanding, as the Seawolves looked out of sync and committed 24 turnovers.

The win marked Denver’s first win ever over a top-five ranked program. The Pioneers are now a perfect 4-0 this season.

“For 60 minutes, they were by far the better team. All the credit to them,” Stony Brook coach Joe Spallina said.

Regarding Denver’s defense, Spallina said they took away the most important aspect of the Seawolves offense. “They made it hard for us to feed,” he said.

Given the source, the praise has resonance. Stony Brook has had perhaps the most prolific zone defense in women’s lacrosse over the last eight seasons, but on this day, it was Denver which took it to task.

“I have the best defense in the country playing in front of me,” Denver goalkeeper Carson Gregg said. “They give me the shots I want to see, the looks I want to see. Playing behind them is super easy.”

Through four games, Gregg, a junior from Severna Park, Md., has a save percentage of 60.4 and a goals against average of 4.92. She credited the team’s new goalie coach Brittany Read (the former goalie at Louisville and Oregon) for her success this season.

Denver coach Liza Kelly didn’t always run a zone defense, and ironically, when she first implemented a zone five years ago, it was modeled in large part after Spallina’s unit at Stony Brook. From 2013 through 2015, the Seawolves led the NCAA with fewer than six goals against per game, spurring the growth of zone defense around the country.

“I used to sit down with one of my kids [watching Stony Brook film] and say, ‘Hey, I want you to watch how this kid moves there,’” Kelly recalled.

There are some nuances between the units, as Kelly said her zone was more of a “doubling zone,” trying to apply high pressure at all times. Spallina said Denver’s zone employed more unbalanced looks with adjacent slides if the opposing offense held the ball too long.

This style of play involves a lot of trust and communication, and Denver’s back-side movement was crisp all game long to stifle the Seawolves. Stony Brook star Taryn Ohlmiller was limited to one goal and one assist, following an eight-point outbreak in the team’s opener at Colorado.

One critical difference in Denver’s defense in 2019 has been a positional change for senior Elizabeth Behrins. As a freshman out of Ridge High School in New Jersey, Behrins played strictly attack. Since then, she’s been moved into the midfield, and this season almost exclusively plays defense (other than an occasional offensive rush opportunity).

“We fight over her,” Kelly said, in reference to herself and offensive coordinator Tee Ladouceur. “It’s literally a battle every day. She’s great in anything she does.”

Behrins played as an aggressor at the top of the Pioneers’ defense on Sunday, accruing three caused turnovers and four ground balls. She was able to take on this role, Kelly noted, because of the play of Audrey Schreck and other defenders behind her, packing the eight-meter.

“We don’t even have to talk out there,” Behrins said. “We know each other so well, we know how everyone’s going to move. We’re not moving as individuals, but as a unit, from one side to the other.”

With Denver’s hot start to the season, with perhaps the best defense in the nation, the Pioneers seem poised to vault into the top-10 in the polls this week. It’s welcome news for a program that has, for years, played in the shadows of Denver’s dynamite men’s lacrosse program, led by Bill Tierney.

“I’ve always admired what Coach T has done since he took over his program,” Kelly said. “They’re always well disciplined and play the game the right way. For us as the women’s program, we’ve watched them win, we’ve watched hockey win, we’ve watched men’s soccer make it to the final four. We don’t want to be the bridesmaids anymore. We want to be the bride.

“This is the first time we’ve ever been ranked higher than the men’s team, and the girls are aware of that. It’s a friendly competition. Can we both win? I think that’s the end goal for the department. Why can’t we both win really nice trophies and rings at the end of the year?”

Denver women’s lacrosse will be back in action Tuesday, as the team plays host to Michigan, another up-and-coming program off to a great start in 2019. The Wolverines are 5-0 this season, with their last two wins coming against Dartmouth and Colorado, two possible NCAA tournament teams.

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