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The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Marquette has built identity around defense

Byrnes, Grill and Richard linchpins of strong unit
Liam Byrnes was named the BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Week earlier this month (Photo by Meredith Gillespie / [email protected])

If Marquette wins in its first NCAA Tournament game against North Carolina tomorrow, it will likely start with solid play from the defensive unit. Coach Joe Amplo has come to expect greatness from the unit that only allowed double-digit goals twice this season.

Marquette has the 10th best goals against average in Division I lacrosse, in contrast to the Golden Eagles 43rd ranked scoring offense. The unit, led by three MLL Draft picks, Liam Byrnes, B.J. Grill and Jake Richard, has been able to shut down teams completely, holding Richmond and Villanova to two and three goals, respectively.

It’s a unit that has been able to clamp down when the Golden Eagles really need them to, like this weekend, when Denver was held scoreless in the third quarter, or earlier this season against Notre Dame, when Marquette held the Fighting Irish scoreless in the final frame to send the game to overtime.

Star players are no problem. The Golden Eagles shut down two of the top producers in the nation at the BIG EAST Tournament, Jake Froccaro and Connor Cannizzarro, holding them to one goal combined. Byrnes made Cannizzarro, a likely Tewaaraton candidate, look silly on Denver’s final possession. He failed to even get a shot off thanks to a stick-check from the BIG EAST Defensive Player of the Year.

The unit has always been good, as the players have accumulated numerous conference accolades over the years, but not this good. The Golden Eagles jumped up 29 spots from last year when it comes to goals allowed. So what changed?

First of all, Zack Melillo has been excellent at the face-off X, winning 58 percent of his draws. The Golden Eagles are in their defensive end far less, which allows for more rest. The team also has as much depth as ever, especially at the defensive midfielder position. Still, many of the key players are the same as they’ve been the past few years. Byrnes and Grill both believe it’s a natural progression for the veteran players.

Byrnes, Grill, Richard and long-stick midfielder Tyler Gilligan have gotten serious playing time all four years and have been in nearly every game situation, good and bad. They’ve been able to build chemistry with each other and juniors that have gotten serious playing time, like defensive midfielders Noah Joseph and Griffin Connor. In time, things just start to click.

“Every year we learn a little bit more,” Byrnes said. “We kind of knew the rotations year one. We worked on those rotations, but we were slow. It took a little time to get used to it. At this point we’re used to it.”

Continuing to hammer in those fundamentals is defensive coordinator Andrew Stimmel, who Marquette brought in in the offseason after John Orsen took a job with Denver.

“He has made the absolute biggest difference in our program,” Amplo said. “You see the attention to detail in our performance. When we’ve struggled, we’ve gotten better than we were before those struggles. It’s really cool to see the relationships that he’s built and how quickly the seniors bought in.”

Stimmel, a former captain with Ohio State, came to Marquette after two seasons as an assistant at Yale. Grill said he’s a perfect fit for Marquette’s culture, which helps make this season a very successful transition.

The improved performance isn’t due to Stimmel running a new system. He kept the system created by Orsen and Amplo, a former defensive coordinator himself, a move that Grill found very interesting. Instead, Stimmel adapted, focusing more on implementing the current system than teaching the group something entirely new.

“My goal to come in was to keep things as similar as possible while improving our individual fundamentals and the execution of those things,” Stimmel said. “At the end of the day, I think that’s what it comes down to defensively – how well you can execute whatever the scheme is you’re doing.”

The veterans made Stimmel’s job a lot easier this year since they already knew the scheme inside and out. In a way, they became additional defensive coordinators for the team.

“You can’t put a value on it,” Stimmel said. “You can’t put experience into words … Those guys are coaches on the field. Having the ability within a game to be able to get feedback from your players is something that you can’t take for granted as a coach.”

Byrnes and Grill have both taken it upon themselves to teach the next generation of Marquette players, and it’s shown. At the beginning of the season, it would be understandable to worry about the team next year when they graduate. However, players who will be around next year have taken huge strides, including players like Nick Euphrasio and Brendon Connolly.

“That’s what it’s all about for developing the program,” Byrnes said. “With each person doing a little bit, the whole defense gets better as a unit. You don’t have to completely work with a guy one-on-one every single day. You just teach one guy a little thing every day, and throughout the length of the season, it adds up.”

Marquette isn’t changing their defensive mindset when it comes to North Carolina, who possesses the eighth highest scoring offense and five players who have scored 20 or more goals. Matching up with some of the best of the best is nothing new to this group.

“We’ll let North Carolina do their thing,” Byrnes said. “We know what they want to run, who they want to score with. We’re just going to stick to our principles and just do what we’ve been doing all year, just slide when we need to, talk a lot and give Cole (Blazer) some savable shots.”


-After selling out the initial ticket allotment (a bit under 2,000) in just 16 minutes on Wednesday, Marquette sold a limited amount of extra tickets today, made possible by added seating behind the goal. Those seats sold out in under an hour.

“It just shows how this sport has really grown here in Milwaukee and the Midwest in general,” Ryan McNamara said. “Being from Minnesota, it’s cool to watch and see how it’s grown from the beginning.”

-Andy DeMichiei, who wore Kyle Whitlow’s No. 6 during the BIG EAST Tournament due to losing his jersey, will likely don his teammate’s jersey again. He said he doesn’t really have much of a choice after the luck it brought the team last weekend.

“It’s really an honor to wear Kyle’s number,” DeMichiei said. “Ever since I got here freshman year, coach Amplo has told all the kids in my class, ‘If you’re a midfielder, look up to Kyle. He’s what we want midfielders at this program to be like.’ So to wear his number and to be out there playing for him is a really cool experience.”

-Melillo will face another worthy adversary in the face-off circle this weekend. North Carolina’s Stephen Kelly is 18th in face-off percentage in Division I, just .014 better than Melillo.

Last week Melillo went toe-to-toe with Denver’s Trevor Baptiste, winning 52 percent of his draws. Amplo said he likely needs to be 50 percent or better for them to win this week, but much of the success starts with the wing play. The Golden Eagles struggled keeping possession after initially winning the draws against Villanova.

“We have to pick up those 50/50 ground balls,” Amplo said. “It’s not, ‘Can we get the ball to stick, and can the face-off guy win it?’ We’ve got to keep possession after the face-off happened.”

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