Sunday, January 18, 2015

Killing the King: University of Maryland

By Kyle Stolcenberg

The University of Maryland has been dominant in the Mid-Atlantic since 2012, with only two official in-region losses: to last year’s NYDC Capitalists and to Villanova University in the 2011 Mid-Atlantic Regional Championship. Maryland exited World Cup VII last season with a snitch-range loss to eventual champions the University of Texas. This season, Maryland has a 20-1 record with its sole loss coming against Tufts University in the finals of the Oktoberfest Invitational.

In this article, I will detail the strategies that have been most effective for teams facing Maryland this season in recorded (and publicly available) games: Maryland’s matches against Virginia Quidditch Club (UVA), Appalachian Quidditch (AAQ), and The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Quidditch (UNC) at Turtle Cup IV; against Tufts University Tufflepuffs in the Oktoberfest Invitational Finals; and against UNC in the Mid-Atlantic Regional Championship (MARC) finals. Though these ideas are supported, and in some cases inspired by personal experience as a player and spectator in the Mid-Atlantic, I encourage all prospective opponents to find them well documented in the film.

Attack in Transition
Maryland’s defensive strength is its physical ability to mark off-ball. Its top beater steps to point to contain the ball handler while the three chasers sit in the pockets of the passing options. This is a remarkably effective half-court defense because Maryland’s marks are suffocating and quick to counter when possession changes. However, the defense is extremely unsophisticated: the top beater is man-marking and no quaffle players hold centrally, so if you get your offense downfield quickly enough there will always be a scoring opportunity. This strategy is on full display in the UNC matches and largely explains why UNC has had such success against Maryland despite struggling against teams like New York University Nundu and Bowling Green State University at Keystone Cup.

The Maryland defense is most comfortable running a scheme in which its defenders focus on denying passes and scrambling for 50/50 balls. Any situation in which an opposing player is moving toward the hoops with the quaffleforcing Maryland defenders to slideis much less well-drilled. Take, for example, the overtime period of the MARC finals, in which defenders too eagerly swarmed UNC’s driving Andrew McGregor and Max Miceli, leaving secondary players wide open near the hoops.

Photo by Kat Ignatova

Pressure the Top Beater
This is a variation on the point above and is the essential difference between the successes of UNC and Tufts. Maryland’s set defense is reliant on the top beater to take the primary ball handler out of the play. This allows the Maryland chasers to mark each eligible receiver without having to worry about switching or covering—they simply go for the best individual matchups, which, given Maryland’s depth of individual talent, typically generates at least two out of three mismatches in its favor. In particular, Maryland is very rarely vulnerable to the sort of over-the-hoops lob that too many teams—notably UNC—attempt. Instead, teams will find opportunities by clearing the point beater and driving at the center of the field, forcing help to step and, with a bit of awareness, opening easier passes around the hoops.

When Maryland concedes bludger control, it still relies on a point beater and is thus especially vulnerable to the 1.5 bludger offense. When facing this, Maryland tends to use its off-ball beater as a screen against the incoming tackler. While this keeps throwing space around the on-ball beater—who, remember, is still responsible for point defense—the beater is often pushed back toward the hoops, either giving up a clear mid-range shot or forcing chaser help, which opens an easy pass.

Despite the recent popularity of the 1.5 bludger strategy, it is often more effective to send an offensive bludger as Maryland’s point beaters—particularly Jeremy Dehn—have learned to step effectively around over-exuberant pressure and maintain focus on the quaffle. This is especially apparent in the Tufts match, where both options are displayed.

Photo by Arsh Agarwal

Play Conservative Defense
The first key to stopping Maryland’s offense is getting in front of it after turnovers. The team is well-disciplined and generally gets three quaffle players across midfield very quickly upon a change of possession. The offense is most efficient when capitalizing via short passes on numerical quaffle advantages but is surprisingly impatient when facing a set defense.

After forcing the half-field set, it’s important to recognize Maryland’s offensive plan; it looks to spread the defense before either playing quick balls to the corners of the hoops, or long balls to its biggest chasers—notably Eric King—over the top. Note especially the importance of sending a team’s best defenders to mark Maryland’s over-the-hoops threat; in the Tufts game, the two-female chaser set intensified the matchup issue (despite featuring some of the best defensive female chasers in the sport), forcing help from Tufts keeper David Stack on long balls. In the MARC finals, UNC was unable to counter the play with anything but Lee Hodge, the team’s best defender, or favorable deflections from its keeper. It seems unnatural to many teams to have primary defenders behind the hoops rather than toward the quaffle, but in this case (at least in man-to-man schemes) it’s essential.

Taking a wider look, it’s easy to see that Maryland is more comfortable drawing and breaking pressure than playing against limited space inside. Contrast, for example, the opening minutes of the Tufts game (in which Tufts’ defensive beaters pressure high and open the corners) with the 10 scoreless minutes that open the UVA film (in which UVA players sit in a zone to clog passing lanes rather than pushing out in man-to-man). The percentage of Maryland’s points that come from simple catch-and-dunks is astounding for any team outside the Southwest; due the size advantage around the hoops, which Maryland has over nearly every Mid-Atlantic opponent, opposing defenses must remain compact.

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