Easing up, moving up

Lacrosse: All-American Ryan Curtis has exchanged a go-for-broke approach to defense to one of patience, and it has paid big for defending national champion Virginia.


May 25, 2000|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,SUN STAFF

Before Ryan Curtis could do the things that made him one of the more prized defensemen in collegiate lacrosse, he had to stop trying to do too much.

As a young player with the Virginia Cavaliers, Curtis usually was bent on a single goal - stuff the opponent's best scorer, and do it with authority. Don't just limit his scoring chances, but strip the ball from him as often as possible. Attack the shooter instead of holding your ground. Take chances now and worry about making a big mistake later.

"It was me covering somebody. At first, what would get me in trouble is I'd consider it more of a personal thing," Curtis said.

"I took a lot of pride in stripping my guy. If an attackman was holding the ball too much, I'd get sick of it and try to take it away. Sometimes it would work out. The biggest thing I've learned is patience, not trying to do everything at once. The consequences of making a mistake on defense are more severe than on offense."

Curtis, a two-time All-America, the reigning national Defenseman of the Year and one of the game's more polished players, can do it all.

Each week for the past three seasons, he has been assigned to cover the opponent's top attackman. From Syracuse's Ryan and Casey Powell to Johns Hopkins' Dan Denihan to Duke's Jared Frood, Curtis has battled the most potent scoring threats in the game.

But Curtis, one of lacrosse's top take-away artists, now wreaks havoc with a well-rounded game. He might be the best at anticipating a pass, picking it off and starting a fast break. His ground-ball work has improved immensely. He is obsessed with maintaining proper footwork and positioning. He can't watch enough videotape to study the tendencies of his counterparts. He has never been shy about running over people.

"Ryan had to back off his game a little bit when he was young. He was a little too aggressive," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. "A lot of times, defensemen define success by how quickly they can get the ball on the ground. Ryan has come to learn there are ways to neutralize a guy without forcing things. He took a half-step back in order to take a full step forward."

And in case you hadn't noticed, the defending national-champion Cavaliers-who face Princeton in Saturday's NCAA tournament semifinals- consist of more than a world-class offense stocked with All-America talent.

Virginia plays defense with the best of them. Only three times during their 13-1 season have the Cavaliers surrendered more than eight goals. They have allowed 7.93 goals per game, fifth best in the country.

From the practice field, where he lets his game-face scowl disappear and might even crack a joke, to game days, when he turns into the businesslike guy who shows little outward emotion while shutting someone down, Curtis sets the tone on defense.

"He's an unbelievable athlete with a great hunger for competition," goalkeeper Derek Kenney said of Curtis.

"He's not a whoop-it-up guy on the field. His intensity on game days is impressive. He's going to make himself have a good game. I don't take Ryan for granted. But it's nice to know that the guy he is going to cover is not going to be that influential. It adds a lot of confidence to the defense."

Starsia admires the controlled ferocity Curtis, 5 feet 10, 205 pounds, brings to the action. It isn't hard to explain the roots of his temperament.

His father is Mike Curtis, the former middle linebacker of the Baltimore Colts who was known as "Mad Dog." The Mike Curtis who once nailed a poor fan who entered the playing field and disrupted his huddle.

Had Ryan been blessed with his father's larger physique, he might have pursued football beyond his superb days as a wide receiver-defensive back at Landon School in Potomac. Although he was too small to excel in Division I football, Curtis progressed remarkably quickly after taking up close defense on the lacrosse team as a sophomore.

"I didn't really have a favorite sport in high school or one I excelled at more than the other," said Curtis, who first picked up a lacrosse stick when he was 10 and considered playing both sports at Navy.

"I just knew I would have more opportunities to play in a top five program in Division I lacrosse, rather than try to walk on to a Division III or top 20 Division I team in football."

Curtis actually whetted his curiosity and tested Starsia's nerves by trying out as a walk-on for Virginia's football team last fall. The experiment lasted about a week before Curtis walked away. The football coaching staff told Starsia that Curtis likely would have ended up on special teams.

"He's a football kid playing lacrosse. You don't get a lot of guys like that in our sport," Starsia said. "If he was as big as his dad, he'd be playing on Sundays."

Va. at a glance

Location: Charlottesville, Va.

Conference: Atlantic Coast

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