Delaware's Smith draws rave reviews

Faceoff man's talent helps lead Blue Hens to 7-0, No. 9 ranking

Notebook

March 15, 2006|By GARY LAMBRECHT | GARY LAMBRECHT,SUN REPORTER

He is typically on the field for 10, maybe 15 seconds at a time, but University of Delaware junior Alex Smith has a way of dictating the action.

And the 7-0 Blue Hens, who leaped to No. 9 with Saturday's 18-11 victory over Albany and look very much like a threat to win the Colonial Athletic Association championship, are thankful for him.

Coming into the 2006 season, Smith was widely considered the best faceoff man in the game. Last year, he topped NCAA Division I players by winning 71.2 percent of his draws. He appears to be getting better.

So far this spring, Smith has won 116 of 154 faceoff attempts, or 75.3 percent. He recently set an NCAA record by winning all 21 of his chances in a 16-2 rout of Wagner. Then, against a talented Albany team, Smith personally neutralized a strong Danes offense by winning the game of keep-away. He controlled 27 of 33 faceoffs.

"He's a scientist of the faceoff," Delaware coach Bob Shillinglaw said.

Smith, 5 feet 11, who already has scooped a team-high 78 ground balls this season, is the consummate specialist. By the time he was in his junior year at Boys' Latin, he focused exclusively on winning the possession battle for his team. When he signed with Delaware, it was with the clear understanding he would be a faceoff man. That's it.

You won't find Smith complaining about a lack of playing time. You will find him working on the side for nearly two hours at every Delaware practice, perfecting his footwork, sharpening his hand speed, finding an edge while abusing teammates assigned to take him on. Smith estimates that he takes between 150 and 200 faceoffs three days a week.

"I understand I'm a role player, just like a defensive midfielder," said Smith, who also has scored three goals this year. "I treat it like a position, and I practice it like a position. I love it. It raises the hairs on the back of my neck."

Because he doesn't stay on the field after the possession issue has been decided - unless he sees a path to the goal and takes advantage of the green light he has to shoot - Smith doesn't need any backup help. This season, he has taken all but one faceoff attempt.

Twelve different players scored in the Albany win, but Smith played the pivotal, demoralizing role. With the score tied at 6 early in the second quarter, he and the Blue Hens went on a run, as Delaware scored six unanswered goals.

Today, Smith will try to lift the Blue Hens to their first 8-0 start since 1999 - they made the NCAA tournament quarterfinals that year - when Delaware travels to No. 8 Georgetown.

In need of work

UMBC is off to a 2-2 start and awaits a visit by No. 1 Maryland on Saturday. And as the Retrievers prepare for their America East Conference schedule, two problems need fixing. The Retrievers need their attack to re-awaken, and they need to finish games with a push instead of a fade.

Senior attackman Brendan Mundorf and junior attackman Drew Westervelt have scored just eight points each through four games. Mundorf and Westervelt combined for 56 goals and 51 assists last year and accounted for 107 of the team's 248 points (43.1 percent).

Mundorf, the conference player of the year in 2005 with 29 goals and 28 assists, has scored three goals this season. Opposing defenses have focused on shutting down him and Westervelt, and that has left midfielders James Hyland (team-high eight goals), Terry Kimener (team-high seven assists) and Evan Kay (six goals) room to pick up some slack.

No matter who takes care of the scoring, UMBC coach Don Zimmerman can't take many more late-game meltdowns. The Retrievers gave up eight fourth-quarter goals in a 12-7 loss at Johns Hopkins, then followed up by blowing a 7-2 halftime lead and losing in overtime at Pennsylvania, 12-11.

After the third quarter, UMBC has managed just four goals, while allowing 16.

Downhill slide

Coming off a 5-8 season that marked its worst finish since 1967, North Carolina had to rebound in 2006, right?

Wrong.

The Tar Heels, under sixth-year coach John Haus, are falling apart early again. Saturday's 9-7 loss at Notre Dame dropped Carolina to 2-4, and it came after back-to-back home losses to Navy and Penn by a combined score of 24-7.

And things could get quite ugly in the coming weeks. The Tar Heels, saddled with the toughest schedule in the country, play at No. 10 Hofstra, then face Duke, Maryland, Hopkins and Virginia.

gary.lambrecht@baltsun.com

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