Navy sophomore Geoff Leone was living a nightmare only a defensive midfielder knows. Under 80-degree sunshine at Homewood Field, with the Johns Hopkins offense taking constant aim at him, Leone was fading fast as he tried to overcome painful leg cramps.
The Blue Jays were dominating possession time and relentlessly attacking the Mids' short-stick defenders - especially Leone.
During a second-half comeback that led to a 10-9 Hopkins victory, Blue Jays midfielder Brian Christopher took Leone behind the net, ran past him, circled the crease and scored. Soon after, midfielder Michael Kimmel blew past Leone from up top and scored.
"Those are the games you live for, but physically, that was one of the most tiring games I've ever played in," Leone said. "You know people are going to keep coming after you. You play defense as a team, but time and time again, [short-stick midfielders] are going to get singled out. "You're sometimes on an island out there. You're not going to let your guy go by you. You're going to take a beating. That's why I think it's one of the most fun positions you can play."
Welcome to the life of a "d-middie" or "short stick," as they are called in lacrosse circles. They are the marked men, the only two without a 6-foot stick among the six defenders in front of the goalkeeper. Their job goes beyond mustering the stamina, quick feet, skillful checking and love of contact required to cover offensive midfielders who are among the top athletes on the field.
"They're the most underappreciated guys in our sport," Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "They are expected to play great on-ball defense and great off-ball defense, play the wings on faceoffs, pick up ground balls, ride, clear, push the ball in transition and sometimes stay out there on offense. What don't they do?"
"Get down, get dirty, go get a tough ground ball, keep your guy from scoring," Loyola coach Charley Toomey added. "If you do your job, you go unnoticed."
The defensive midfielder doesn't accumulate goals, assists, saves, win faceoffs or a ton of ground balls. He doesn't hunker down near the net, where close defensemen mark opposing attackmen.
The short stick doesn't roam around the top of the defense, where the long stick, the leader of the defensive midfield trio, takes on the opponents' best midfielder and tries to generate turnovers, often out in the open, with flashy checks and ground-ball scoops.
"Long sticks have gotten to be like movie stars compared to the short-sticks," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said.
"D-middies are the most respected players on the team," added Maryland coach Dave Cottle, who recalled how, after the 2004 season, then-senior defensive midfielder Paul Gillette was the runaway vote-getter by his teammates as the Terps' MVP. "His name got called at the banquet and the place went absolutely nuts. Not bad for a guy who scored four [actually three] goals, huh?"
The rise of the short-stick midfielder began 20 years ago. Before 1987, all six defenders played with long sticks. To increase scoring, the NCAA introduced a single, short-stick defender to the mix. In 1990, it added a second short stick and restricted defenses to four "poles." That created a pair of bull's-eyes for offenses to attack.
What fun it was for former Navy midfielder Mark Kapral, who converted to defensive midfielder and played there in 1988 and 1989. In both years, Navy lost to eventual champion Syracuse in the NCAA tournament. Both times, Kapral had to confront the legendary Gary or Paul Gait, one-on-one.
"[Syracuse] would set their picks, and you knew the Gaits or someone else was coming after you," Kapral said. "But Army was the toughest. They always did everything in their power to isolate me all day - behind the goal, way up top, wherever.
"I wore full sweats every day in practice, no matter how hot it was, to keep me light on my feet [in games]. Playing short stick is all about body positioning. You can't go for the home run checks."
Since Kapral's days, an emphasis on specialized units has put an ever-increasing premium on the value of the d-middie, while the vintage, two-way midfielder has been dying off. There are still exceptions, such as UMBC junior Terry Kimener and Hopkins junior Paul Rabil, who take lengthy shifts on defense. But over the past decade, the short-stick midfielder, whether identified as a high school recruit or converted in college, has become quite the prize.
Since they are forced to operate all over the field, short-stick midfielders, despite being raw at times in stick skills, often are among the best pure athletes on the team.
For example, Maryland senior Jimmy Borell, out for the year after breaking his ankle last month, has been timed in 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash, and his many one-man clears result from bursts of speed some tailbacks would envy. Borell's in-your-face defensive style, resembling a cornerback playing bump-and-run, also fits Maryland's rough-and-tumble philosophy.