Bi-weekly a varsity coach from the west coast and a varsity coach from the east coast is given the same question solicited from a member of the water polo community. The coaches answer the question independent of each other and their answers are posted here together with a photograph and short biography of each coach. We hope to have the men's varsity coaches to answer the questions in the fall and winter and the women's varsity coaches to answer the questions in the winter and spring.
QUESTION: You are playing a team with a dominant 2-meter player. What type of defense should you use - a drop or fronting the 2-meter player or something else, and why?
ANSWER: The answer to this question really depends on your teams personnel.
If you're blessed with a strong 2M Defender then the ideal situation would be to front and press. Of course this not only requires a good 2M guard, but strong perimeter defenders as well. The key to a good fronting defense is the perimeter defenders' ability to prevent the ball from being moved around to the side the 2M player is trying to hold. By having a strong press-no-foul on the ball, denying the passing lanes, and allowing your 2M guard time to work to maintain a front at set, a team can contain a dominant 2M player.
Another important skill in a press and front is for the defenders to be able to help back or crash on the 2M player if the offense does attempt to force an over pass (over the fronting 2M Def.) into the center. Goalies also should be willing to come out of the goal to steal a poorly thrown entry pass. The benefits of a strong press and front are that it keeps the opponents shot clock running and stagnates their ability to run their offense. It also puts your perimeter defenders, who are pressing hard in the passing lanes, in position to easily counter. The downside is that players can get caught out of position and give up advantage to the offensive player who attempts to drive. Stair Stepping, and keeping your head on a swivel will help prevent getting beat on a drive, and limit exclusions. Provided your team is well conditioned and physically able, this is generally the most effective form of defense.
A drop or zone defense can also be very effective, but again this again depends on your personnel.
Obviously a successful drop defense is based on having a strong goalie. At Occidental College we've been blessed with good goalkeepers over the years, and thus have utilized various types of drops and zones on occasion. A straight drop from the 2-3-4 position can be effective at keeping the ball away from 2M and generating field blocks which can result in turn-overs. A 4-5 position drop is another method of keeping the ball away from the center while forcing a low percentage shot from a poor angel. (Provided you're not playing against a good left handed shooter.)
Both of these types of drop defense's rely on the perimeter players ability to get up big, and either match hands against the shooter, or funnel the shot into the goal keeper. Defenders must also be adapt at adjusting their position when the offense attempts to drive the sluff through to open up the 2M position. Wing defenders need to be able to switch to pick up the driver, or slide back into the drop and get an arm up as the wings rotate up to the perimeter. The down side of these types of drop defenses are that they allow the offense to freely move the ball around the perimeter. Also, because of the positioning of the defense the ability to counter is limited. An experienced player with his/her eye on the shot clock may learn to recognize when the shot is about to be taken and anticipate the counter attack opportunity and thus still get an advantage.
A type of drop defense, that can create a counter attack opportunity is the M-Drop or Gap Defense. In this situation a perimeter defender is dropped back to double team the 2M player, with the 2M guard playing behind. The other two perimeter defenders play up in the gaps between the 2-3-4 position. The gap defenders are generally stunting the perimeter players, trying to force the shot from the poorest angle...generally the 4 position. Hence the 3-4 gap defender will stunt the 4 pos. player when he has the ball and press the 3 when he has the ball. The 2-3 gap defender will stunt the 3 when he has the ball and press the 2 when he get's the ball...this stunt and press philosophy with priorities on who should be pressed and who should be stunted and when to do so, forces the offensive players on the perimeter to have to move the ball and gives them less time to set up for an outside shot.
It is important that the gap defenders stunt and press 'up' in the passing lanes..by positioning themselves a stroke towards the opposite goal they will easily get an advantage on the counter attack when the offense shoots the ball. The wing defenders must be able to help back if one of the offensive players drive through. The downside of this defense is that it puts more pressure on the goalkeeper because the defense is essentially allowing an outside shot with no defender back to help field block or funnel the ball. If the gap defenders work together properly they'll force a poor angle shot, that the goalie will be prepared for, and thus generate an easy counter attack goal.
Playing at the collegiate level we often run into opponents with strong 2M players. At Occidental College we utilize all of these techniques and in some case we may use 3-4 different types of defense in a single game. I think it is important for coaches to train their players in various types of defensive strategy, not only so they can use the techniques in a game, but even more importantly so they'll easily recognized and adjust to any defense their up against in a game. Determining which strategy is most effective for your team will depend primarily on the type of players you have and how you develop their individual skills.
Larry Zubrin is in his 4th year as the head coach of men's and women's water polo at Occidental College. He came to Eagle Rock with more than eight years of successful high school coaching experience at Laguna Beach and El Modena high schools in Orange County. He also has coached with the Orange County boys' and girls' regional zone seven youth teams, working with some of the top high school players in the United States and evaluating talent for the U.S. National team.
In his three years as head of the men's and women's water polo teams at Occidental, Coach Zubrin has produced three CWPA All-Americans, six All-SCIAC award winners, and 12 AWPCA All-Academic Team honorees.
"We've established a culture of success both in and out of the pool here at Occidental." said Zubrin. "Our players are able to discover the true meaning of being a successfull student-athlete."
A graduate of Corona Del Mar HS, in Newport Beach, CA, Zubrin holds an undergraduate degree from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo where he was a member of the men's water polo team and a two-time All-American on the men's swim team. Zubrin also competed in both swimming and water polo while attending Golden West College in Huntington Beach, CA.
ANSWER: In my opinion there is no definitive answer to this question in that the overall strengths and weaknesses of the opponent and our own team have to be factored into what defense or defenses are selected to reduce the impact of a dominate center-forward player. Thus, here is how I look at analyzing the match-ups and a few of the primary defenses I would in turn use:
A. We have strong center-defense. We start the game utilizing the center-defender/center-forward match up and run a hard press on the opponent to try to slow down or eliminate entry into the center forward. We use early fronting to take away the long early entry pass but typically will not "live" by a front defense. If there are early scores or an early ejection on my center-defender we will switch to a "personnel" crash defense. This is done by calling out for crash help from the perimeter based on where the center-forward is located and also by the strength of the perimeter shooters. The crash could come from any position. The close perimeter positions to the crash will look to gap in between shooters to eliminate good strike shots and also to position for counterattack.
B. The opponent has inferior shooters on the weak side. Assuming we have at least a competent goalie, if the opponent has poor shooters on the weak side we will run either a 4 drop or a 4-5 help defense. Teams without depth try to hide their weaker players in these positions. With both these defenses the center defender plays a bit more behind the center-forward and tries to push the center forward into the help. The key to the 4 drop is to have your X3 defender be somewhat active in possibly stair-step crashing to 4 if that player walks center and into the strike zone. A right-handed shooter is somewhat "blind" to seeing this stair-step help and often the ball can be stolen. The X4 defender must maintain the shot block at all times helping with strong side shots. With the new shot blocking turnover rule, forcing bad shots becomes a key component to counterattack.
A 4-5 help defenses calls for two defenders working together to eliminate or steal any entry pass. I run this where the set is positioned more to the weak side of the cage. (Often after a ball side drive) If the ball is at 4, X4 shot blocks and can walk out to press or knock down if 4 walks into the strike zone. While that is happening X5 faces the center-forward and either drops or crashes relative to the threat. If 5 is passed the ball, X5 is prepared to shot block by anticipating the pass and being in good shot block position immediately. If 5 has the ball the roles switch for X4 and X5. With this defense you may give up a 4 or 5 shot but the goalie knows where it is coming from and does not have to move much at all since the passes are short and predictable. This is a great defense to open up counterattack from the opposite side of the defense if bad shots are taken from 4 or 5 or if the ball is passed to center-forward.
C. We are weak at center-defense or center defenders are in foul trouble. With this situation we will play soft off of 2, 3 & 4 and see if we can force some bad early shots or slow and disrupt the opponents offense by making them have to clear the drops. With the new rules providing for transition off of deflected shot blocks this defense becomes more high percentage. X2, X3 and X4 have to play in the strike zone and be shot blockers whenever the ball is passed to their respective opponent. X1 and X5 are to press the wings and prepare for rotating into this defense should the opponents clear to either side. Weaker teams do a bad job of rotating back into good shooting positions after clears which will result in the offense being unbalanced. The key is to be mobile within the zone so good shooting positions can still be knocked down. For example, if 3 is walking in and has a good shot, X3 should be confident in knocking that player down since X2 and X4 are still in the zone protecting against the entry pass. The center defender should work to push the center "into" the help and keep the center uncomfortable in case the ball is entry passed through the defense.
John Zeigler, a 1991 Bucknell graduate enters his seventh season as the Bucknell men's and women's water polo coach in 2006. Over the last two years Zeigler's women's teams have compiled a 46-19 record and they finished top four at the Eastern Championship in 2006.The Bison Men's program has been ranked as high at #17 nationaly in the last three years and also placed top four in the East in 2005 and 2006. Zeigler has over 100 career victories for each program.
As a student athlete, Zeigler finished third on the team in scoring as a senior with 30 goals and 34 assists and recorded career totals of 82 goals and 89 assists. Zeigler also won the 1990 Scott Schulte Award, which is presented annually to "the individual who contributes the most to Bucknell water polo." Zeigler captained the water polo squad in both the junior and senior year and additional served as a captain on the swim team in the senior year.
As a swimmer, Zeigler placed in the top 10 in four events at the inaugural Patriot League Swimming Championships in 1991, helping Bucknell to a third-place finish. During his senior season, Zeigler was the recipient of the Ronald J. "Pete" Pedrick Award which is presented in recognition of demonstrated improvement and special contributions to Bucknell athletics over a four-year period.
In 2004, Zeigler began serving on several water polo committees. He was appointed to the NCAA Division I Men's Championship Committee and to the Collegiate Water Polo Association Board of Directors. In 2006 he began a term on the NCAA Men's Rules Committee as well.