The Impact of Zone in Our Game

By Shelley Klaes-Bawcombe, Head Coach, James Madison University  @JMULacrosse

It is happening – zone systems will make a difference in our game. It just did – James Madison University showed that great teams can beat stacked teams by working hard to take space and strengths away from an offense to frustrate a team and bring a true underdog to the top of the game – a national championship. JMU plays in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), a powerhouse zone conference loaded with innovative coaches. The first national championship won in our sport by a program other than Maryland, North Carolina, Northwestern, Princeton or Virginia since 1991. It is an exciting time for growth in women’s collegiate lacrosse. We are not just adding programs, we are evolving as a sport. We need to celebrate this change and embrace it, instead of being afraid or intimidated by this change. All of the greatest sports have been through it, it is our time now.

   Courtesy of James Madison Athletics Communications.

There is so much in our game we cannot control- offenses are so potent these days shooting up to 35/40 times a game. So at least with a zone you can try to control those chances- if nothing else a zone can limit 1v1’s for everyone around the 8-meter. Instead of trying to match up person to person- you can try to defend space. When you are deciding how your zone will look, consider what space you will allow the attack to have and what space you won’t allow them to have? What shots the offense can have and what shots you will work to limit as a team? As a defensive unit, we can’t take everything away- but we can try to limit tendencies and strengths as much as possible. When you are scouting an opponent consider where the team is getting their shots from- are they dodging to get their shots? where are they dodging from? Is it all players or just some players? Is your opponent feeding for their goals? Where are they feeding from? Do you want your defensive unit to give up shots that are wide angled to help your goalie or do you want to force the ball to numbers to have traffic around the shooter? Depending on how you answer those questions you can begin to organize your zone system.

Towson won its CAA championship in 2013 with a tough hard-nosed zone backer defense. Then in 2014 Towson proceeded to win back to back championships building their confidence as a zone defensive team. JMU had to evolve if we were going to continue our winning ways in the CAA conference. We had to find a way to score against a zone and we had to create a zone for our own program to practice on a daily basis to build confidence. JMU and Towson have battled it out since. Fast forward 3 years later, two years ago in 2017- in the first year of the shot clock; the CAA had 3 different programs beat very respected ACC programs like UVA, Notre Dame and Duke. – all with a zone defense leading the charge. This year 2018 JMU took on UNC in the final four and focused on our zone defense to take away as many of UNC’s powerful offense’s strengths away. We showed the same fortitude as a defensive unit vs Boston College in the championship. Stony brook has come on strong in recent years showing the same innovation and understanding of zone concepts and how they can impact the game and set their program up for success.

Are you willing to grow with the times? Are you willing to have systems in place for your program and give them the best chance possible chance to win as a team? I am not saying you can only win with zones. But it does help to have all the tools in the tool kit- man’s, face guards with man, zones, backer zones, rover zones or a combination of all it. Having a prepared team that is flexible and able to adjust to whatever challenge it will face next. That is how JMU won its first ever National championship in 2018. It wasn’t luck, it was from hard work and determination to stay on top of its own powerhouse conference, the CAA a conference that pushed its JMU to be ready for any challenge it would face in 2018. We became the first program to win a national championship competing with a zone defense and we are proud of that fact. We are proud to be a part of the CAA conference and the growth of the game and helping rejuvenate the competitor in all of you. Bring it on in 2019!

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