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Thursday, June 30, 2022

Lacrosse Blues storm to ‘euphoric’ victory in Exeter

An important BUCS victory for the Dark Blues.

In an icy downpour on a cold Wednesday afternoon, Oxford women’s Blues continued their ascent to the top of the Southern Premiership Lacrosse League with a win against Bristol on their home pitch. The teams matched up with similar experiences under their belts, albeit with different results. Oxford marched into the match with significant victories against Bath and Cardiff. On the other hand, Bristol had fought hard in both for a goal difference of only two points. This match was one they both needed to win – Oxford, to maintain a competitive record after a narrow defeat by Exeter, and Bristol, to re-orient their performance upwards. In the end, it would be the Oxford Blues that sent Bristol back home with a score of 13-7. It might have only been the fourth match of the season, but one would not have been able to tell.

With dominant ball control right from the start, Oxford were able to quickly find one another and transition the ball down to their attacking end within seconds. In Women’s Lacrosse, ball possession is half the battle. Though there are ‘fast-breaks’ in which a ball-carrier will be able to rush towards the goal, most scoring opportunities in Women’s Lacrosse come from the patient, highly curated set plays that teams train meticulously until they can be executed flawlessly. In other words, opportunities to get access to the ball are absolutely vital to give attackers the time they need to help the ball find the back of the net.

Oxford’s ability to win the first quarter with two goals over Bristol came from their ability to control the ball, a skill that contributed greatly to their consistency throughout the match. Remarkably, Oxford scored exactly four goals in each quarter. Oxford relied on skilled draw-takers, Bea Webber, Elinor Harris and Alex Drewe, to claim the ball from the start and then moved into a free-flowing play that demonstrated the high confidence of their attackers. Bristol responded with excellent defence that locked down most of Oxford’s dodgers. The unity of Bristol’s defensive unit gave Oxford two options: to have individuals push to goal or to move into more set-plays. In only match 4 of BUCS, teams are typically still working on developing these set plays, as was the case for Oxford.

Although they moved the ball quickly and created shooting opportunities, these did not always convert into the ball finding the back of the net. Bristol’s goalie had fabulous saves and was able to clear the ball far into the field to move Bristol into an offensive position. In their defensive end, Oxford were able to keep Bristol to 7 goals, just as they had Bath the week before. Their defensive accomplishments are made possible with no small contribution from goalkeeper Maddy Sketchley. It was not uncommon to find Sketchley far out of the cage, challenging Bristol’s attackers to pass her and get to the cage. Similarly, Sketchley had no qualms forcing Bristol’s attackers to come chase her as she ran the ball out on clears – one might even say she enjoyed it.

Backed by a phenomenal goalie, Oxford’s defenders were empowered to come out and challenge Bristol’s goal-seekers with high-pressure defence on the 15 as well as behind the goal. In the new 6v6 structure of Women’s Lacrosse, defensive tactics need to adjust to shut down attacking units that have more room than ever before to move, dodge and lose defenders. Oxford’s defence transitioned into a well-oiled machine with each passing quarter. They shut down Bristol’s scoring from 2-1-0 in the first three quarters. The final quarter looked different. Oxford predictably secured 4 goals, but Bristol gained momentum after over an hour in the icy rain and slick mud to hammer in 4 goals of their own.

Despite their effort, that kind of energy had to come earlier in the match to impact the score. This week, Oxford will face off against Cambridge. After a series of games with lopsided results, this will be only their second close match-off of the season. With the age old rivalry between the teams and Oxford having narrowly lost the BUCS semi-final to Cambridge last year, it might just be the most meaningful match of the season.

Meanwhile, the Men’s Blues embarked on their own journey, making the 300-mile round trip to Exeter for the BUCS South Premiership match-up. Having had a rocky start to their BUCS season, with only one win from their first four games, the Dark Blues were in need of a win, and had the long coach journey to reflect on their various tactics for the coming game. However, the hunt for victory would not be helped by the absence of a number of key players leaving co-captain Andrew Bithell just a twelve-man squad to face Exeter’s eighteen.

Unfazed by the long journey, Oxford headed onto the pitch determined to make a strong start, and managed to come out firing and managed to win and maintain a lengthy early possession. Despite this, Exeter struck the first blow, making it immediately clear that this was going to be a tightly matched game. In reply, a couple early goals from Daniel Woodside (who would go on to score five on the day) kept the Blues in touch and pushed them into the lead at the end of the first quarter. Going into the second quarter, the Oxford offence continued to flow nicely, with further goals from Christos Katsifis and Casey Lake, as the Blues made sure to keep the Exeter side on their toes. However, they were caught napping at the defensive end on a few occasions which allowed Exeter, determined not to be bested to edge back into the game and saw the scored tied seven-a-piece at half time.

Exeter maintained their momentum at the start of the second half and took the lead for the first time in the game by two goals, leaving Oxford to chase the game. However, a rally of goals from Woodside, Katsifis and Lake put them back into the lead by two at the end of the third quarter. It was clear going into the final quarter that nerves were beginning to kick in for both sides and the game began to close up. Oxford kept their noses in front with a goal from Patrick Green, but Exeter kept on coming and were just a goal behind with five minutes still to be played.

After some long, settled possessions Oxford were forced to play the final three minutes of the game without the ball, working to keep Exeter away from their end in the final minutes of the match. On this occasion, however, the defence stepped up their work-rate and physicality, keeping out a barrage of shots, dodges and feeds. Not least in this defensive stand was keeper Harry Trevelyan who earned himself man of match after making a series of stunning reaction saves to secure victory with a final score of 13-12. Bithell described the nerve-racking victory as “euphoric”, with Oxford not having won away in Exeter for six years, marking a momentous fixture for the Blues side. Oxford will now look to continue this winning form as they make another lengthy journey away to Swansea next Wednesday.

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