Anyone who watched the MSU field hockey team take on Virginia and Northeastern this weekend — probably a fair number of people, given that both games were broadcast on the Big Ten Network — likely noticed that the Spartans gave up a lot of penalty corners to their opponents, repeatedly giving the other team chances to score.
I caught up with head coach Helen Knull at practice on Tuesday and got a chance to talk to her about penalty corners and why there seemed to be so many of them.
Before we dive in, however, it’s probably worth taking a moment to delve into what exactly a penalty corner is. If you’re like me when I started covering field hockey, you almost certainly don’t know what a penalty corner even is, much less why it would be a problem to give them up.
A penalty corner is unique to field hockey. It might help to think of it as a cross between a corner kick and a free kick in soccer. If a defender commits a violation inside the circle — roughly the equivalent of the goalie’s box in soccer, if it lacked corners and shots only counted if taken from inside it — the offense gets possession of the ball along the endline and get an excellent chance to score.
There are some decent examples on YouTube, and if you’re really interested in understanding why defenses usually don’t like giving up penalty corners, you’d be advised to look one up. But for our purposes, just know that they often lead to goals for the offense and giving up a lot of them in a game is bad
Anyway, back to this weekend. MSU gave up 16 penalty corners to Virginia last Friday while taking just 10 shots on offense. That’s an obscene ratio. But Knull said that the numbers were a bit deceiving.
“The gameplan against Virginia was to avoid giving them open shots, or what we call ‘free shots,’” Knull said. “That gave them about four corners. We were happy that we weren’t giving them open looks.”
Virginia featured a pair of 2012 Olympians in Paige Selenski and Michelle Vittese, so MSU knew going in that it had to do whatever it took to keep them from getting easy goals. That was Knull’s point, that if you’re giving up penalty corners, you’re not giving up goals.
Another factor in play was the Spartan defense. Despite giving up that many corners, Virginia’s two goals came during normal gameplay.
“When your defense is playing like they were (on Friday), you can’t complain too much,” Knull said with a smile.
Knull really isn’t worried about the corner issue. As much as she said she’d like to not give up any corners at all, she pointed out that there has to be some kind of balance. Either your defense is giving up corners, or they’re giving up uncontested shots, in a lot of cases.
“Ideally, you want to see less free shots and less corners,” she said. “But it’s probably one or the other.”
The only question is how much longer the Spartans’ defense can hold out. The law of averages says that sooner or later, those penalty corners will become goals for the opposition. But for now, it’s working, so I see no reason to question it.
Besides, Knull and company know a lot more than I do. I’ll go with them on this one.