SPORTS: In the zone; dirty word for some, solid defense for others in girls basketball

There is a stigma attached to zone defense at all levels of basketball.

To some coaches, using one is tantamount to sacrificing your basketball bona fides.

The zone, they say, is passive, lazy, a concession . . . perhaps even a little bit girly.

Man-to-man? Well, what could be more masculine than that?

“There are people who say the word zone like they just ate something that is spoiled in the refrigerator,” first-year Port Angeles girls basketball coach Michael Poindexter said.

“There’s an attitude about it, like a disdain. Like, well, real men play man, girly men play zone.

“I am puzzled by that.”

Poindexter certainly isn’t the only one of his ilk to feel that way.

Be it a 2-3 half court, a 1-2-1-1 press or even a box-and-one, high school girls coaches seem more eager to employ a variety of zone defenses than their boys counterparts.

Every A team on the North Olympic Peninsula runs some form of zone from time to time.

Under Mike Knowles the last couple of years, Port Angeles built much of its defensive reputation on being able to shut teams down with its own version of a trapping zone.

If there is some virtue to be surrendered in opting out of man-to-man for a zone, the girls coaches simply don’t seem to mind.

They will list dozens of theories as to why that is if given the chance.

The most popular among them: The advent of the shot clock era.

“With a shot clock, the way to break a zone is to move the ball. That takes time,” Poindexter said.

“If your kids are good zone defenders, you have less of a time to break that zone down. I think that’s largely it. It’s a product of the shot clock.”

Of course, if that were the only reason, then boys basketball fans would have noticed a precipitous rise in the use of zone defenses the past couple of years as well after the shot clock was adopted in 2009.

For the most part, however, that hasn’t been the case.

Whether it’s because boys coaches have spent years entrenched as professors of man-to-man principles or there really is some dogmatic rejection of the zone, it just has never caught on in the same way it has with the girls.

Port Townsend’s Randy Maag had been a strict man-to-man coach early on in his Redskins coaching career.

He said he decided to make a change to zone after his team continually ran into foul trouble. But that’s not the reason he thinks it’s so popular in girls basketball.

“I think a lot of it is it’s easier,” Maag said.

“It’s easier to teach, it’s easier to play, it’s easier to hide a girl if you need to in zone than in man.

“If you run a 2-3 zone or some kind of a zone you can probably spend more time on offense [in practice] because your zone is pretty vanilla.

“I prefer man, I think it’s a better game.

“I finally gave in [to zone defenses] because they called the game so tight that we couldn’t stay out of foul trouble.

“The game is called tighter at the girls level than the boys level. For me, that’s it.”

For coaches like Chimacum’s Brad Burlingame, such a switch is almost unbearable to even consider.

If ever there were a man-to-man zealot, the second-year Cowboy girls coach is certainly it.

While he has used zone defenses at times during his career — even when he led the Quilcene boys to the Class 2B state tournament they occasionally went with a zone trap — Burlingame has a strong preference for man with his girls.

He argues that the best teams — the ones that shoot the ball well — can shoot opposing teams out of a game quickly if they stick to a zone.

“It’s lazy, I think,” Burlingame said of the zone. “It just teaches them to stand in a spot.

“I just can’t see winning a playoff game that way. Against the bottom half of our league [the 1A Nisqually], it’s a pretty good strategy because they can’t shoot. I’d like to beat the top teams like Cascade Christian.

“If I sit back in a zone, it’s not going to happen.”

Poindexter couldn’t disagree more. He points to successful men’s basketball coaches like Jim Boeheim, whose Syracuse teams have relied on a 2-3 zone for years while staying among the Division I elite.

Poindexter’s own Port Angeles junior varsity boys teams used zones successfully when he was the coach, as did his Mark Morris girls teams in 2004-08.

According to Poindexter, a properly executed zone doesn’t involve a player simply defending one spot and protecting against drives in deference to open jump shots.

Rather, they move and react to the offense. If done well, defenders can even aggressively defend the ball like one would do in a man defense or even trap.

Fighting that passive perception is something he’s said he’s had to do even with his own players.

“I have to undo that from the girls,” Poindexter said.

“I said you guys now understand that a zone is an aggressive defense.

“It’s a powerful statement if you play it right. It’s a very active and attempting to be intimidating defense.

“I don’t believe a zone ‘gives’ shots unless you’re playing it badly.”


Sports reporter Matt Schubert can be reached at 360-417-3526 or

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