Courtney Tarleton epitomizes the term “defensive anchor.”
A lockdown defender on the women’s lacrosse team, Tarleton has helped the No. 7 Women of Troy leap out to an 11-0 record this season. The senior from Ridgewood, New Jersey, has been a constant at the back of the field for the program during her four years — never missing a start in 67 career games.
The team is allowing a meager 4.55 goals per game — the best goals against average in the NCAA by a wide margin — the Women of Troy are absolutely humming.
“It definitely feels different,” Tarleton said, comparing this season to her first three. “I feel like we’re finally meshing for the first time.”
The communication among the defenders is evident — so too is the humble swagger that emanates from the team on game days.
“I think there’s just definitely a higher level of confidence this year,” Tarleton said. “We have defenders from every single grade stepping up right now.”
Unsurprisingly, this is a tight-knit group both inside and outside of the huddle.
“We’re all so close off the field,” Tarleton said. “When you’re getting on the field, you’re looking to your left and your right and you’re seeing your best friends.”
Communication is not a mere luxury for defenders — it’s a necessity.
“You can kind of tell what people next to you are going to do before they even do it,” Tarleton said, satisfied with the fluidity of the defensive unit so far.
Tarleton has held down the fort alongside her fellow defenders and netminder sophomore Gussie Johns. The defender lauds the play of the midfielders and attackers, who consistently find the back of the net at the offensive end.
“I just have so much trust in them,” Tarleton said of her attacking counterparts. “I feel like I can take a deep breath every time they have the ball because I know something incredible is going to happen on the attacking end.”
Tarleton can spark an attack when the ball is in her possession, as she keeps her head on a swivel and effortlessly finds outlet passes. The veteran has scooped up 21 ground balls this season and has caused 25 turnovers.
Tarleton explained that her defensive prowess has improved tremendously since she arrived on campus for her freshman year.
“My team defense has gotten better. Over the years I’ve just gotten a better trust of my teammates,” Tarleton said, also acknowledging that her composure has improved over the years — especially since being named captain as a sophomore.
“I liked the idea that I could make an impact on a team at a young age,” Tarleton said, elaborating on her decision to hit the West Coast as opposed to staying in the lacrosse hub that is the Northeast.
Additionally, having a number of teammates from New York and her native New Jersey expedited the transition phase and helped her become acclimated to life at USC.
“That definitely made it easier knowing that there would be people from the east coast,” Tarleton said.
Players like Tarleton have helped USC become a legitimate national title contender in the program’s fourth year of existence. The defensive machine that wears No. 1 for the Women of Troy employs a “by-any-means” style. She refuses to get outrun. She will never be spotted being outhustled. She clearly does her homework on her opponents, as she always manages to put opposing attackers on the back foot.
“I feel like on defense sometimes you feel like you don’t have control,” Tarleton said. “I think if you step up and you’re aggressive, you kind of make the attacker think twice about the decisions that they make, and I think it gets them a little uneasy if you’re aggressive.”
It is an admirable and remarkably effective approach toward defending. It is a mindset. It is a plan of execution. It is a playing style. Tarleton has mastered it.
“It’s definitely hard to be confident throughout a whole entire lacrosse game, so if you do maybe hit down someone’s pass or if someone makes a bad decision — takes a bad shot — I feel like the defender definitely has the upperhand and can try and get in people’s heads,” Tarleton said.
It is a playing style that Tarleton has mastered.
“I like that I can kind of morph my personality into being easygoing but then still hardworking on the field,” Tarleton said. “There’s a fine line between being overly aggressive and then being out of control. I definitely have to be relaxed. I feel like any time I’m tense then things probably aren’t going well.”
Her balance of poise and calculated aggression has troubled opponents all season long. It is a playing style she has been refining for quite some time. She picked up the sport in second grade and continued to develop her game over the years, including during her time at Ridgewood High School.
Despite her East Coast roots, Tarleton wants to stay in California following graduation. She is completing her cinematic arts critical studies degree at USC and would like to work on the business side of television in the future.
Television has not only been a part of her coursework. It has slowly taken over her apartment. The television set in her apartment has been the victim of a ruthless reality TV invasion.
“I can’t even explain how many times I’ve seen [Keeping up with the Kardashians] from start to finish,” Tarleton said.
But she confirmed that conversations in her apartment have a funny way of finding their way back to lacrosse. For an athlete of Tarleton’s caliber, the sport is not merely what she does. It is an integral part of who she is.
Tarleton considers Tina Fey a role model off the field, but when she laces up the cleats, one of her biggest mentors is out there with her — directing the flow of practice and occasionally joining in on the action.
Head coach Lindsey Munday, who has seen a brand new program begin to flourish right before her eyes, never misses out on the chance to temporarily erase the line between coach and player.
“She’ll step into practice sometimes and play with us,” Tarleton said of Munday. “It’s just been nice to be around her because she’s always looked at us as equals. She’s just been a really great leader for us.”
Tarleton said all three coaches jump into practice from time to time, temporarily easing the divide between coach and player. The defender said this makes players more relaxed and can actually make Munday seem like a teammate.
“I think our coaches do a great job of always giving some of the glory to the defenders too,” Tarleton said. “They’re just very appreciative of the hard work that we put in.”
Tarleton puts in the work, but she combines it with mental preparation. She gets primed for game time with Bruce Springsteen, listening to “The Boss” for his calming influence. This genre gets her in the zone. Since the first game of her freshman year, Tarleton has said the same words in her head while the national anthem blares on the loudspeakers just prior to the start of a game. She wears her hair the same way for every game, has a lucky hair tie on her stick and partakes in the team ritual of pregame handshakes.
It is all part of the process.
With quick feet, active hands and supreme field vision, Tarleton is the type of player who could seemingly play any position. She clarified that this was not always the case.
“Honestly, when I was younger, I just wasn’t that good of a midfielder,” Tarleton said, chuckling at her former self. “So I definitely got pushed back to the defense.”
The whole defense thing seems to be working out just fine.