Maryland Whipsnakes draft pick Ajax Zappitello

Film study: Ajax Zappitello will bring ‘technician’ footwork to Whipsnakes

By Adam Lamberti | May 27, 2024

"Complete." That's the word Maryland Whipsnakes defender Matt Dunn has used to describe his team’s new first-round draft pick.  

Widely regarded as the top defensive prospect in the 2024 College Draft, Ajax Zappitello does a lot of things really well defensively. He can defend on-ball with elite footwork. He’s always in an athletic stance off-ball, ready to slide and help a teammate or execute a well-timed double team. And he has a terrific handle with the long pole, whether that’s scooping up a tough ground ball in traffic or throwing an outlet pass under duress. 

With Zappitello -- the third overall pick in the 2024 College Draft -- the Whipsnakes got a player they desperately needed at close defense.

His footwork will help against quicker dodgers in one-on-one battles. In the past, defenses across the league have tried to slow the Whipsnakes' two-headed monster of Zed Williams and Matt Rambo, who are both burly, physical attackmen. Think about the Utah Archers in particular, who drafted Graeme Hossack (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) and Warren Jeffrey (6-foot-3, 210 pounds) in 2021 after watching the Whipsnakes win back-to-back Cash App Championships.

While Williams and Rambo are still great players, you’re now seeing an influx of quicker and smaller dodgers begin to impact the league in the same way. In 2022, Philadelphia Waterdogs attacker Michael Sowers was named the Cash App Championship MVP after scoring 12 points in the postseason. The player who knocked the Whipsnakes out of the 2023 playoffs? The 5-foot-9, 165-pound Sowers, who recorded seven points (5G, 2A) in the quarterfinals. 

Now, the Whipsnakes have a defender who is armed with tremendous footwork to keep up with Sowers and other smaller attackers like him.

If you ever listen to any University of Maryland game on an ESPN broadcast, announcer Paul Carcaterra consistently refers to Zappitello as a “technician.”

What this means is that not only can Zappitello defend the ball with expert-level footwork, but he also has a great understanding of angles and how to deter a dodger away from the dangerous parts of the field. He’s not the flashiest defender in terms of taking the ball away, but he’s very effective at shutting down a team’s top offensive threat. 

Princeton star junior Coulter Mackesy – a likely top draft pick in 2025 – managed just two assists in Maryland's opening-round NCAA tournament game while Zappitello was guarding him.

Princeton used a lot of picks in this game to try to get Zappitello off of Mackesy and switched onto a short-stick defensive midfielder or another defender. It rarely worked.

Using the crease to his advantage in this clip, Zappitello navigates the pick and takes an angle to beat Mackesy to the “island” (the dangerous part of the field usually 5 feet above and wide goal line extended).

Zappitello does a really nice job of trailing Mackesy to the spot, as well. By trailing Mackesy, Zappitello prevents a change of direction and keeps Mackesy going one way, resulting in a wide shot.

You can see why this is important in the next clip. As Mackesy drives upfield to rollback to his strong left hand, Zappitello is in good position and uses strong footwork to drive Mackesy out of a dangerous area.

Off-ball, Zappitello’s fundamental footwork is on display as well. He puts himself in good position between the goal and his man as the primary slide guy, times up his slide well to a dangerous matchup and plays an angle to arrive where the ball-carrier is going.

If you’re a Whipsnakes fan, go back and watch the Maryland Terrapins' game against Princeton if you want to get fired up. Zappitello played an exceptional game for the whole 60 minutes. He played terrific on-ball defense, had well-timed slides and showed a good handle in the clearing game.

After a win over first overall pick Brennan O'Neill and Duke in the quarterfinals, Zappitello's Terps will face Virginia (and No. 2 pick Connor Shellenberger) this Saturday in the Final Four.