Watch senior Shannie MacKenzie hound the opposition's top scoring threat and it is clear she has the physical tools to be a top defender.

But listen to the Dartmouth women's lacrosse tri-captain and it quickly becomes obvious that those physical tools are only part of what made her a first-team All-America last year.

"I really like the idea of protecting my teammates and protecting the field," said MacKenzie, who anchored the nation's fifth-ranked defense a year ago. "Even playing pick-up games with friends growing up I always liked being in the back, being the last person between the attack and the goal. It's just sort of where I feel most comfortable. I like the pressure.

"I've played against some of the best attackers in the country and they are some of the most confident people you will meet but there's a certain point when you've got them. It doesn't always happen, but there's no greater feeling in the world than when an attacker stops coming at you and starts shying away. Intimidating the attack is definitely a big part of my game and why I like playing sports. To get in the other team's head."

That's a quality veteran Dartmouth coach Amy Patton covets in her recruits.

"Shannie is incredibly quick and strong and fast," said Patton. "She has the athletic traits that you look for in a defender, but the thing that I think really separates good defenders from great defenders is that edge and Shannie definitely has it. It's somehting you can't really teach."

MacKenzie and her teammates have been doing a pretty fair job of that this spring, winning eight of their first 10 games and ranking seventh of 92 teams nationally in scoring defense in front of freshman goalie Kristen Giovanniello.

That MacKenzie is spearheading such a stifling defense would have come as no surprise to Maureen O'Shea, her late mentor growing up in Greenwich, Conn., and one of the reasons she ended up playing college lacrosse and doing it at Dartmouth.

"She coached me since I was in first grade and started playing lacrosse," MacKenzie said. "She was my Connecticut Lacrosse Futures coach all through high school. I still remember the day that she sat me down and told me, 'If you want to play lacrosse in college you can do it.' That was the first time somebody exhibited that belief in me.

"She came up with me my first visit here and drove me out to the Columbia-Dartmouth game my senior year after I had committed. She was a great lady."

O'Shea, who died of cancer in March of 2010, knew her stuff. She knew MacKenzie could play at the college game's highest level and MacKenzie will be ever grateful that she opened her eyes to Dartmouth.

"I looked at most of the Ivies but I knew I wanted to go to a non-city school," MacKenzie said. "I felt strongly that I only had four years to be at college and I wanted it to be a true college experience and not blend with what would come after, which I envision being in the city in my 20s.

"I loved the coaches and the campus but what really put Dartmouth over the top was speaking with the alumni. I realized in talking with the alumni that it wasn't going to be a four-year experience but something I carried with me my entire life. Something I took pride in to the very end. That really is the mindset of the Dartmouth alumni. You can't find one who isn't still wishing they were back here. It's just a really special feeling to know that you will always be a part of that family however many years out of college you are."

Not that she needs more motivation, but the tie to those who came before her provides extra incentive for MacKenzie. Dartmouth finished an uncharacteristic 7-9 overall and fifth in the Ivy League her freshman year. That improved to 8-8 and third in the Ivy as a sophomore and to 11-5 and second last spring. With four consecutive Ivy League wins to start this season MacKenzie is hopeful the Big Green can reclaim the top spot in the Ivy League and return to the NCAA's for the first time since 2006 when it played Northwestern in the national championship game.

""I feel that the 2010 class really deserved to win the championship and get a ring," she said. "I would like to be a part of bringing the championship back home to Dartmouth after a pretty long hiatus. The best thing is I don't feel alone in that sense of urgency to get this done. My six classmates share that determination and sense of urgency to get it done."

MacKenzie, who interned for the Royal Bank of Canada in New York City last summer, will go to work for the RBC after graduation. When she does she will put to work lessons learned not just in Dartmouth classrooms but also on Ivy League lacrosse fields.

"The head of the desk I worked on was an athlete at Northwestern and he is a huge believer that the characteristics you develop and the things you learn in sports carry on," she said. "His main takeaway is that there are a lot of smart and really successful people at these jobs and a lot of them don't know what it's like to fail and to lose.

"As an athlete you know what it's like and you know how to rebound. You can't let failing scar you for the next 'X' amount of years. You give it that 10 minutes or two hours of thought and then you bounce back."

Which is exactly what MacKenzie has helped the Dartmouth women's lacrosse program do.

- by Bruce Wood