Face-off rules have been tinkered with for the better part of the last decade, but the role of the face-off man got a little extra attention last spring because of some media articles and coaches questioning the necessity of facing off.
The Face-Off Academy is one of the nation’s leading instructional academies for face-off specialists. We spoke to Face-Off Academy coaches Greg Gurenlian, Chris Mattes and Jerry Ragonese about all things face-off related.
Lacrosse Playground: So let’s kick it off to you guys by asking this: Being a face-off specialist is a unique position and not always something a player intends to pursue from the start. Oftentimes a coach sees certain qualities in a player or a player gravitates to that position because of certain qualities they have. How did you all end up taking on this role and what qualities do you think are especially important to have in this position?
Greg Gurenlian: I started in high school, so I was willing to give anything a try in order to get on the field. The head to head match up in front of everyone was particularly intriguing to me and with my wrestling background I felt I could be good at it.
The No. 1 quality to start facing off is quick hands. But…. The No. 1 quality needed to excel at face-offs is the ability to adapt.
Chris Mattes: I started to face off freshman year of high school. I made varsity my freshman year as an all-around midfielder and first game in our senior year the face-off man got hurt and we needed a guy to step in. I got individual training from Harvard grad and former MLL lacrosse player John Henry Flood and fell in love with it. Just like Greg I really liked that 1-on-1 match up that everyone is watching.
Qualities that you look for in a face-off man and helps to become successful are quick hands, balanced stance …. Being a strong athlete is definitely key, especially for scrums and fighting for groundballs.
LPG: So we’ve got what makes a good face-off guy, but as you train and teach kids today, what are some of the biggest mistakes you see being made out there by face-off specialists?
Greg: I think the mistakes that are being made by the players are not the players’ fault. They are being taught improper technique. For instance, one thing that we hate is that many “fogo coaches” are teaching cheating … just flat out teaching players to grab the ball with their hands, pin there elbow or use their helmet to ram their opponent. This is unforgivable in our opinion. It’s everyone’s fault. It’s the parents’ fault for paying to have their kid learn to cheat. It’s the club coach’s fault for encourage the cheating in the games and obviously it’s the “fogo coach’s” fault for teaching kids to do this.
LPG: Aside from the obvious problem of teaching someone how to cheat, where does that fall on refs? You’d think you wouldn’t teach someone how to cheat if it is called regularly. Is cheating on face-offs called the way it should be?
Greg: I love that players need their hand off the plastic. It cleans things up a lot. Three-minute non-releasable for hand grabbing is also great.
The problem is that the game is called correctly in college but not in the youth or HS level.
This makes recruiting a lot tougher on college coaches. If you recruit a kid from HS who is 90% but cheated his whole career, how can you tell if he can hang at the D1 level without it? This is a legitimate concern from college coaches that we’ve spoken to. This is why at our combines and our National Showcase we make sure the players face off with college rules to see who’s legit.
Jerry Ragonese: I like to think it’s everyone’s fault. The player for committing the act, the coach for allowing the player back on the field after knowing he is cheating, the ref for not being able to make that call as their education of the position still has them calling the ball in the back of the stick as “withholding”. The game’s officiating is not keeping up with the changes set by the rules committee every year and it’s hurting the position. A player can’t be allowed to do something one week and then called for it the next. It’s just not a good way for the game to be played.
I think we as teachers have to adapt to the game. In 2010 I lived and died by using my elbow. It wasn’t cheating then, it was a tool that we as face-off guys were allowed to use. Once it was banned I had to change how I was teaching my players. Same with the 2012 hand positional change. We as teachers of the game need to adapt in order to best suit our players/customers. Training a college freshmen to face off with his hands all over the head won’t help him come game day so why bother?
LPG: So Jerry brought up the rules committee at the college level. Do they know what they are doing when it comes to facing off? It seems like every other year they change the rules on face-offs and half of the rules they changed they end up reverting back to some previous version. What do you think they are trying to do? Do they get facing off?
Jerry: I think they are trying to do what is best for the game. Most of the time if just comes off as band aids for a year or two till they can see how things will work. I don’t think they personally understand facing off but they do consult some of the people that do from time to time. Understanding those consultations is where I have some worries.
LPG: What are some of the biggest issues? When the rules committee consults others about face-off rules, what are the top complaints from face-off guys?
Greg: I think the consensus amongst faceoff men is that the rules as written are fine. The referees aren’t being held accountable for being consistent in calling the rules as written EVERY TIME. If hands should be off the plastic, then call it. If a player is using his head/hand/elbow, then call it. Players know the rules. No warnings, no talking, blow the whistle and you won’t have any issues.
LPG: So last spring there seemed to be some media chatter about the importance of the face-off role. I’ve always said if I build a team I want three things to start with: a good goalie, a good face-off guy and a Canadian attackman, but what do you say to those who seemed to say face-offs aren’t that important.
Greg: It’s funny, those who say face-offs aren’t important always seem frustrated when they are losing possession. I don’t understand how an educated person with a functioning brain thinks that winning possession doesn’t matter. I’ve seen coaches at every college level say it isn’t important … yet they recruit faceoff guys. Odd.
LPG: I remember a Hopkins-Maryland game several years ago where Hopkins went up 7-0 before Maryland even touched the ball on their offensive end. Try digging out of that hole. They matter. You also had some chatter last spring about eliminating the face off. What do you think that would do to the sport?
Greg: It would take the most unique part of our game away.
LPG: What do you say to the people who say it would help speed up the game?
Greg: Ask MLL players who play with a 60 second shot clock, no horns and a two point arc if face-offs slow the game up.
LPG: Fair point. I don’t think most people would want to eliminate it, but it was interesting to hear some ponder it last year.
[For our readers: One of the best arguments against that is actually an article from more than 30 years ago: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1094829/index.htm ... The one thing I never thought about before regarding taking the face-off away would be what Bud Beardmore brought up in this piece; "Without a chance to get the ball right back on a faceoff, how can a team trailing by a few goals hope to come back late in a game?"]
On that note, how — and do — you adjust based on the flow of a game. Do you take a different strategy when you are up or down, or go out there with the same goal each time?
Greg: My strategy changes based on my opponents habits/strengths/weaknesses. As well as the efficiency/inefficiency of the referees.
Within the flow of the game i think part of being a veteran is knowing when to take certain chances, like if it’s the end of a quarter and your team needs a spark. Or when your team needs to stop the bleeding and really just needs a solid possession.
Jerry: In the MLL, as I did in college, I watch a lot of film on my opponents. I think it is extremely important to understand who you are going against before you go into a game. There are weaknesses and strengths to each stance and technique. Being a face-off man who knows how to exploit weaknesses will make you a much more dangerous weapon.
There are times in the game risks need to be assessed. Normally end of a quarter or if your team is down a few goals in the 4th you may need to try to pull it forward to ignite some offense. Same goes into slowing the game down, as well. If my team is up a goal in the 4th I know I don’t need to go forward I can go out the back and chew up some clock before getting the ball to the D to run a clear.
LPG: Ok… Time for a shameless plug. End this by plugging any business you want or any projects you are working on.
Greg: Right now the 3 of [just finished] our FaceOff Academy National Showcase in West Chester New York. Dec 7th/8th we had 80 of the top high school faceoff men in the country coming for two days of training and competition [and] D 1,2 and 3 coaches coming to work the event, as well as a professional film crew and professional officials.
This is a chance for players from all over the country to show they have the skill and the upside to play at the next level. They all receive full uniforms and each player has filled out a recruiting profile that will be sent to every school in the country.
By the way, this is not to be mistaken with “the fogo academy.”
LPG: Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery?
Greg: Eh….ok we’ll buy that
Faceoff Academy events can be found at www.thefaceoffacademy.com. Upcoming events include:
January 4- Clinic in Garnet Valley, PA
January 10- Presentation at U.S. Lacrosse National Convention
February 1- Clinic in Del Ray Beach, FL
February 15- Clinic in San Diego, CA
March 1- Clinic in Virginia Beach, Virginia
The Faceoff Academy will schedule 15 total stops in 2014 which will soon be released on its web site.