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Syracuse fans are painfully – heart-palpitatingly – familiar with the power of the faceoff X.
Bryant’s Kevin Massa was the man who spiked a thousand EKGs in central New York last spring. His 14-23 performance helped the Bryant Bulldogs to a 9-8 first round victory – arguably the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history. The year before, it was Brendan Fowler. The Chaminade product’s Terminator-in-a-faceoff-stance routine left a shell-shocked Orange suqad on the business end of a 15-3 midgame run in the national championship game. ‘Cuse lost, 16-10.
But in 2015, the second-seeded Orange have their own X factor: Ben Williams. John Desko rounded up a veritable posse of faceoff men over the summer. Williams, a Holy Cross transfer, was the last one standing. Fittingly, the nation’s #2 faceoff man could line up across from Massa (a respectable #4) on Saturday.
Five of Division 1’s top ten “X-men” will be suiting up in the NCAA Tournament this year. Denver’s Trevor Baptiste, the nation’s best, is facing off at a blistering 72%. (He squares off against #12 Will Gural, the starter-pistol in Brown’s frenetic offense, on Sunday.) The other key matchup to watch is Duke-Ohio State, where a red-hot Jack Rowe goes tete-a-tete with the Buckeyes’ Chris May. As always, faceoff wizardry will figure prominently in both the Division 1 and Division 3 tournaments.
We sat down with two X factors – Notre Dame’s PJ Finley (whose electric goal against Syracuse in the regular season helped the Fighting Irish secure the #1 seed) and Lynchburg’s Bobby Distler (who won 26 of 33 in the Hornets’ emphatic 17-12 conference title game win over Roanoke) – to discuss faceoffs, weapons of choice, and the road ahead.
What stick do you use?
PJ: I use the Nike CEO. I’ve used it since last spring and it works well. It seems like college guys are split down the middle between the CEO and the Noz, but the Noz has warped too much when I’ve used it.
Bobby: I use a Nike CEO with a wooden shaft which my uncle got me, which is pretty sweet.
What has been the highlight of your season thus far?
PJ: Has to be scoring the tying goal against Syracuse. I’m usually pretty conservative but that was the right play to make in that situation, so I went for it.
Bobby: Definitely winning our conference championship for the second year straight. It was the first time in program history we had back-to-back titles.
Who has been your toughest competition at the X this year?
PJ: We play a really tough schedule and because of that I’m fortunate enough to go against some really good guys. Kyle Rowe from Duke gave me the most trouble since I started taking most of the face offs – he is doing really well right now – but every week has been a different challenge.
Bobby: The Cortland FOGO [Pat Baldwin] was really good this year.
Are there any matchups you’re looking forward to in the tournament?
PJ: Whoever we play on Saturday is who I’m looking forward to..not the time to risk looking past anybody. I can’t wait for the playoffs to start.
Bobby: It all depends on who we end up playing but I’d like to go against the Stevenson FOGOs [Justin Buonomo and Sam Wyatt] again. They were both really good.
Bobby, were you impacted by the rule change at all this year?
It hasn’t affected me too much because I never carried the ball in my stick. If anything, [the ref] putting the ball down after the players go down has benefited me because it has kind of eliminated people rolling into or anticipating the whistle.
PJ, what was it like being on the SportsCenter Top Ten?
What was going through your mind before that play?
To be honest, I don’t really remember it that well. I kind of blacked out. I just remember picking up the ball, looking at Kav, and knowing they weren’t going to slide to me off of him. I wasn’t trying to save the game so much as just make the right play in the right moment.