by Chris Hartley, director of athletics and boys lacrosse program head
These two lacrosse players are not injured or trying to catch their breath. They are getting ready to gain possession of the ball. Unlike football or basketball where the team that is scored upon gets the next possession of the ball, lacrosse’s face-off has both teams vie for possession. This exciting element of lacrosse allows for teams to score, get possession of the ball again, and score without the other team having the chance to play offense. As a player and coach for over 25 years, I have seen teams go on eight- or ten-goal scoring streaks to completely change the dynamics of the game.
The face-off begins with a player from each team squatting down on the midline of the field. Their sticks must be parallel to that midline, and they must remain motionless until they hear the official’s whistle. The official places the ball in between the two heads of the stick, backs away, and blows the whistle. Now the battle for the ball begins.
Technique plays a huge role in this part of the game. To the untrained eye, it looks like two players pushing their sticks against each other and circling around in a squatted position. Great face-off players, like Bryce Kelly '19 (shown in the image above), work on their technique for hours each week. They strengthen their wrists; they work on agility with their arms and hands; and they study strategy. Bryce's dedication to this craft helped him dominate the face-off circle his senior year, winning more than 75% of the face-offs he took.
Like chess, there are moves and countermoves. When a player sees his opponent try to clamp down on the ball, he knows to slide his stick underneath his opponent’s stick. When a clamp is successful, there are ways an opponent can impede the next steps to gain possession of the ball.
One of the most basic strategies is this: the face-off player keeps his body tense and still, staying acutely focused on the first sound of the whistle. As soon as he hears the whistle, he rotates his wrists forward quicker than his opponent to trap the ball between his own stick and the ground. As this is happening, he raises his body up so that he is more mobile. He then surveys the area to find a good area to push the ball out to. With a little space, he scoops up the ground ball (with his opponent pushing him and smacking him with his stick). With the ball now secured in his stick, he looks to run the ball into the offensive zone or pass to an open teammate.
The face-off in lacrosse provides an exciting twist to the game. Teams can keep momentum on their side with a great face-off player. It takes hard work, dedication, quickness, strength, and a deep knowledge of strategy to do this well.