February 8, 2011

Thinking Inside the Box, College Coaches Find Parity in Pairs

by Joel Censer | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online | Censer Archive

At Drexel, former pro indoor player Chris Bates instituted a box-style offense "based a lot on survival." Now at Princeton, Bates has translated the system to suit Ivy League-caliber lacrosse players.

© Greg Wall

For the past eight years, Drexel has opened its season against Virginia. The game is usually cold -- playing lacrosse in mid-February in West Philadelphia or Central Virginia will never be a picnic -- and up until 2007, generally pretty lopsided in the Cavaliers' favor.

Not surprisingly, when the two teams met Feb. 18, 2007, the temperature hovered just above freezing and the game had to be played on UVA's Astroturf facility, where piles of snow still bordered the field.

Harsh winds, overcast skies and the occasional snowbank were nothing new for either team. But a tight game was, and with less than 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Drexel had possession in its own offensive zone, trailing by just a goal.

For head coach Chris Bates, watching his team go toe-to-toe with the reigning national champs must have been gratifying. The Dragons had played Virginia the previous five years, losing each game by an average margin of 11 goals.

But Drexel had consistently improved during Bates's tenure and now had talent all over the field. They were also disciplined and hard-nosed -- traits easily developed, or refined, in the gritty urban recesses of West Philly.

After the Cavaliers stormed to a 6-2 advantage late in the second quarter, the Dragons, buoyed by solid defense and some creative scoring, began grinding away. With less than a minute left and the Cavs clinging to a one-goal lead, Virginia midfielder Steve Giannone took an ill-advised shot that resulted in a turnover. After a quick clear, Drexel called timeout with just 16 seconds left.

Drexel, however, was not particularly equipped to score a quick goal against a Wahoo defense chock full of talented athletes. Bates had no Paul Rabils or Ben Rubeors at his disposal, superstars who with the slightest jab of the head or squaring of the shoulders could get a defense moving. Looking around the huddle, Bates instead saw a bunch of crafty, skilled, high-IQ lacrosse players. Guys who could find the open man, finish with time and room, and -- with some well-timed hesitation moves -- create some separation from their defenders.

But 16 seconds left little time for rocker steps.

So Bates adapted. Attackman Andrew Chapman was to start with the ball on the right wing, sweep hard to his left hand and run right off a Greg Casey pick. Casey, having stepped down from the top of the box to set the pick, would then roll hard toward the goal to carry his defender with him (or be wide open). On the far left side, righties Jon Van Houten, Ron Garling and Mike Filippone would be in a stack-like formation, where they would screen for one another and pop out, providing an easy dump pass if the defense slid to Chapman. Quarterback Colin Ambler would sneak from "X."

The play unfolded like something out of Hollywood. Chapman barreled hard off the pick and got a step on defenseman Ken Clausen, who was forced to navigate past Casey by going under him. Even though "Chap" was more than 20 yards out and moving east to west, UVA long-stick midfielder Mike Timms started inching upfield, well aware of the two bullets the Canadian attacker had ripped from the outside earlier. But sliding has consequences, and Chapman recognized the 4-on-3 on the backside immediately. Ambler, creeping up the left pipe, caught and finished his pass on the doorstep to knot the game at 10.

Moments later, Drexel's Zak Fisher pushed the ball forward on the faceoff and at the point of the fast break found Ambler, who hitched to his right hand and unleashed a sidearm scorcher post-marked for the back of the net. The game-winning goal came with just three seconds remaining.

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