April 25, 2011

New Faceoff Procedure Favors Technique, Brings Out Best in Specialists

by Justin Feil | LaxMagazine.com

Rutgers' Chris Mattes, the nation's leading faceoff specialist with a .685 winning percentage this season, says you must have more than one move and great wing play to cope with the new regulations implemented in the offseason.

Matt Dolente could get the jump on his schoolwork, but he never quite figured out getting the jump on faceoffs.

Dolente, who completed his undergraduate degree in three and a half years at Johns Hopkins, was thrilled when the NCAA men's lacrosse rules committee voted to bring the "set" call back to the faceoff procedure for this season.

"I don't think I ever mastered the technique of rolling into a faceoff," said Dolente, a senior who has taken faceoffs for the Blue Jays for all four years. "I think the set call also allows the referees to vary the whistle more.

"Last year, with the down whistle, people were trying to time up the whistles. With the varied count and getting guys set, it's forced faceoff guys to get away from that and just hear the whistle and react."

Dolente was just 50th in the country in winning percentage last year at .455, which wasn't far from his .445 percentage as a freshman or .516 as a sophomore. This year, his win percentage has skyrocketed to .670 through 12 games, good for third in the country.

"I do think the new rule benefits him," said Hopkins head coach Dave Pietramala. "It allows him to be fundamental. It allows him to use technique."

The rule change added the "set" call to follow the "down" command. On the "set," both faceoff players must remain still for a brief period of time, in which officials can make an adjustment if they see a player with an advantage before the whistle then is blown to begin play.

"We violated on 25-30 percent of faceoffs last year," Pietramala said. "I watched our Navy game from last year, and we must have violated six times. When it was down-whistle, everyone was anticipating the whistle. Matt did the same thing, and he wasn't good at it. He's a more technically sound, react-to-his-kid guy."

So far this season, one positive to the rule change is there have been fewer violations for illegal procedure, as faceoff specialists focus on how to win the faceoff, not how to beat the whistle.

"I just didn't like all the illegal procedures," said UMBC head coach Dom Zimmerman, who was a member of the rules committee. "I think people want to see a faceoff take place, not give the ball to one team. Very few teams, if they have an illegal procedure called in their favor, very few teams push that. So it's not like you're getting all these breaks from illegal procedures. Ground balls are an exciting part of the game. To lose that takes away from the game."

The "set" call had been eliminated in 2005, because the rules committee felt there were too many violations from players anticipating the whistle. Adding the "set" call back in, along with varying the cadence of the whistle, was designed to prevent that from reoccurring.

"The thing we put in that the last time didn't happen is the referees can vary the whistle," said Drexel head coach Brian Voelker, the chair of the rules committee. "The kids know sometimes they're going to have to wait a while and sometimes it's going to go right away, instead of it being the kid that figures out the referee the best [winning]. I think that's been a big part of it. The referees have been doing a good job of varying the whistle."

Added Zimmerman: "We're seeing a lot fewer illegal procedures. That's what we want. We want to see the faceoff take place. It's an important part of the game. To have fewer illegal procedures is good for the game."

In addition to slowing down players from rolling into the faceoff, coaches are seeing a crisper start, as faceoff players can no longer hold the ball longer than is necessary to control it, and they cannot hold or pin down their opponents' crosse.

"If that kid is a skilled guy with quick hands, you don't have to worry about a wrestler overpowering him," said Rutgers head coach Jim Stagnitta. "It's leveled the playing field back to where it's a skill position again. It's a technique position more than it had been.

"You can actually see what they're doing now," he added. "With the set and the officials staying in there, you can see a move now, instead of a scrum."

Rutgers' senior Chris Mattes leads the country in faceoff percentage at .685, a significant jump over the .539 win percentage of a year ago. The rule has opened up the opportunity for him to show his well-honed skills.

Nobody in Division I has enjoyed as much of a jump in faceoff success as Johns Hopkins' Matt Dolente, who ranked 50th in the country last year at .455 and is currently ranked third at .670. "By putting 'set' back in, it takes away a lot of the cheating," Dolente said.

"He's a true faceoff kid," Stagnitta said. "He has an array of moves and has the ability to watch film and see what people are doing and even during a game, make adjustments throughout."

Said Mattes: "Without the set, there were guys that were rolling into it. Now it makes it a 50-50. It lets those guys that weren't rolling into it have a better chance."

Mattes and Dolente are two of the 11 players as of Sunday with a winning percentage of .600 or better. Right between them is John Antoniades of Hofstra. As freshman, he ranked 23rd at .547. Through 13 games of his sophomore year, he ranks second at .677.

"His increase in percentage has a lot to do with him being a sophomore," said Hofstra head coach Seth Tierney. "The first time through the gauntlet is tough. He did a nice job of preparing for this year. He worked as his craft.

"With the addition of set, it leaves it to the hands of technique rather than a guy that's just quick to start or rolls into it."

Last year, only five players finished at .600 or better, but aside from a new trio at the top, the players leading the list haven't changed much. Eight of the top nine faceoff winners last year have come back and six of them are still in the top 20.

"Those kids, they figure a way to make it work," Voelker said. "They're back there again because they work hard at it. It's tough. It's dependent on the whistle."

Bucknell's Jake Clarke, who was second last year with a .617 winning percentage, has dropped to 31st in the country at .523, but otherwise there hasn't been much dropoff among the top faceoff players.

"You have to have more than one move," Mattes said. "You can't just roll into it. And wing play comes into it. It really helps to be on the same page."

The other top three players from a year ago are not ranked quite as high as last season, but all have seen their winning percentages go up. Hartford's Tim Fallon rose from .622 to .638, Adam Rand of Stony Brook climbed from .616 to .643 and Stephen Robarge of VMI jumped from .615 to .652. Nobody has jumped more than Dolente.

"Down-set favors guys who are technically sound," Pietramala said. "Matt Dolente, [R.G.] Keenan down at Carolina. It's helped the kid at Maryland (Curtis Holmes) as well. While there's a level of anticipation still involved, it's not, 'Let's see who can roll into it the quickest.' I think it's a combination of things that's helped Matt."

Dolente put more time than ever into his craft, and he credits his wings – the understated champions of faceoff win percentages – with playing smarter and harder to help raise his wins.

"It's leveled the playing field back to where it's a skill position again... You can actually see what they're doing now. With the set and the officials staying in there, you can see a move now, instead of a scrum."

-- Rutgers head coach Jim Stagnitta

"Having great wing guys can make you look good out there," he said. "I think I've had great wing guys this year. I can't say enough about the wing guys."

Dolente, though, also believes that the rule change has helped him.

"I was looking for any kind of change," he said. "I wasn't having a whole lot of success. I've had success in the past on other levels."

He had been fine in high school and with the United States Under-19 team, both of which he played with "set" calls. He found success in his first three seasons in college more fleeting while trying to essentially beat others to the punch.

Said Dolente: "By putting 'set' back in, it takes away a lot of the cheating."

It's not just the faceoff specialists who have had to adjust to the rules. Coaches have had to be more diligent about finding the right players to take faceoffs in the future.

"I think that's affecting recruiting," Tierney said. "You want to recruit good technique guys. There is a little room for luck. But you have to do your homework. You have to see a guy a couple times."

Looking for the faceoff specialist who will battle tooth and nail for every possession is still imperative, but there will be a growing emphasis on finding players that focus on the skill required, not the race, to face off.

"I do think the rule change has had a pretty big effect on faceoffs in general," Dolente said. "Getting the set call, technique shows through a little more."

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