February 27, 2012

Matt's Monday Midfielder: On Shot Clocks, Loyola's High-Shooting Offense

by Matt Forman | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter

In a local media interview last week, Denver coach Bill Tierney bemoaned what he views as a slow pace of play at the Division I men's level, and said "we're getting toward a shot clock."
© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com 

Did you hear something? That sound wasn't wind blowing off the water in Baltimore's blustery Inner Harbor this weekend, though 40 mile per hour wind gusts would make you think so. Those noises were grumbles emanating from other parts of the country. The bemoaned buzzwords? Slow-it-down offenses, pack-it-in defenses, long possessions, stall warnings. They're all directed in the same area: Division I men's lacrosse will inevitably introduce a shot clock.

"The rules of lacrosse have got to change. We're working on that. We're getting toward a shot clock," Denver head coach Bill Tierney said last Monday on CBS4 in Denver, just one day after Ohio State upset the Pioneers by controlling the tempo in the second half.

Xfinity Monday Live! Host Vic Lombardi asked Tierney: Is that a flaw in the system?

"I really think it is," Tierney said. "A little while back, when I was the team with less offensive talent, I liked holding the ball. Possession is one thing, but killing six, seven, eight minutes at a time is another. ...Certainly the fan that turns the game on for the first time on TV and watches one team sit behind the goal for six minutes in a row isn't going to turn it on again."

Shot clock supporters put another feather in their collective cap Sunday when Penn State defeated Notre Dame 4-3 in overtime, though each team took more than 30 shots in the contest and each goalie made 18 saves.

But as Tierney said, "There are a lot of unintended consequences from [a shot clock]" as well. So we throw it out to you, avid readers of the Monday Midfielder: Is it time for a shot clock in lacrosse? If so, how would it be implemented? How long would it be? What related rules changes would have to be introduced?

Those same shot clock advocates pointed toward last year's Charles Street corridor rivalry between Loyola and Towson, who played to a 3-2 game last February. But, as mentioned, those grumbles weren't found this weekend in the Charm City, where the Greyhounds controlled the Tigers, 13-6.

After taking 44 shots in its season-opener against Delaware, Loyola ripped off 49 against Towson. That's 93 combined shots — nearly a centurion —in two games for the Greynounds. Coach Charley Toomey's team isn't afraid to be aggressive. On Saturday they worked the ball around the outside with quick, precision passes — mostly from a 1-4-1 formation — then pounced. It makes for a thrilling brand of lacrosse.

"I really felt that we came out with guns-a-blazing on the offensive end. ... In years past, you might have scratched your head and hoped, 'Can we get to 30 shots today?'" Toomey asked rhetorically at Saturday's post-game press conference. "We've proven, and it started this fall, that we can get to 25 shots in a quarter this year. That's exciting. We certainly have tried to play a little bit faster this year."

Said Towson coach Shawn Nadelen: "You allow teams like Loyola to have extra opportunities, they're going to get great shots off. They like to shoot, there's no doubt about it."

Loyola is dangerous. Everyone knows about All-American Mike Sawyer, who scored four goals Saturday, but the Greyhounds have several other scoring threats that make them so dynamic. Fifth-year senior and lefty Eric Lusby is back and healthy after missing most of 2011 while recovering from a torn ACL. Sophomore Justin Ward took a big step forward this year, and he's described by Sawyer as a "feeder-type, will push a corner, always looking for you to get the ball to you." Junior transfers Sean O'Sullivan and Steve Layne pack a significant punch from the midfield, as does Davis Butts, who flourished in the second half of last season. The Greyhounds were 19-of-21 clearing the ball, and they looked to strike quickly.

"We feel like we've got a team that can [move the ball in transition] this year," Toomey said. "We feel pretty athletic in the midfield. We certainly have a couple new faces [O'Sullivan and Layne] in the locker room that allow us to do that, with an athleticism between the lines. We've always been a team that wants to run. [Defensive midfielders] Scott Ratliff and Pat Laconi really give us the ability to get up and out quickly."

Five Takeaways from Towson at No. 13 Loyola

1. Perfecting Perfection

Loyola's offense wasn't perfect against Towson, even if they were ohsoclose. So I asked Toomey in the post-game press conference about Loyola's next step: Considering the offense was seemingly clicking on all cylinders, where do you go from here?

After a cliché or two — taking it one practice, one game at a time — Toomey said, "It's still a work in progress offensively. We'd like to think that our best lacrosse is in front of us."

Scary. But that's what any motivational coach would say: It's never as good as it looks.

"They heard that in the locker room at halftime," Toomey said. "I said, 'Everybody in the stands is talking about what you just did. We're going to talk about what you didn't do.' We felt like we left a lot of opportunities out there.

"My job is to keep our guys grounded and focused, and I really believe that we will be a better team than we were today. Our guys know that."

2. Hawkins Health Update

Part of Loyola reaching its ultimate potential relates to being fully healthy. Junior short-stick defensive midfielder Josh Hawkins, arguably considered the Greyhounds' most athletic player, has missed the first two games of the season while dealing with an unspecified back injury.

Hawkins ranked second on the team last year with 53 ground balls, and would bolster Loyola's already strong defensive midfield unit with Ratliff and Laconi.

"We think he's going to be back in the next two weeks," Toomey said. "He's been held out. We're going to wait for those doctors to say he's a full go. When he's back, we know what we're going to get with Hawk. We've seen him run up and down this field for the last two years. We know he's dying and champing at the bit to get out there with his teammates. We're just going to be smart with this thing right now. When you're dealing with a back injury, you tend to look at your trainers are doctors. When they say he's ready, he'll be back out there."

Depending on Hawkins' rehabilitation process, the timetable Toomey provided puts him on track to return in time for the Greyhounds' biggest early-season test of the season, March 10 against Duke. Loyola faces conference opponents Bellarmine and Michigan in the next 10 days before meeting the Blue Devils.

3. Bonny Between the Pipes

Hawkins' return would bolster Loyola's defense while it "settles down in goal." Junior Michael Bonitatibus started his second straight game in cage against Towson, and though he didn't see much action — he faced only 14 shots through 53:53 of action, before giving way to sophomore Jack Runkel — he made the saves he was supposed to make. Bonitatibus has recorded 10 saves and allowed 11 goals in two games.

Toomey called the starting goalie spot a "week-to-week decision" after the victory over Delaware, and he said the situation was the same after the Towson win.

"We'll watch the film," Toomey said. "We're going to ask those guys to compete, and we'll see who's in the cage on Friday night."

Toomey said before the season he's not a fan of having his goalies play halves.

4. Decisions, Decisions

Turns out both sides of this Charles Street rivalry have a goalie competition. As Nadelen said was planned, junior Andrew Wascavage started and played the first half Saturday, while fifth-year senior Travis Love was inserted after intermission, since he "worked his way back up and proved to us that he's back up to where we've known him to be."

Toomey said Wascavage "stood on his head out there," making six saves in the first quarter and keeping Towson within striking distance early. Wascavage, who has started each of the first three games of the season, allowed eight goals on 28 shots Saturday.

"I don't think he had a ton of help. They had some pretty decent looks. Our guys coming out to the ball were screening him," Nadelen said. "I don't know if Andrew had a lot of opportunities to make good reads on the ball coming out of their sticks. I know a couple of them were layups right around the crease as well. Andrew was bombarded."

Love, a two-year starter and second team All-Colonial Athletic Association selection in 2010, missed the first game of the season against Johns Hopkins for violating an unspecified team rule but hadn't seen the field yet. Love faced 21 shots, allowed five goals and made five saves.

It sounds like Towson's goalie dilemma is much like Loyola's: a weekly competition until one player emerges.

"We'll see how we respond in practice. I'm a big believer that you've got to practice how you play. I know sometimes guys call themselves 'gamers,' We need to continue to evaluate," Nadelen said. "I don't think it's so much on them, I think it's on our defense. We need to really buckle down there and get a lot better, and understand what's going to make us successful, decreasing the number of shots that a team takes. I think Hopkins had 42 against us last week, and Loyola had 49. That's not a good thing."

5. Getting Offensive

As Nadelen alluded to, since topping Jacksonville in its season-opening 12-10 win over Jacksonville, Towson has been outshot 91-40 by Johns Hopkins and Loyola. Giving up 91 shots is one issue, but generating only 40 is another.

"We're doing some solid things offensively, but sometimes we're not fully running plays the right way, or with the right tempo or speed," Nadelen said. "We are getting decent looks at times, and when that happens we're not burying the ball in the back of the net. Sometimes the goalies are making great saves, sometimes we're not pulling the trigger when we have good opportunities and sometimes we're not moving the ball well enough to create opportunities for ourselves."

Nadelen said creating more offense starts at the faceoff X, where Towson won 7-of-21 draws on Saturday. When the Tigers did have the ball, they turned it over 13 times, many of which were unforced errors.

"We've got to answer the bell," Nadelen said. "When we did get possession, we didn't possess it well. I don't think it's anything other than us having to get better at it. We have to understand on an individual level how to stay composed when we get the ball — maintain possession to give us opportunities. We were reckless with the ball, careless with the ball, all over the field."

Five Stats to Stew On

The scene at Hobart on Saturday, where the Statesmen's game against Cornell never started.
Image from hwsathletics.com 

The number of players in NCAA history to register 100 career goals and 100 career assists, a special distinction now shared by reining Tewaaraton Award winner and Virginia senior attackman Steele Stanwick.

The number of Division I men's lacrosse teams that haven't played a game this season, after Cornell's opener Saturday against Hobart was postponed due to snow. Canisius, the nation's only other 0-0 team, opens its season March 6 against... the Big Red.

Or 3-of-45, the success rate of Johns Hopkins' starting midfield — Rob Guida, John Ranagan and John Greeley — on converting shots into goals.

The success rate on clears by Maryland, which followed up last weekend's perfect performance with a 17-for-18 effort against Georgetown on Friday.

The number of years since the last Johns Hopkins-Loyola women's meeting. The Blue Jays and Greyhounds will play Wednesday night for the first time since 1982, a 31-3 victory for Loyola.

Tweeter of the Week

I'll admit it. I'm a fan of the Twitter machine. (Side note and shameless self-promotion: If you don't already, follow me and send me your thoughts on this week's column.)

As a news and media junkie, Twitter is a quick, one-stop shop to learn what's happening in the world of sports — often lacrosse. It's also a great, unfettered platform to interact with people across the game, which is why I love athletes and coaches who have embraced social media. Yes, even the Philadelphia Wings' use of Twitter handles on their uniform nameplates.

Perhaps no one has been as entertaining on Twitter this early in the college season as Notre Dame assistant coach Gerry Byrne.

My favorite Byrne tweets:

- "Motto for season "griND3600". 60 minutes X 60 seconds. All the time, every time. Midweek game, TV game, trap game, dont matter.#griND3600"

- "All we do is griND. GBs, slides, possessions, rides, clears, plane rides, bus trips. No magazine covers, no fluff pieces. 800 miles from MD."

- "All I ask is that we stay "HANGRY", half hungry, half angry. Angry at the slights real & perceived & hungry for the work still to be done."

- "Like a gr8 jam band r ND team has no virtuosos, no lead singer, no guitar gods. Just skilled players who mesh 2gether & deliver a gr8 show."

I have to give a shout out to coach Byrne for also outlining what he's looking for in this very column, which undoubtedly has let him down thus far: "Do u cover and analyze D1 lacrosse? Then u will want to c where you fall in the WHAMMI. Wit, Humor, Analysis, Music, & Movies Index. #facts"

Through more than 2,000 words in this column, on a scale of 1-10 my WHAMMI rating is Michael Larson. (That's a "Press Your Luck" reference, for those of you scoring at home.)

It might be a bit of a stretch, but here's the comparison I'll use for Byrne's inspirational-yet-humorous tweets, courtesy of colleague Lane Errington: Patches O'Houlihan, of "Dodgeball" fame.

Two of O'Houlihan's priceless lines:

- "If you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball."

- "If you're going to become true dodgeballers, then you've got to learn the five D's of dodgeball: dodge, dip, duck, dive and ... dodge."

In honor of coach Byrne bumping Biggie Smalls on Sunday morning and tweeting about it, here's one I'll leave you with, from "The What": Everything you get, you gotta work hard for it.

Quote of the Week

We opened with coach Bill Tierney, and we'll close with coach Tierney. Sounds like he's coaching a team on a mission.

"That Ohio State game is going to stick with us for a long, long time — maybe all year long," Tierney said after Denver topped Robert Morris 21-8. "Hopefully we chip away, get one at a time, and some day we'll get a chance to avenge that Ohio State loss."


Good day, and good lacrosse.

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