February 28, 2013

UnCensered: Since We Last Met... A Lot Has Happened

by Joel Censer | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Censer Archive

Preseason storylines can go out the window quickly. Rob Pannell broke his foot last year, changing the landscape of the college season. This year, two-way midfielders Josh Hawkins (Loyola) and Chris LaPierre (Virginia), who were among those players expected to benefit from offseason rules changes, have been sidelined.
© Greg Wall

Another lacrosse season, another year of UnCensered. Last year, I thought I summed up the column space pretty well: “...the brainchild of Lacrosse Magazine editor Matt DaSilva, the UnCensered branding derives in part from my last name and in part from featuring the inane and irreverent musings of a Division III washout with a full cable package.”

A lot has happened since Eric Lusby hosted his own NCAA-sponsored shooting clinic and Josh Hawkins and Scott Ratliff provided the between-the-lines muscle to bring preseason and Charles Street afterthoughts Loyola its first national championship.

Bill Tierney joined Twitter. Rob Pannell grew a beard. Oh, and every Uncle Drew who waxed nostalgic about the time when lacrosse really was fast-paced, sticks were pure and defensemen could take the ball away, finally got their wish when a pupu platter of rule changes meant to increase tempo were implemented.

Here are some early-season thoughts…

The Pick-Up Artists

It’s lacrosse’s answer to the Madden Curse.

Every year, it seems preseason talking points and memes become obsolete earlier and earlier. In 2011, what was supposed to be the year of the Bratton alley dodge turned into the year of Steele Stanwick’s two-man grind. Last season, us media types spent all winter gearing up for a behind-the-net duel between quarterbacks Stanwick and Rob Pannell. Instead, Stanwick had to will a Virginia team that never found its mojo to the quarterfinals, Pannell broke his foot early enough to leave everyone wondering if he’d ever get off the rolling cart, and Colgate’s Peter Baum, a converted midfielder and Oregon native, ended up stealing the show.  

While 2013 is supposed to be about those tempo-setting, end-to-end midfielders who never needed no stinkin’ horn, Hawkins (suspension) and UVA’s Chris LaPierre (knee) have mostly been confined to street clothes.

Frankly, every game I’ve watched this season, I’ve thought less about rules or the faster pace (though it is nice to finally know what Maryland looks like when they, you know, dodge) and more about picks of the Stockton-Malone variety.

Take one look at how teams generate offense today. Pick. Repick. Pick. Repick. It’s like the NBA. Against Denver, almost every time Penn State attackman Shane Sturgis dodged from X, he had a teammate setting one for him. In that same game, Denver was using three-man games. This weekend, ever-opportunistic Loyola long-stick midfielder Scott Ratliff was even trying to pick-and-slip in transition. Against Michigan, Johns Hopkins had its Canadian attackmen, who normally stay within sniffing distance of the crease, try some pick action generally reserved for the stripped rinks of St. Catharines and Oshawa.

Clearly, this is a continuing evolution in Division I. Not too long ago, college teams generated offense exclusively by having an attacker dodge to either score or draw a slide. Good spacing meant everyone was far enough away from one another so each guy had room to run by his man and time to identify the double.

But now, it seems attackmen and midfielders often work on top of each other as they set a variety of picket fence plays. And guys aren’t just setting standard stationary picks either. Hopkins’ flip play is successful because as John Greeley flips it, he’s effectively acting as a pseudo-pick (you could call it a well-disguised obstruction) for John Ranagan, who is running full speed and to his strong hand. And when teams are prepared for it? The Jays can counter with this.

We should’ve seen this coming. A couple years ago, I wrote a 3,000-plus word story about how difficult a dodging environment it was in an era of athletic cyborgs picking up long poles and well-organized, Tierney-styled defenses.

Coaches like Denver’s Jamie Munro and former Drexel and current Princeton head man Chris Bates -- who played professional box, where picks and screens are staples, and who worked at mid-major schools where they didn’t have carte blanch to recruit athletic dodgers -- began figuring out different, pick-centric ways to create space. Then Virginia, a program defined by offensive players that could run by people, scrapped one-on-one play for two-man booby traps. In a copycat business, the arms race for who could set the most picks was officially on.

These screen-friendly strategies have had huge implications for the postseason. A couple of years ago, when offenses were built around dodging, the big-time programs with the athletic thoroughbreds had distinct advantages when the game slowed down in the postseason. More than any other reason, I think that’s why power was concentrated in just a few programs over the last decade. 

The spread of the game to the West and early recruiting will probably contribute to increasing parity too. But not as much as the ability for every team to potentially generate quality shots without the services of a Rabil, Harrison or Bitter.

Odds and Ends

"It actually helped my game a lot. The ball comes out a lot faster. There’s less hold, but I feel like my shot is more accurate this year.”

— Virginia's Mark Cockerton (17 goals in three games) on the new stringing rules

Talking with a bunch of players and coaches about the new rules last week, it was interesting to hear from a couple scorers about the varying impact of the stick regulations.

Baum, who almost broke Twitter last August when he threatened to turn pro if his U- and V-shooters were outlawed said, “It’s still different. I’d be lying if I said I liked my stick as much as last year… The ball moves around in the pocket a little more.

“I don’t think it’s changed the game that much beyond making it a little frustrating to adjust to a whole new way of stringing your stick.”

Virginia’s Mark Cockerton, however, who has scored an insane 17 goals in three games, credits a partially revamped pocket for his improved scoring touch.

“I always used to play with four shooting strings across: typical Canadian style. Now, [the old shooters] go too deep, so I had to take one out. But it actually helped my game a lot. The ball comes out a lot faster. There’s less hold, but I feel like my shot is more accurate this year.”

Loyola’s Pat Laconi is many things, but a third wheel isn’t one of them. Often the forgotten member of the Hounds’ vaunted rope unit (short-stick defensive midflelders and long-stick midfielders), I thought the junior d-middie may have been Loyola’s best player in the loss against Maryland. Besides the usual defensive handiwork, his aggressive approach to early offense directly contributed to two goals.

John Haus (the son of a coach, go figure) has figured out a unique way to attack modern defenses. College defenses almost uniformly force top dodgers down the alley to reduce shooting angles. But Haus moves in that direction willingly to where he is below the slide and considered not a threat. He can then veer towards the goal, duck under his defender and end up in front of the goal. Tough to stop.

If I was tasked with game-planning for him, I would force him to the middle of the field. Seems like an easier way to keep tabs on him. But college coaches aren’t filling my inbox.

Read more from Joel Censer in his “UnCensered” column every Thursday. For more from Joel, check out his archives and follow him on Twitter @UnCensered.

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