February 25, 2014

Tuesdays w/ Corey: Raffa Shows Guts, Turns Tide for Terps

by Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | McLaughlin Archive

Maryland faceoff man Charlie Raffa has battled injuries his entire Maryland career and tore his PCL this summer. It didn't slow him down Saturday against Syracuse. Another challenge awaits in Duke's Brendan Fowler. (Rich Barnes)

Maryland's faceoff man, junior Charlie Raffa, is listed at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, but that does not account for the five pounds, he said, of protective apparatus he carries on his right knee.

Raffa wears a base layer of spandex and tape on his hamstring to help with a muscle tweak, then puts a bulky knee brace over that and more spandex to help hold the brace in place when he lowers the knee to take position for a faceoff.

Raffa tore the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in the knee during an offseason summer league game. He missed fall ball and didn't start practicing with Maryland until about a week before the Terps' first scrimmage last month. And that whole story doesn't even include what he called a meniscus problem in his left knee.

Raffa is not a stranger to injury. The former quarterback at St. Anthony's (N.Y.) High, who has the same high school athletics pedigree of Princeton midfielder and Tewaaraton Award candidate Tom Schreiber, played hurt with Team USA during the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) Under-19 World Championship two summers ago in Finland. Raffa had surgery on his shoulder after his freshman season at Maryland and again after his sophomore season.

"I've been battling a bunch of injures pretty much my entire career," he said before practice in College Park on Monday, "but as long as I'm healthy enough to get on the field and play, I'm really happy, and I'll do anything for my team."

On Saturday — in the biggest result involving a pair of top-10 teams from the weekend — that meant swinging the game in the Terps' favor, winning 19 of 26 faceoffs, including nine of 13 in a second quarter that led to Maryland's 16-8 thumping of previously second-ranked Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. The Terps rose to No. 2 in Lacrosse Magazine's weekly rankings ahead of a tilt with top-ranked Duke on Saturday.

The Orange, and faceoff man Chris Daddio, were done in by drawing five first-half faceoff violations and subjecting themselves to 30-second man-down situations after the third and each one subsequent in the half — a rule put in place last season. Maryland went on an 8-0 run and outscored Syracuse 10-2 in the second quarter. The Terps were 2-for-3 on extra-man situations in the quarter.

"Charlie got into a pretty good groove," Maryland coach John Tillman said after the game. "Any time you can get possessions, it just allows you to get into a rhythm offensively."

Raffa also was called for two violations in the second quarter — a feeling that could be akin to a basketball player being just short of fouling out of a game. He said it requires a faceoff guy to stay mentally strong.

"Every time I went out there I was thinking, 'I can't jump the whistle this time,' but at the same time you're trying to get on the whistle," he said. "It's a bit of struggle, but you just have to be more strong-minded with the new rules."

Daddio, who had been better than 50 percent in Syracuse's wins over Albany and Siena, felt a similar struggle.

"I've been battling a bunch of injures pretty much my entire career."

— Maryland junior faceoff taker Charlie Raffa

"We were going back and forth for the first couple [of the game], then he started getting away a little bit," Daddio said. "I got caught in a game of catch-up, and that's the last thing you want to do against a kid who is better than decent. I started jumping the whistle to get back on track, and that's the last thing I should have been doing. It cost us a few in a row, gave them some man-up. That's kind of the key point in the middle of the game, when they had possession over and over, man-ups and it got a little out of hand."

It was an all too familiar feeling for the Orange, who struggled mightily on faceoffs last season but managed to reach the NCAA title game. There, Duke's prolific faceoff man Brendan Fowler dominated, and the Orange couldn't get enough possessions to make it close. Syracuse coach John Desko acknowledged the Orange's desire to improve at the position and focus on it through the preseason, but also didn't hide from sharing his thoughts on the faceoff in the game in general.

"I don't mean it as a knock," Desko said at Syracuse's preseason media day press conference, "but you probably have the team's worst lacrosse player being the most important player on the field. Rarely do you see a faceoff guy stay out there and play and offense. Rarely do you see a faceoff guy stay out there on defense. You have a guy that doesn't play offense or defense, but may have the most effect on the outcome of a game."

The great faceoff debate isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Some, like Desko and Furman and Team USA coach Richie Meade, have said faceoffs should be eliminated entirely from the game. Others say it's just fine the way it is. Some say rules adjustments over recent years have made it better and cleaned up cheating, while yet others see a need for more tinkering.

Of course, count Raffa as among those who like it just how it is.

"I would assume that [those who want to eliminate the faceoff] are guys that don't really have a faceoff guy, that struggle with it," Raffa said. "Those are the coaches that are most likely to say that. I could see why those coaches say that, too, because [faceoffs] make big changes in games. It's all on one person's shoulders, so it's a big role to play. For me, obviously I like it the way it is, but everybody has their own opinion whether they want to have it or not."

The issue will be addressed formally this summer when the NCAA men's rules committee meets to decide on rules changes, which happen every two years, for the 2015 season. The merits of a hard shot clock or whether the 30-second variety after a stall warning has done its job quickening pace of play will likely also be among topics discussed, just as they were in summer of 2012 during the last cycle.

Two summers ago, the rules committee initially proposed outlawing the motorcycle grip and an experimental rule for fall ball that moved faceoff players from 4 to 12 inches apart, which could lead to the position being less of a specialty and more of a physical ground ball battle. Neither recommendation made it to the field after feedback from various parts of the lacrosse community, including a vocal contingent of faceoff specialists.

Duke's Brendan Fowler and Raffa are good friends and have faced each other since high school. They'll face off Saturday in a big No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup.

Even those recommendations did not not get as far as they did in 1978-79.

Back then, Johns Hopkins won the 1978 NCAA title after freshman Ned Radebaugh won 20 of 22 faceoffs to upset Cornell. That offseason, about half of the college coaches surveyed by the USILA recommended doing away with the faceoff in an effort to shorten games. It was eliminated for 1979 season, but the devil was in the details: Where should teams start with the ball after a goal? There was no clear majority on that point.

The adopted protocol was loser's out, with one team taking over at midfield after the other scored. By 1980, the rules were switched back to the way it was before, after what was widely regarded as a bad experiment. The substitution of defensive and offensive specialists after a save increased, back-and-forth flow was disrupted and teams trailing by a few goals late didn't have a chance to come back in a game.

"If the people who voted against the faceoff had known where the ball was going to be placed, most of them wouldn't have voted the way they did," then-Maryland coach Bud Beardmore told Sports Illustrated in 1979.

There is a science to these things, after all. Raffa works with Long Island-based faceoff instructor Matt Schomburg, who also counts Fowler among his disciples. Raffa and Fowler will square off in a big No. 1 vs. No. 2 matchup on Saturday when Duke visits Maryland.

There isn't much one does not know about the other. Raffa and Fowler are friends, hanging out at home in the summer. They faced off against each other in high school, with Raffa's St. Anthony's (N.Y.) team annually competing with Fowler's Chaminade (N.Y.) team in the Long Island Catholic league rivalry. Both got to know each other better through sessions with Schomburg and working camps together.

In an instructional piece in November's Lacrosse Magazine, Fowler talked about important points like lowering onto his left knee, getting as low as he can with a flat back and shifting most of his weight over his feet and legs, then reacting as quick as possible to the whistle and hopefully controlling the ball with his clamp move.

"He changed up his faceoff game. I changed up mine," said Raffa, who only starting taking faceoffs his junior year of high school. "It will be a fun faceoff battle."

The latest change for Raffa pertains to all that extra baggage on his right knee.

"My brace knee is my down knee," he said. "That was kind of a struggle going into this year, because it also changed up my stance. I can't put my toe in the ground on that foot. I have to flatten it. It's something I just adapted to."

So, yes, definitely think of his roster listing as 6-foot-1, 200 pounds — with a plastic-and-spandex combo between his right knee and the turf beneath him.

Best Week

Penn State

If a team can have a must-win in the middle of February, Penn State certainly faced it against Notre Dame on Saturday, one week after falling to Loyola at home in overtime. The Nittany Lions, banned by the CAA from conference playoffs due to its 2015 desparture to the inaugural Big Ten conference, can only make the NCAA tournament as an at-large team. And the bubble will be small. They don't have the luxury of having a chance to win their conference AQ bid come April. So an 8-7 win in South Bend, powered by Shane Sturgis (five goals) and Austin Kaut (13 saves) gave the Nits a top-5 win and some time to exhale — for the moment.

Three Stars

Top performances:

Doug Tesoriero, Cornell, Sr. FO
He won 20 of 24 faceoffs, keeping Cornell within enough striking distance of Hobart for the Big Red to score six fourth-quarter goals and win 12-8 in their season opener.

Ben McIntosh, Drexel, Sr. M
The Canadian scored two goals late in the fourth quarter to break a 12-12 tie and give Drexel a nice 14-13 win over Albany. LM's preseason "best bet" for Breakout Player of the Year has not disappointed.

Jimmy Craft, Yale, Sr. LSM
There were questions about Yale's ability to replace some key graduations on defense, but the unit went ahead held what's widely regarded as the second best attack unit in the country (St. John's) to just six goals on Saturday. Craft was a factor all over the field, with three caused turnovers and a third-quarter goal that gave Yale an 8-4 lead.

Looking Ahead

Games to watch (all times Eastern):

Fairfield at Hofstra, 3 p.m.
Drexel at Villanova, 7 p.m.

Georgetown at Hofstra, Noon
Notre Dame at North Carolina, Noon
Johns Hopkins at Princeton, Noon
Duke at Maryland, Noon
Loyola at Lehigh, 1 p.m.
Penn State at Ohio State, 1 p.m.
Denver at Penn, 1 p.m.
Syracuse at Virginia, 7:30 p.m.

End Lines

Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala happened to be one of the three honorees at 21st annual National Multiple Sclerosis Society: Maryland Chapter 2014 Dinner of Champions on Saturday night in Baltimore. The fundraising event is held annually to recognize local leaders. Attendees packed a downtown hotel ballroom. Former Baltimore Ravens player OJ Brigance, stricken with ALS, and Dr. E. Albert Reece, dean of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, were the others honored.

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