January 12, 2013

Convention Notebook: Danowskis Share Stage for First Time

Live demos, wheelchair lacrosse, recruiting session also among Day 2 events

by Matt DaSilva, Matt Forman, Paul Krome, Clare Lochary and Corey McLaughlin | LaxMagazine.com | Convention Live Blog

PHILADELPHIA — It was their first-ever presentation together, but Duke head men's coach John Danowski and first-year Blue Devils assistant Matt Danowski, had the chemistry expected from a father-son duo speaking the familiar language of lacrosse. At times, the pair exchanged instant one-liners, building off of each other's cadence.

In talking about offseason workout packets, John asked Matt, standing to his right on stage, "Did you ever follow those packets?"

"No, never," Matt responded without hesitation.

Speaking about ground balls, of which John Danowski is an enormous proponent, John said he always prefers players take the two-handed approach. Matt explained why it makes sense to use one hand in Major League Lacrosse games when bigger, stronger defenders battle you for the ball.

"At some point, you need to protect yourself," Matt said, "and absorb the check."

"Oh, that makes sense," John deadpanned.

And later, "Practice is important because players will do what they want in a game. Matt, did you ever listen to me in a game?" John asked.

"Never," his son said.

But later, Matt said clearly that John is "the big dog," of this pair. His father has been Duke coach since the summer of 2006, when he took over in the wake of scandal. Matt was a player on his father's first Blue Devils team in 2007 and won the Tewaaraton Award. He closed out his career in 2008. Now father and son are reunited on the Duke coaching staff. Matt is an assistant coaching offense.

"How to Better Understand Your Players," was the title of the Danowskis presentation Saturday, which appealed to coaches from a variety of levels. John started off the hour-long talk by asking, from a show of hands, what level the coaches in attendance represented: youth, JV, varsity, etc. He then introduced a general set of principles that applied to everyone at this session of the 2013 US Lacrosse National Convention, presented by Champion.

"Coaching is really hard," he said. "Don't let anybody tell you it's easy. How often do you win the last game of the season?"

From there, they were off, father and son talking about everything: Duke's offensive meetings, the feel-good story of Blue Devils fifth-year senior Casey Carroll, back with the Blue Devils after five years away while serving in the Army, to how important body language can be on the sideline and on the field.

John Danowski referenced the recent Sun Bowl between USC and Georgia Tech. Trojans coach Lane Kiffin wore a hat with sunglasses and a hood over his head, had his hands in his pockets and looked "disinterested," Danowski said. He said the posture showed no leadership.

"If you're cold, get a turtleneck," Danowski said.

Similarly, the idea applies to players. He instructs Duke's roster to run in and out of every drill and to the sideline during games. This isn't what the New York Knicks did Friday night, Danowski said, when he watched them on TV, and saw them walking to the sideline during timeouts during a loss to the Chicago Bulls.

Attendees ate up the session. Afterward, the Danowskis interacted with convention attendees from lacrosse hotbeds as well as new regions for the sport, like St. Louis, Mississippi and Texas, among others. "Going back to Grapevine, Texas," John Danowski said while posing for one iPhone shot, referring to the hometown of the boys' coach that stood next to him.

"He's the big dog," Matt said nearby.

Recruiting a Hot Topic

An hour-long recruiting session included a panel of high school and college coaches from many levels (men's and women's Division I, III and club). A pair of common themes emerged: Coaches prefer frequent and specific contact from recruits themselves rather than parents, and everyone loves multi-sport athletes.

Harvard men's assistant Adam Ghitelman said he incorporates elements from his football and basketball backgrounds into his lacrosse coaching, and kids who can't relate to them are harder to teach. USC women's coach Lindsey Munday conceded that many coaches love multi-sport athletes but other sports can interfere with recruiting, so kids who miss certain events should communicate more with coaches and let them know what events they will attend. Coaches won't hold it against you, but they still have to see you somehow. A one-minute YouTube highlight reel is plenty.

The discussion got a little heated when two attendees asked questions relating to kids who don't have the money for club teams, aren't familiar with the club system, are late starters, or, for whatever reason, are likely to be overlooked. Winthrop women's coach John Sung said that with today's technology, it's pretty rare for a true star to slip through the cracks, which elicited a murmur of discontent from the crowd.

Cincinnati women's coach Gina Oliver pointed out that she didn't come up through the club system. Munday said she got lucky by attending a camp that put her the line of vision of Northwestern coach Kelly Amonte Hiller.

"The pro-activeness of the student-athlete has to come out," Oliver said.

She added that recruiting events, while imperfect, allow coaches to maximize their time and that getting to high school games in the spring is impossible for an NCAA coach in the midst of his or her own season.

There was some concern among attendees about early recruiting, but most seemed more interested in what happens after the few blue chippers make commitments, and everyone else who needs to hustle to get noticed enters the recruiting process. For now, it looks like emails, highlight reels, positive attitude, club teams, and recruiting tournaments are the way of the world. And relationships between high school, club and college coaches rule the day.

Finding a Way with Wheelchair Lacrosse

If you know the sting of a slap check, the embarrassment of a yard sale, the chaos of a loose-ball scrum and the difficulty of cradling in traffic, then you will appreciate the challenge of performing these lacrosse skills sometimes one-handed and always strapped into a harness on two wheels.

But none of that masked the pure joy Saturday as a group of 10 wheelchair lacrosse players demonstrated their relatively new version of our very old sport in front of about 100 spectators.

The wheelchair lacrosse demonstration, led by 40-year-old Ryan Baker of San Diego, featured 5-on-5 action and players from all corners of the country. Baker co-founded a wheelchair lacrosse group in San Diego several years ago and has helped recruit players that have since established teams in Atlanta, Richmond and Denver.

"I was in a car accident after I graduated high school in 1991," Baker said. "I was asleep, and the person driving fell asleep behind the wheel. I was leaving San Diego to live in Colorado. Once I got out of rehab, I left San Diego and continued onto Colorado. During my time in Steamboat, I figured out this was possible. It sat with me for about 10 years, and then I was finally able to share it with some guys who were willing to try it."

There was just one problem: it did not exist. Anywhere.

"With lacrosse as big as it is on the East Coast — and here we are a couple of kids from San Diego — I thought for sure there'd be someone promoting competitive lacrosse for wheelchair athletes," said Baker, who never played lacrosse before sustaining injuries that immobilized him from the waist down. "But we called US Lacrosse and they said, 'Ryan, we're really sorry, but we've never heard of it and we don't know of anyone doing it.' That's when we started recruiting players, and here we are three years later doing a demo at the US Lacrosse National Convention. It's incredibly surreal and exciting."

Baker described wheelchair lacrosse as a hybrid of box and field lacrosse. Games are played on roller hockey rinks, with players strapped into modified wheelchairs welded specifically for their bodies. Most of the equipment mirrors that which you'll find in able-bodied lacrosse, with the exception of carpenter-style kneepads that protect against downward stick checks and long poles that are 50 inches (like a goalie shaft) rather than 60.

"Because what we're doing is so fresh, it's our responsibility to maintain the integrity of the game without changing it," Baker said. "We need to bring lacrosse onto us. We don't want to impose what our needs are on the sport."

With assistance from US Lacrosse and STX, Baker's wheelchair lacrosse group conducts free clinics and demonstrations nationwide, with events upcoming in New York and Chicago. More information is available at wheelchairlacrosse.com.

Team USA on Display

The U.S. women's national team staged a live demo on Saturday afternoon, focusing on Team USA's man-up and man-down units. An important point was made by USA head coach Ricky Fried and assistant Liz Robertshaw: Man-up is a good situation to practice even if you don't see a lot of yellow cards. It's fast and fun and will improved decision-making on the fly.

A few other takeaways:

1. Cradling is over-taught in women's lacrosse. Emphasize hand and body position over the old open-the-gate, close-the-gate action.

2. In an up situation, the ball carrier should always at least look to shoot. It's a lot easier to downshift from a shot mentality to a pass mentality than it is to gear up for a shot when you were thinking pass.

3. Teach your players not to shoot if there's an uncalled shooting space violation. A cheap goal isn't worth the danger, in the long- and short-term. "You need to think about the game, not just your game," Fried said. "We gotta be a little bit bigger than that."

4. Teach your cutters to move in the 8-meter arc. Activity is not necessarily productivity. It's about subtle movement in a U-shape in front of the cage to get that inside girl free. Fried noted that most fields have a cheat sheet for where this happens: the lines for the men's crease.

New Hofstra coach Shannon Smith believes the power of stick drills, and showed of a variety Saturday at the 2013 US Lacrosse National Convention, presented by Champion.
© Scott McCall (file)

Take Pride in Stickwork

Shannon Smith's stickwork session on Saturday appeared exhaustive and exhilarating. The 2011 Tewaaraton Award winner at Northwestern and first-year Hofstra women's coach is serious about stickwork and what it can do for a team.

The Pride starts practice working through various stickwork routines (stong and weak sides, one- and two-hand passes, behind-the-backs and around-the-worlds, Twizzlers and Sizzlers, and combos of all those things). Smith has players go through the routines normally, and then with the reverse sides of their sticks to give them extra-soft hands. The exercise can be frustrating and dull at first, but it pays dividends. Hofstra struggled with 45-minute stickwork sessions early in fall ball. "But by October, you'd see them catching passes they had no business catching," Smith said.

Northwestern's all-time points leader also had some tips on fakes. Huge pump fakes are too big and slow to give a true advantage. You're better off with a flat stick at shoulder height with two little cradles. Faking from the elbows will move the goalie while keeping your hands in ready position. One more tip: partner passing gives more touches per player than shuttle lines.

Tucker's Keys for Great Defense

Johns Hopkins women's coach Janine Tucker offered up the following tips for developing good defenders in another hour-long session on Saturday titled "Developing Disciplined Defenders."

Her key points:

1. Athleticism. Even little kids can do agility drills to develop good feet.

2. Competitiveness. Tucker calls a ball carrier trapped on the sideline by a double-team a baby giraffe. As in, "that baby giraffe just needs to be killed."

3. Communication. Have your team sing or recite something during conditioning. They'll hate it but they'll learn to talk when they are tired.

4. Confidence. Take control of your space on defense.

5. Smarts. Read your opponent, work the angles and don't give up the body for checks.

6. Control. Love to contain; hate to chase.

Art of the Faceoff

Paul Cantabene, who retired as MLL's all-time faceoff wins leader, spoke for more than an hour, then took about 15 minutes of questions before a crowd of nearly 250 on Saturday afternoon in a session titled, "Faceoffs—Teaching it the Right Way/No Short Cuts to Success."

As the title of the presentation would suggest, Cantabene focused on "the ethics of facing off, doing things the right way, no violations, no shortcuts." The current head coach at Stevenson, which enters the preseason ranked No. 2 in Lacrosse Magazine's Division III men's Top 20 poll, said he'd be more inclined to yell at a faceoff guy for winning a draw the wrong way than losing a draw the right way.

First, Cantabene demonstrated the proper grip on the stick — not touching the plastic, held in the fingers, arms shoulder-width apart. He then showed the proper stance, with the faceoff guy "addressing the ball" as close to the line as possible without crossing. Specifically referring to the legal hand and body placement, Cantabene said: "Don't ever lose the faceoff before taking it."

"Don't ever lose the faceoff before taking it."

— Stevenson coach Paul Cantabene

Next, Cantabene outlined the two-step process with the legs — the first as an explosion, the second as a little step down the line with the left leg." Cantabene called facing off a "full-body experience."

Then, Cantabene chronicled the importance of developing a routine for the faceoff process, wherein faceoff guys "get used to not thinking, just doing." This means looking the same every time, so as to avoid giving the opponent any indications on the move that will be used.

Cantabene said he recommends faceoff guys have three moves — he teaches the clamp, the top and the rake. He said one of those moves should be the "go-to move," while the others are backup options.

"The unique thing about facing off: There's always someone better than you. There's always someone who does something you can't defend," Cantabene said. "The best faceoff guys have some alternative they can go to."

Related, Cantabene concluded by emphasizing the importance of making adjustments throughout a game.

"The biggest thing to remember: Faceoffs in the first half don't matter. If you can win them in the fourth quarter, that's what matters," he said. "Facing off is about winning the faceoffs that matter — late in games, in critical situations, man-down."

An interesting note: Cantabene didn't start playing lacrosse until he was in eighth grade. He didn't start facing off until he went head-to-head with a "huge guy" who no one else on his team wanted to face. The rest? Well, it's history.

Former Johns Hopkins All-American Kyle Harrison and other LXM Pro players put on a shooting clinic Saturday.
© Jack Dempsey

LXM Pro Puts on Shooting Clinic

Former Johns Hopkins All-American Kyle Harrison was joined by LXM Pro players Sam Bradman (Salisbury), Max Ritz (Maryland) and Tim Desko (Syracuse), along with goalie Matt Russell (Navy), for a highly interactive hour-long session at the Live Field. Harrison, who was introduced by his father, Dr. Miles Harrison, and Bradman showed off their time-and-room shooting skills, as well as shooting on the run. Ritz and Desko discussed finishing in tight.

"One of the reasons I love playing on the LXM Pro Tour is because at every event we have a clinic," Harrison said. "Every time I listen to those guys talk, I learn something new. Even if you learn one little thing, that makes you be a better player."

Harrison and his LXM colleagues provided no shortage of practical examples. The main message? "All shooting is: is repetition, repetition, repetition," Harrison said. "I've been playing lacrosse for 25 years, and I still shoot the ball every day for an hour. I'm still becoming a shooter every time I do it."

Harrison's three tips for time-and-room shooting: Use your entire body (creating pace), get your arms away from your body (generating club speed) and get your shot off quickly. The result? Shooting the ball with velocity, like Harrison did recently in Las Vegas, registering on the radar gun at 111 mph.

"Look at me, I'm a skinny dude. I'm not hiding any muscles underneath my clothes," said Harrison, who played for Team USA at the "Duel in Denver" in September. "But I can shoot the ball with speed and power.

Harrison's tricks for shooting on the run: Go at the target, don't shoot with alligator arms, and create torque so your finish spins your back toward the target. In both instances, Harrison suggested shooting high-to-low.

"Shoot the ball low," he said, noting that the key is pulling down on the bottom hand of the stick. "Those are the guys who get on the field, who score a lot of goals.

For operating in close quarters, Ritz said the primary points of emphasis are simple: Getting the ball on goal, shooting the ball hard.

"Working hard is half the battle, because you don't have a whole lot of room to breathe. It's a finish-hard kind of position," Ritz said. "Choke up on the stick, get the ball in and get it out. It's not sexy, but it works."

Meanwhile, Desko detailed the importance of cutting at the right time while protecting your stick. "Get a lot of the work done before you even get there," he said.

With pipes pinging and shots flying left and right across the Live Field, a festive fan group paused to ask about Bradman's shooting technique.

"I'm not just blowing smoke because he's my STX teammate," Harrison said, grinning. "I've never seen anyone shoot the ball the way he shoots the ball. It's incredible."

Former NBA Ref, Undercover Policeman Delaney Delivers Officials' Keynote

Saturday's educational program concluded with a keynote for officials from former NBA referee and New Jersey state policeman Bob Delaney. He addressed leadership, teamwork and his personal struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), with which he grappled after infiltrating the mob in New Jersey and helping to bring several criminals to justice.

"Basketball was my peace," Delaney said before taking the stage. "The two happiest days of your life are the day you're born, and the day you figure out why you were born."

Just 18 months after becoming a state trooper, Delaney was offered an undercover role and given a new identity of, ironically perhaps, Bobby Covert. He and another New Jersey police officer, along with three FBI agents, worked for nearly three years to bring some 30 mafia criminals to justice, using a fake trucking company called Alamo Transportation as cover. Toward the end of the sting and for years thereafter, which included numerous testimonies before Congress, Delaney suffered from PTSD.

He found solace in resuming a basketball officiating career, rising to the NBA in 1987. He worked more than 1,700 regular-season games, 180 playoff games and nine finals.

"There are officials who do it for so long that they believe they're experts and no longer need training; this is an ongoing learning profession," Delaney said.

Delany roamed the room, sprinkling in an HBO "Real Sports" feature on his transformation from police officer to official and a music-video montage of many of sports' most famous figures espousing the lessons learned through athletics. He has offered two books, "Covert: My Years Infiltrating the Mob" and "Surviving the Shadows: A Journey of Hope into Post-Traumatic Stress," and addresses military, law enforcement associations and other organizations.

"Leaders know when it's your time to speak up," Delaney said. "If you're a junior official, it's knowing when the crew chief needs help."

For more from the 2013 US Lacrosse National Convention, presented by Champion, check out our weekend-long live blog.

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