August 4, 2009

Walterhoefer Adjusts to MLL Faceoff Grind

by Corey McLaughlin | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

Though he ranks last in the MLL in faceoff percentage, Outlaws rookie Shane Walterhoefer has earned head coach and general manager Brian Reese's trust. "Shane's a grinder," Reese says.

© Denver Outlaws/Peter Eklund

Denver Outlaws rookie Shane Walterhoefer has stared down each of his faceoff opponents this season and felt as if he were looking at a member of the Mount Rushmore of faceoff gurus -- Year 2000s edition.

"Every weekend you go against the best guys from the past 10 years," Walterhoefer says of the small, six-player group of Major League Lacrosse faceoff specialists that includes veterans Alex Smith, Geoff Snider, Pete Vlahakis, Anthony Kelly (who is currently out with an injury), second-year pro Chris Eck and now Walterhoefer himself.

With six MLL teams and one main faceoff specialist per team, each of the six players has a glittering resume. They all dominated or ranked near the top of faceoff wins, percentage or groundball lists on the college level at some point during recent years.

The result on the pro fields are constant battles and never a game that is considered an easy day for a faceoff guy. That's something Walterhoefer -- who finished his college career at North Carolina this spring ranked third all-time in NCAA faceoff wins and seventh in groundballs -- learned quickly.

"It was a shock at first, definitely," Walterhoefer said Saturday night after the first-place Outlaws (9-2) defeated the host Long Island Lizards, 13-9, at Hofstra University. "In college, you go against some good players every now and again, but out here every weekend it's the best ... and every faceoff is important to all of us, so you just keep fighting. That's been hard."

In the Denver win over Long Island (5-6), Walterhoefer won just seven of 24 faceoffs against Lizards veteran Vlahakis, an example of the tough weekly competition. For the season, Walterhoefer ranks last in percentage among the top six faceoff specialists. (He's won 93 of 229, or 40 percent, according to official MLL statistics.)

But Saturday night, he also displayed the attributes that have led Denver coach Brian Reese to send the rookie into the faceoff battle each week. Walterhoefer rarely let Vlahakis win a clean draw, which allowed time for Denver's wing players to arrive and position themselves to gain possession should a ball fly in their direction.

"Shane's a grinder," Reese said. "He's not a finesse guy who will get the ball out quick. He's a clamper, stays low to the ground, and you don't see guys getting fastbreaks off him because he ties them up well. We need that."

Walterhoefer, while adjusting to the intense competition each week, appears to recognize his role well.

"In college, your faceoff guys will get 10 to 15 ground balls per game," he said. "Here you get four or five because you rely heavily on your wings. There's no free ground balls out there."

Walterhoefer said another adjustment he's needed to make in the pros is the increased specialization of his position, which was already considerably specialized in college, but not as much as it is as a pro.

"You definitely take more faceoffs in this league," he said, "but since every faceoff guy is a specialist, you're not stuck on the field as much. In college, I would be going against guys who play offense and if they'd win [the draw], they'd keep me on the field, try to run me back and forth. In MLL you have the 60-second shot clock and your coach wants you off the field as quick as possible to get your offensive guys on."

It is clear Walterhoefer understands his job, responsibility and the challenges of going against the top faceoff guys. He says Washington's Smith -- the NCAA and MLL single-season wins record holder and again the league best in percentage this season -- has been the toughest individual opponent he's faced.

"But they're all really tough," Walterhoefer added. "I try to be quick, but a lot of the guys out here are quicker. I try to get down and just grind it out a little bit."

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