To the uninitiated, a lacrosse faceoff gives the appearance of a crude physical battle—two opposing players, their sticks pressed together at ground level, grunting and groaning over a ball that has been placed between their nets. To the aficionado, on the other hand, the faceoff is an art form complete with its own esoterica—mysterious things such as the rake and the clamp.
Traditionally, the faceoff puts the ball back in play following each goal and at the start of each quarter. But last May, in a move that caught the lacrosse world with its sticks down, the NCAA rules committee voted to eliminate faceoffs after goals. The team scored upon would simply be given the ball. No more pushing or shoving required. What's more, the team would get the ball not near its own goal, but right out there at midfield where it could launch an all-out attack on the opponent's goal. The main idea was to shorten the overall time it takes to play a game.
How has this new rule been received? Well, at the moment it couldn't win a popularity contest against radioactive fallout. Club teams, which accommodate lacrosse players after their college days, and high schools have refused to adopt it. College coaches evidenced their feelings in December by pleading with the NCAA committee to revoke the rule change. The committee refused.
Now the fans have spoken. Last Saturday afternoon in Baltimore, while undefeated and No. 1-ranked Johns Hopkins was rolling to a 13-8 win over previously unbeaten Virginia, a small contingent of Hopkins fans decided it was time to make a comment. After each Hopkins score the greater part of the partisan crowd would count off the number of Blue Jay goals, "One...two...three...four..." and greedily add, "We want more." At that point the smaller group would quickly holler, "Faceoffs."
"We've taken away the flow of lacrosse, the passing on the run, which was the good thing about the sport," says Hopkins Coach Henry Ciccarone.
While the ruling seems to have succeeded in shortening the games, it has not speeded up their pace. With the no-faceoff rule automatically putting one team on offense after every goal, coaches are increasingly substituting defensive or offensive specialists for the old-style midfielders who had been capable of playing both ends of the field. Those midfielders dictated a fast-paced game by forcing turnovers on defense and then executing fast breaks on offense.
"The lacrosse faceoff was unique," says Maryland Coach Bud Beardmore. He agrees with Cornell Coach Richie Moran, who says, "A good faceoff man could start fast breaks, and fast breaks are the beauty of the game." Last year Maryland scored 47 times within 25 seconds of a faceoff. That brings up another coaching complaint. Without a chance to get the ball right back on a faceoff, how can a team trailing by a few goals hope to come back late in a game?
An example of the way the new rule has altered play arose late in the first quarter last Saturday. Cavalier Goalie Brian Gregory made a good save, but instead of looking for a fast break he simply held the ball while Virginia substituted offensive specialists. When they were finally in place, it took the Cavaliers just a few seconds and four quick passes to move the ball the length of the field and score. It was a beautiful display of passing, but only for those in the crowd who hadn't wandered off for a hot dog while Gregory was stalling.
Other coaches hasten to point out the strategic importance of the faceoff. On the day after the NCAA decision was announced last May, Blue Jay freshman Ned Radebaugh controlled 20 of 22 faceoffs to lead Hopkins to a 13-8 upset of Cornell in the national championship. Facing off was all Radebaugh did that day.
In the case of the faceoff, absence indeed seems to have made the heart grow fonder. The truth is that the faceoff disappeared because of the coaches, not in spite of them. The NCAA committee originally acted on the recommendation of the rules and equipment committee of the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association. The USILA group had developed its recommendations from responses to questionnaires sent to coaches last spring. In recent years, games had been dragging on for about 2½ hours. Coaches were asked if they wanted to do away with the faceoff and, if so, where did they want to put the ball into play?
Of the total number queried, 77% responded, and 62% of those, or approximately 48% of the total, recommended doing away with the faceoff. There was no clear-cut majority on the subject of where to put the ball in play, although the area behind the goal got the most votes and midfield the fewest. In a spirit of compromise, the USILA committee recommended the restraining line. The NCAA committee, fearing that weaker teams might not be able to clear the ball out of the shadow of their own goal, opted for midfield. "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," says Beardmore.
Virginia Coach Jim Adams, who was chairman of the NCAA committee, hopes that speeding up the game will make lacrosse "more packageable for TV." But television may be a pipe dream. A planned local telecast of last Saturday's Hopkins-Virginia game was canceled; the problem was not lack of faceoff but lack of television interest in the game.
The day after the Blue Jays' win, the USILA rules and equipment committee gathered at Johns Hopkins to plan the questionnaire it will send out this year concerning rules changes for 1980. Many lacrosse observers are already predicting that the results of that poll will mandate the return of the faceoff. Whatever the outcome, the faceoff fiasco has guaranteed one positive step. "In the past when the USILA questionnaire was sent out, no one paid much attention to it," Ciccarone said last week. "You can bet that won't be the case this year."
To specialists like Johns Hopkins' Ned Radebaugh (right) the faceoff is a piece of athletic art.