NCAA changes complexion of faceoffs, as UAlbany men’s lacrosse opens season

ERICA MILLER/THE DAILY GAZETTEUAlbany's Anthony Altimari, right, in a faceoff against Harvard's Steven Cuccurullo during their game at Casey Stadium on Feb. 29, 2020.
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ERICA MILLER/THE DAILY GAZETTE
UAlbany's Anthony Altimari, right, in a faceoff against Harvard's Steven Cuccurullo during their game at Casey Stadium on Feb. 29, 2020.

ALBANY — With apologies to The Clash, faceoff guys may not be working for the clampdown anymore.

They will still have to follow some rules from The Establishment, though. New ones.

When the UAlbany men’s lacrosse team opens the 2021 season at noon on Saturday with a home game against Colgate, the teams will be subject to changes in how faceoffs are conducted, as the NCAA moved last summer to try to curtail the clamping technique and time-consuming stalemates.

Faceoff specialists will no longer be allowed to put their back knee on the ground or hold the stick in the “motorcycle grip,” with both palms facing down. The “standing neutral grip” — both knees off the ground, top hand facing palm up, bottom hand palm down — has always been available as an option; now it’s mandatory.

In the clamp move, a faceoff specialist tries to beat his opponent off the whistle and pin the ball on the ground with the back of the stick head, then examine his angles to gain full possession, usually raking it out to a wing man or finding a way to flip it out to himself.

The rule change has not been met with much enthusiasm by those who practice this highly technical craft, but the reality is that this is how they’ll have to do business now. In UAlbany’s case, that will affect senior Anthony Altimari and freshman Regan Endres the most against Colgate, as head coach Scott Marr said they’ll get the bulk of the faceoff work to start the season.

“It’s an adjustment they had to make,” Marr said. “I still think it has a lot to do with just who’s quicker on the whistle to get the ball out. Those type of things won’t be too different. The kids that just have that good twitch muscle and that reaction time to a whistle blowing, they’ll get it out quicker.

“It depends on who you’re playing and how the game’s going, but I think there should be some more wing play involved. So it could make for some more ground ball play among the wings. But so far, the one game I watched, Colgate-Robert Morris, it was some pretty good action.”

“It’s the game within the game,” said Siena head coach Liam Gleason, who played two seasons at UAlbany and was Marr’s associate head coach for seven seasons.

“I do think with wing play, one thing I’m noticing with the rule change is we used to have what you would call a stalemate, where they both go for the clamp and they’d be 50-50 and both on the ball and spinning around, and your wings would get in there and just be boxing each other out waiting for the ball. You’re not seeing that as much. The ball is getting out a lot quicker.”

In announcing the 2021 rule changes, which also enforces dives by offensive players into the goalmouth more strictly, the NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel said, “Previously, players could start a faceoff on one knee and use a motorcycle grip, in which the stick is held with both palms down. Members of the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Rules Committee felt this led to increased clamping of the ball and long stalemates.

“With the new rule, players will have to move the ball in a continuous motion. If the ball is withheld in a player’s stick, a violation will be called, and the opposing team will be awarded possession of the ball.”

It may seem like an insignificant change to those who aren’t responsible for grinding away trying to gain leverage or looking for a sneaky-quick pickpocket, but the world of faceoff specialists is more complicated than it may appear.

“Sidewall dominant moves” aren’t just for car tire engineers, and “progressive rake variations” aren’t just for gardeners.

So when the NCAA removes some tools from the toolbox, the faceoff people aren’t going to take it lightly.

Former Great Dane TD Ierlan, the all-time NCAA Division I leader in total career faceoffs won and career percentage who transferred to Yale, told Lax Sports Network in June, when the new rules were on the table but not yet ratified, that eliminating one approach to faceoffs actually will make the disparity between the good specialists and the average ones greater.

He also questioned whether it would have an impact on the number of stalemates.

“Tie-ups-wise, you’re going to get all those 50-second tie-ups still, it’s not like those are gone,” he said in the interview. “Because you have two guys pushing into the ball with supinated wrists, and you can’t use your motorcycle grip to come over top and finish the clamp. You have to just sit there and push into it. So you’re going to get guys, which I noticed are in 80-20 battles, the guy with 20% is not going to leave, because then the other guy’s just going to get the clamp. The guy with 80% doesn’t feel comfortable enough to exit the ball.”

See? It’s complicated.

This is simple, though: the rule is here for 2021, so one more test for coaches and players will be how to gain advantages within that context.

“I don’t necessarily agree with the whole stalemate thing,” Marr said. “I don’t know where they came up with that. Your top guys, they’re in and out so quick, there was no chance for a stalemate. Maybe with two average guys, but to me it wasn’t so much the stalemate as it was trying to eliminate one guy really being able to dominate and put the ball to himself.

“Personally, one of the suggestions I’ve made for years is for us to bring the wing guys into the circle, like where the girls would do theirs, so we would be closer and it would really be a 3-on-3. But they didn’t adopt that. I was a little disappointed in that.”

“These guys have put in hundreds and thousands of hours of training one way,” Gleason said. “A lot of people want to say it’s not a big adjustment, but those are the people that didn’t put the same amount of hours that these guys did into their craft. They certainly, like any good faceoff guy will be able to do, will be able to adjust. There are probably a lot of things that, if you could do them well with the old rule, you can probably still do well.

“Faceoff guys have to be good ground-ball guys. They have to be quick to react on the whistle. You’ve got to have quick hands. Everybody’s forced to do it, and you hope it’s still an equal playing field.”

COLGATE UP FIRST

The Great Danes had their 2020 season cut short to five games because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and almost a year later, their 2021 season — at least the roster portion of it — will feel the effects of the pandemic, too.

UAlbany will be without 11 players, including USILA preseason All-American honorable mention senior attack Tehoka Nanticoke, who are sidelined as they come out of various stages of quarantine.

The Great Danes still feel good about their Saturday game at Fallon Field against Colgate, which gave up eight straight goals spanning the second and third quarters to lose to Robert Morris 17-14 last week.

“Last year, we were looking at a season where we lost to Maryland by one,” senior goalie Will Ramos said. “We’re starting a lot of the same guys, and I think everyone improved during the offseason, and we’re all fired up and ready to go.”

“It’s a feeling I can say I’ve never really ever felt,” junior defenseman Tanner Hay said. “Not knowing if you’re going to have a season, and then to be able to come back and now have our first game, it’s surreal, it’s crazy.”

UAlbany was supposed to have opened last weekend at Lehigh, but Lehigh backed out because its roster had been depleted by COVID and injuries, and the team had also lost too many practice days to be sufficiently ready for a game.

“It was disappointing, but as a team, we did a great job of bringing that competitive [spirit] and overall adrenaline to practice this week and just get ready for Colgate,” Hay said.

Besides Nanticoke, Marr said the quarantine group who will miss the Colgate game includes Ron John, Graydon Hogg, Darien LaPietro, Danny Mastropaolo and defenseman Will Pepe.

Nanticoke and Hogg accounted for nine of UAlbany’s 13 goals in the last game of the 2020 season, a 14-13 loss to No. 4 Maryland on March 7.

“Certainly coming into the season, our outlook with the team and the talent we have coming back is very optimistic. I’m excited to get this group together … eventually,” Marr said. “And make a run at this thing for the conference championship and hopefully the playoffs.

“They [Colgate] gave up 17 goals, but they scored 14, so they certainly look athletic, and it’ll be a good contest. It’ll be their second game, and we haven’t played in, like, 357 days, something like that. It’s been a long time.

“It’ll be a fun day for us.”

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