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August 13, 2020

NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Face-Off Rule Changes

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In late May of 2020, the NCAA Rules Committee voted to make significant changes to the face-off process of Men’s Lacrosse. The days of facing off where both specialists begin on their knees and engage in lengthy battles for leverage are over. The new changes include:

 1.  “Having both players start face-offs with only their feet, gloves and sticks touching the ground.” – This means no more kneeling during a face-off; instead, the players will have to assume a standing position and crouch. 

2.  No more motorcycle grip, rather players will have to use a “neutral grip.” (Alternating hand positions, I.E., Top hand = Palm facing up. Bottom hand = palm facing down.

3.  Stronger enforcement on anti-clamping, where players keep the ball trapped in the back of their stick for a prolonged period of time. Penalties will be called if this happens. (per NCAA and Inside Lacrosse.)

The face-off position is always undergoing NCAA rule changes and causing frustration amongst many in the face-off community. These rule changes will undoubtedly impact FOGO’s (Face off Get off) and their roles on a team. It seems the goal of these rule changes is to prevent a dominant face-off specialist from controlling a game by winning every possession through creating a higher likelihood of a 50/50 ground ball. 

Having a dominant face-off man can elevate a team’s status from good to elite. For example, the nation’s top face-off specialist, Yale’s TD Ierlan, claimed possession on a staggering 76.4% of battles at the X last season. In 2019 he was a Tewaarton Finalist, and in 2018 he set records for best face-off percentage (79.1%), ground balls (254), and faceoffs won (359). 

In games where possession after a goal is extremely likely to end up back with the team of the dominant FOGO, the chances for their opponents to compete for drops substantially. Anyone who has ever witnessed lopsided domination at the face-off X understands how important possessions are in the game of lacrosse and knows how frustrating it can be when their team is up against a faceoff juggernaut. 

It is an interesting move by the NCAA to completely change the dynamics of a position because some players are too dominant. No player has an unfair advantage when facing off beside their natural abilities. Just as in any sport or any field, the best will dominate and rise to the top. 

Top players are a result of hard work, training, and dedication. Is it fair that some teams have top players at the face-off position that the rules should be changed to prevent their success? It is an interesting thought. The NCAA does not thwart star defensemen by saying they cannot check, and it doesn’t stop elite offenses from setting pick plays. Here are some thoughts from current college faceoff specialists on the matter.

Boston University’s Sean Christman has been a dominant FOGO in the Patriot League and is now entering his senior year. He won 62.4% of faceoffs before the season was cut short in 2020 due to Covid-19. After three years at the Division 1 level, Sean must adjust to new rules yet again.  “As a player, it is definitely frustrating that the rules and mechanics around our position are constantly being debated. I’m hopeful that the committee will listen to the feedback they have gotten from the face-off community and reconsider aspects of their decision, but if they decide to implement the new rules, we will continue to adapt as best we can.” 

Photo by Boston University Athletics. Sean Christman scans his options after a face-off win.

I also spoke with Anthony Giuliani, a rising senior face-off player at the University of Pennsylvania. “So, my thoughts are initially it’s frustrating that the rules keep getting changed after face-off athletes spend countless hours perfecting their techniques just to have to rebuild that muscle memory completely because the committee doesn’t like how well certain players have gotten at gaining possession for their team. However, face-off guys are typically some of the most competitive guys on the team, and many people are excited about a new challenge. It’s unfortunate for guys like me who have spent the past three years as a backup perfecting my technique for that one shot my senior year to prove myself and all the work I’ve put in throughout my college career. This is the second or third major rule change to my very specific position during my lacrosse career that has forced me to completely change what I’ve been working on since I was 12 years old. It seems like they’re picking on the faceoff for what seems like no reason. I am excited about the new face-off because almost everyone is basically starting fresh, and it could be a very interesting year among face-off guys.”

Photo by the University of Pennsylvania Athletics. Anthony Giuliani (left) and Kyle Gallagher (right).

Although this new rule change is not the most welcome by some, new opportunities will open up for players who can dominate the wings and in the ground ball game. With the implementation of these new rules, wing play will undoubtedly become more important as teams battle to gain possession. 

Often ground balls come down to communication, speed, and physicality. Instead of one man dominating the face-off X, it will become more a 3v3 at the midfield. There is always an adjustment period to new rules, so it will be interesting to see how different teams navigate these unchartered waters. Double poles on the wings could become more common, or each team’s speedsters may win the spots. Teams may even start a pole on the X to keep the ball on the ground. Each coach has their tactics, and until players are back on the field, no one truly knows how everyone will move forward. 

However, one thing is sure. If these new rules do take effect, FOGO’s could become obsolete. Players will more likely be stuck on defense or offense, and transition opportunities will most likely decrease. 

Traditionally face-off guys do their thing then get off the field as fast as possible. The guys facing off may be expected to stay and play for a bit, especially with the recent implementation of the 90-second shot clock. 

Face-off players typically do not have fantastic stick skills because they spend most of their time practicing face-offs, and they spend less time working on-field skills. However, this is a generalization, and many face-off specialists are also talented all over the field.

The roles of teams are changing, and the increasing importance of wing play is undeniable. Here is what Gettysburg College LSM Liam Lacon had to say about the rule change: “I think that the new face-off rules are a little strange. I never was a fan of the motorcycle grip, but these new rules would make face-off guys work a little outside their comfort zone. As an LSM player, I am kind of excited about these new rules because I think it will make it more of a loose ball struggle where the wings come out to play more. In the past, good face-off guys have had the ability to control how the game goes, but these new rules might make wing play much more important and make face-offs more competitive.”

As the sport continues to grow, the game evolves. It will be interesting to see if the professional lacrosse leagues like the MLL, NLL, and PLL will adopt these new face-off rules. There will likely be a time lag for these rules to be picked up by high schools and youth organizations across the country as well. 

The changes to the face-off rules were ultimately designed to make the game more competitive and more fun to watch. There is always pushback to change, and time will tell if those voices gain any traction. Otherwise, the elite will adapt, and players’ opportunities to make an impact will continue to grow. As a player, the only solution for uncertainty is preparation. Practice, practice, and practice some more.