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With the rise of specialists, faceoffs need a face-lift

By Quint Kessenich, For The Baltimore Sun

6:46 PM EST, March 6, 2014

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In lacrosse, a team isn't assured that they'll ever get the ball. They could play an entire game on defense if they never win a faceoff, which is is conducted after a goal has been scored, and to start a new quarter.

Faceoff men use speed, balance, technique and power to battle for vital possessions. Over time these faceoff men have become specialists.

Faceoffs are a source of wonderful tension in a tight game — they can be the catalyst for momentum swings. I would never want to see faceoffs eradicated.

But the current system doesn't work, and I'd like to see a simple rule change: A faceoff man cannot leave the field until there is a shot on goal or change of possession.

Make them run a real shift.

I'd also like to see referees adhere more precisely to the rulebook, demand fairness and enact stiffer penalties for offenders.

Enhancing the tempo can only help. Adding a 60-second shot clock would allow defenses to earn the ball back quicker, increasing the number of possessions in a game, and lessening the stranglehold of a great faceoff man.

In Major League Lacrosse, they utilize a 60-second shot clock. A well-oiled defense can earn possessions and overcome a faceoff disparity, as the Chesapeake Bayhawks did on their their way to the 2013 MLL title. The team with the best players ultimately won, not the team with the best specialist.

What's a FOGO?

Every college team in the country counts on a FOGO — faceoff, get off — to earn possesion. These are players who's only job it is to secure the ball from the draw, and get off the field as quickly has possible.

FOGOs don't play offense, and try to play as little defense as possible. Too often stick skills, the ability to dodge, pass accurately, shoot and play defense are sold separately. They are specialists, like kickers in football.

No other sport has a specialist as important as a FOGO — they decide more games than kickers. That's not right. It's ironic that the least-talented player on the roster might be the most important.

How'd we get here?

In hockey, faceoff men don't immediately skate off the ice after possession is determined — they skate a full shift and are contributors. That's the way lacrosse used to be.

The faceoff midfielder was a premier midfield athlete who also took faceoffs. Studs such as Jim Brown, Jon Reese, Andy Kraus, Paul Cantabene, Peter Jacobs, Ryan Wade, Kyle Harrison, Stephen Peyser, Jeremy Thompson, and CJ Costabile handled faceoffs and were productive in other aspects of the game, too.

Lacrosse has become a game of tightly-controlled possessions, no longer a free-flowing track meet. Fewer overall possessions add importance to owning the ball.

They're tough, but lacking

Go watch a practice. FOGOs spend 80 percent of the time by themselves in a corner of the field in a crouch position working on technical skills such as clamping, raking and timing the whistle.

The best ones are built like fire hydrants; their work is physically demanding. They are a tough bunch, but too often are lacking in skill and remedial stick work.

They also command significant scholarship money. The going rate for FOGOs for a fully-funded program is about a 50 percent scholarship, a healthy chunk of cash considering the total team allotment is 12.6 scholarships.

America's best face-off specialist is Chris Eck of the MLL's Boston Cannons. A member of Team USA, He's a prime example of how these specialist's have evolved. Eck has won 1,051 faceoffs in his brilliant professional career, but has just 20 career points.

Clamp it, scoop it, flip it to a teammate and run off the field.

What's most upsetting?

Many FOGOs break, bend or skirt the rules to gain an edge; such cheating has been rampant for decades.

Illegally adjusting the stick head, baking it to change its store-bought qualities, modifying the throat or handle, curving the shaft, using fingers to pry the opponents' stick, pinning with the elbow, shoulder or head and leaning into the neutral zone are all strategies that faceoff men use to stay a step ahead.

The Most Valuable Player of the 2013 NCAA title game, Duke's Brendan Fowler was penalized a minute for grabbing a loose ball with his hand. He was caught cheating early in the contest and served a minute penalty, a mere slap on the wrist for him and his team.

Fowler went on to dominate possessions, winning 21 of 30 faceoffs and keeping the ball from Syracuse.

The faceoff rules continue to be modified and rewritten by coaches and officials.

I love faceoffs, but they have evolved and become an ugly sideshow. A few simple rules can re-establish balance in the sport.

Quint Kessenich covers college sports for ESPN and writes weekly for the The Baltimore Sun during lacrosse season.