Quint Kessenich: Faceoff specialist can put clamp on title plans

For The Baltimore Sun

Faceoff wins and establishing a possession advantage has never been more important in college lacrosse. In this era of coaching control, winning a high percentage of the draws goes a long way toward success.

A good faceoff man ignites a run or stops the bleeding. The job requires a focus, technical mastery, quickness, power, tenacity, stamina and guile. The craft is part rock-paper-scissors, a repetitious game, and a mini-wrestling match for the ball. The demand of the position takes a physical toll. The position has its own vernacular. Faceoff men use terms such as clamp, rake, power pinch and pop, motorcycle grip, wingers, spinner, heavy pivot, counter and underhand grip. They are an odd breed, perfectionists and routine-oriented players who utilize short-term memory so they can reset and win the next one.

Let's take a glimpse at some faceoff men who might steer the team bus toward Boston on Memorial Day.

Trevor Baptiste (Denver): He's the reigning king and one of the all-time best. The junior at Denver (9-2) is winning draws at a 75 percent clip, the third-highest in NCAA history.

"Most eye opening about his 75 percent is that he thinks he should do better," Devnver coach Bill Tierney said. "He is an ever-striving perfectionist, but does the work it takes to expect to be perfect. Every week he faces new strategies to stop, slow or keep him from dominating. Wing play, different faceoff moves and some not-so-legal strategies have challenged him this year, but he only uses them as motivation to be better."

Baptiste has the prototypical faceoff body, patience to time the whistle perfectly and fast-twitch muscles to win the clamp with technique, hand speed and leg power. He has answers for adjustments and counters for every move. He has scored eight goals this season.

"There is no finer person, no harder worker, and no one who matches his combination of speed, toughness and skill," Tierney said. "For 33 years my teams have done a mile run every Monday. Trevor ran it in [5 minutes, 20 seconds] this week and is always under 5:30. He is a two-time, first-team All-American and he works like he's trying to make the team as a walk-on."

Baptiste led Denver to the 2015 NCAA title and has been setting records ever since. He's the best I've seen in 25 years.

Brady Dove (Navy): The Kent Island native is 5-foot-9 and 202 pounds. Strong and with a low center of gravity, Dove is rugged, technically sound, has excellent balance and is quick on his feet.

"Brady's commitment to keep pushing himself in his craft and desire to improve each and every day has led to the passion and workmanlike attitude," Navy coach Rick Sowell said. "Brady has brought a lunch pail demeanor to our team and approaches every day like it's the last."

Dove's stats are staggering. He has won 626 of 1,033 career faceoffs (61 percent), while scooping 339 groundballs.

"Brady has maintained a high level over his career because he's a real competitor," Navy assistant coach Ryan Wellner said. "Whether it's his dedication to his craft, film, weight room or the technical aspects, he grasps it all. His personal standards are so high the ceiling is never reached."

Most sports employ specialists. Baseball has relief pitchers. Football has kickers and long snappers. Lacrosse has the FOGO (faceoff and get off). It implies that they have limited skills as offensive and defensive players. FOGO has a negative connotation, but in some cases it's an accurate job description. The premier faceoff men not only secure possessions but contribute on offense and aren't defensive liabilities.

Jake Withers (Ohio State): The senior from Ontario, Canada, is more than a faceoff specialist. He has a skillful stick (one goal, five assists) and is a danger to scoop and trigger transition.

"Jake's a warrior," Ohio State coach Nick Myers said. "He's relentless on the field when it comes to ground balls. He's our captain and most valuable player. He sets the tone. Our success on the field is defined by effort and toughness. Jake never falls short in giving you everything he has in those two areas."

Withers (66 percent) and the Buckeyes (11-2) host Maryland (9-2) on Saturday.

"He's never too proud when it comes to a faceoff or a particular match up. He studies his opponents with detail,"Myers said. "He does not rely on one or two moves which makes him challenging to prepare for. He counters better than any faceoff man I have ever coached or competed against."

Graham Savio (Loyola): Savio (60 percent with three goals) benefits from working with volunteer coach Steve Vaikness, a master teacher with an extensive record of triumph. Savio's performance may define Loyola's future.

Stephen Kelly (North Carolina): The senior from Calvert Hall has shrugged off injuries this year while winning 59 percent of his faceoffs. Nicknamed "Bones," he was instrumental in the Heels' 2016 championship. Kelly (57 percent) has elite acceleration and snares the ball in pileups. North Carolina (6-6) visits Notre Dame (6-3) on Saturday at noon (ESPNU).

Ben Williams (Syracuse): The senior transfer from Holy Cross is a freakish athlete who has gathered more grounders than any player in Syracuse history. "The greatest challenge for me is getting through warmups," said Williams who can be seen pregame pacing on the sideline. "After that it's all about competing and having fun for 60 minutes."

Williams (57 percent) rarely falls and is speedy in space. Coach John Desko insists that Williams could handle a normal midfield shift if asked. The Minnesota native won 10 straight faceoffs in a recent Syracuse win over Cornell and has taken over 1,300 in his career.

"Our unit's mindset regarding 50/50 groundballs is just to pick the ball up and get it to our offense as fast as possible. Simple," Williams said. The Orange's lone loss was when Williams was out of the lineup with an injury. No. 1 Syracuse (10-1) hosts Binghamton on Saturday.

TD Ierlan (Albany): The three-sport star from Victor, N.Y, has been impressive in his initial campaign, showing a rare versatility of style and technique. Ierlan (71 percent and seven points) showcased a variety of stances (standing and down on one knee), hand placement (underhand and motorcycle grip) and counters in a one-goal loss to Maryland.

"If I were to list five qualities that TD possesses that separate him from most, they would be – humble, competitiveness, relentless work ethic on and off field, ability to adapt during the game and mental strength," Albany coach Scott Marr said. This freshman grasps the nuances. Albany (10-2) faces Yale (8-3) on Saturday.

Other privotal faceoff players: Zach Currier (Princeton), Dan Grabher (Army), PJ Finley (Notre Dame), Connor Mackie (Yale), Gerard Arceri (Penn State), Austin Henningsen and Jon Garino (Maryland), Hunter Moreland (Johns Hopkins), Joe Francisco (Rutgers), Alex Woodall (Towson) and Kyle Rowe (Duke).

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