College lacrosse is beginning — albeit slowly — to regain its reputation as the fastest sport on two feet.
New rules implemented in the offseason to accelerate the pace of play aren't showing up in the numbers. But anecdotally, what had devolved at times into a slow-plodding, low-scoring slog is turning into a fast-paced, action-packed thriller.
"I think they're the best thing to ever happen to the game, to be honest with you," Denver coach Bill Tierney said. "The [NCAA] rules committee took charge of their charge, so to speak, and realized that the game was not getting any better. In fact, it was getting worse. As we increase our media coverage — especially on TV — the game needed to be fixed."
Among the wide-ranging changes enacted during the offseason were several significant ones. Perhaps the most prominent change was a 30-second shot clock, which begins once officials have issued a stall warning. Another was the elimination of horns for player substitutions. And a third was the implementation of quicker restarts, including removing the five-second cushion that goalkeepers had to get back to the crease after chasing a shot.
The result has been a faster game with fewer stoppages, and that's music to the ears of coaches.
"I think we had a big problem in our game with teams possessing the ball for what really amounted to an unlimited amount of time," Virginia coach Dom Starsia said. "Teams would come down on offense and hold the ball for any period of time just to be holding the ball and shortening the game. We needed to address that, and these rule changes did that. So I think the pace of play is better."
Added Notre Dame coach Kevin Corrigan: "I think there's less stoppage of play. I just don't think anybody particularly liked watching all the stoppages where people were buying time in 100 different ways. I like the quick restarts. They keep the game going up and down the field, which is the interesting part of the game."
Data compiled by Matt Glaude of the College Crosse blog suggests that the rules changes have had mixed results when it comes to encouraging offense and creating more excitement for fans. Teams in 2013 are taking a little more than five more shots per game than they did in 2012, but there is just one more possession per game this year, and the average number of goals is up by less than half of a goal from last season.
Of those statistics, only the increase in shots can be traced to the changes, said Glaude, who manages the website.
"If you want to see more shots and see a few more saves per 60 minutes, you're seeing them, and that's likely attributable to the new rules and not some grand increase in goalie ability," he wrote via email. "Unfortunately, the data doesn't indicate that players are charging down the field with their hair on fire and wildly putting balls on cage for 60 minutes, as some people would argue. It's just a solid increase concomitant with the rules."
There is still some support for additional tweaking. Tierney would like to see some changes regarding faceoffs, and Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said he thinks restarts can be even quicker.
Loyola coach Charley Toomey lamented the loss of close one-on-one checking, or riding, as a result of the elimination of horns for substitutions.
"I feel the game's a sloppier game," he said. "You can look at it and say more goals are being scored, but I look at it as more goals are being scored because of broken situations and bad plays. I don't want to be the guy at the party that is the one that is bashing it, and I think there are a lot of good things. … We're all learning to coach within the rules, and I just hope we can clean up a lot of things."
But the most scrutinized rule is the shot clock and the burden placed on officials to determine when to cite an offense for stalling and then start the clock. ESPN analyst Quint Kessenich and CBS Sports Network analyst Evan Washburn said the subjectivity regarding a stall is too great and they would like to see the college game implement a 75- or 90-second shot clock — similar to Major League Lacrosse's 60-second timer — as soon as a team gains possession.
Corrigan said there should be no rush to have college lacrosse mirror its professional counterpart, and he worries that if a two-point arc accompanies the shot clock, there could be a serious injury with a defender jumping on front of a 100 mph shot.
UMBC coach Don Zimmerman, who is a member of the rules committee, said the panel wanted to try the 30-second shot clock as a compromise.
"I'm not a spokesman for the committee, but I think the committee felt like that's a pretty big jump to go to a full-blown shot clock," Zimmerman said. "So let's try this. I think the feedback that we're getting has been very positive. I know ESPN would love to see a visible clock, and I know they've taken measures to have a visible clock on the screen. Maybe we'll get to that. That could be a cost issue or a game management issue. But I think for right now, it's pretty good. It's allowing teams to continue to play their style. It's not forcing teams to play the same style, but at the same time, if a team does try to take the air out of the ball, there's a mechanic by which they need to go to the goal and get a shot."
Many of the coaches said they are willing to wait another year or two to review the impact of the new rules and reassess whether further changes are needed. Maryland coach John Tillman summed up the sentiment of his peers in stating that the coaches want whatever enhances the sport.
"Whatever makes the game of lacrosse better, we all would buy into and agree to," he said. "I don't know if anybody knows quite what that is. Maybe everybody's vision of the game could be different, but I think everybody wants a little faster game. I think the kids will adapt so that if it is a faster game, your guys in practice will play faster. Maybe that is a really good way to get more people excited about the game and get more people in nontraditional areas to look forward to those games. We feel like it's a special game regardless of how you tweak it."
According to Kessenich, the reception to the rule changes among coaches, players and fans has been unanimous.
"They all think it's an improvement of the game," the former Johns Hopkins All-American goalkeeper said. "They all think it's more in the hands of the players and less in the hands of the coach. … It's created a better flow in the game, and it's getting the game back to its original roots as the fastest sport on two feet."