Rule changes in women's lacrosse aimed to improve safety

Lacrosse is known as "the fastest game afoot," but the women's game is certainly one of the fastest changing games afoot.

In the struggle to keep such a fast, aggressive game safe, college coaches and officials constantly tweak old rules and often add new ones.

This season brings one of the bigger changes in recent years, as teams will now be forced to play a man down on both ends of the field rather than only behind the restraining line. Changes to the draw are also significant, with only two players from each team allowed around the draw circle and a change in ball placement to the upper third of the crosse on the draw.

The man-down rule puts more teeth into an already existing penalty that hasn't had much consequence. In the past, when a player received a yellow card, the penalized team could play short behind the restraining line rather than within the action.

"Before it wasn't a great penalty," Denver coach Liza Kelly said. "I really think the majority of our rules are to keep us from going to helmets, for the safety of the game. Maybe if the yellow card affects the team more, it will control the game a little more."

That's the ultimate aim of the man-down rule, to cut down on cardable fouls, especially dangerous checks.

"I love it," Towson coach Sonia LaMonica said. "In order for the game to get safer, there needs to be high penalties. Having to play man down on the offensive end or the defensive end is, I think, more consistent with the penalty."

Most coaches rank this rule up there with the major changes that have come to the women's game within the past 15 years, including restraining lines in 1998 and hard boundaries in 2006. Both the restraining lines (set 30 yards from each goal) and hard boundaries (making turnovers of balls lost out of bounds except on a shot) were controversial, but most coaches like the new man-down rule.

Pat Dillon, a college referee for 20 years and a member of the NCAA women's lacrosse rules committee, said coaches were asking for the change.

"From the coaches' perspective," Dillon said, "they feel playing short is a huge advantage for the team playing man up, and it will discourage players from committing cardable fouls."

The biggest challenge appears to be adapting defenses to playing man down. The women's game includes strict rules to keep defenders moving within the 8-meter arc in front of the goal. They can't stay in the arc for more than three seconds, and they can't obstruct an offensive player's shooting space unless, in either case, the defender is within a stick's length of an attacker. Neither foul is a cardable offense, but each results in an 8-meter free-position shot for the fouled player.

Navy coach Cindy Timchal isn't sure the old rules are compatible with playing short, because defending with a man down will require more zone defenses.

"If you're going to slide like the men do, they don't have shooting space or a three-second call, so in some ways, I think, this [change] was surprising," Timchal said. "Some might feel it will slow up the game. On the men's side, you get in this man-down situation and you overpass the ball, and we like to keep a fast pace."

Dillon said defensive teams playing man-down may deliberately commit minor fouls to try to use up the penalty time.

"I think you are going to see more fouls when a team is man down," Dillon said. "I think they will be more aggressive pushing teams out of 8-meters and they're not going to mind creating a pushing foul as long as it's not cardable. I think some coaches will try fouling because play stops and the clock keeps running. We're trying to educate the officials to be aware of this kind of behavior."

For coaches, officials and players, it's just a matter of time to see how the change plays out.

During fall ball, Maryland coach Cathy Reese said her team didn't get any yellow cards, and neither did the Terps' opponents. Most coaches said the rule change didn't have a tremendous effect, although some saw more stalling and Johns Hopkins coach Janine Tucker said she saw more 8-meter shots.

"This is a significant change to our game that people are going to have to get used to and continue to work really hard on minimizing flagrant or overly-aggressive, potentially-unsafe fouls," Tucker said. "And that's not a bad thing."

The changes on the draw bring mixed feelings from coaches. Limiting the number of players within the restraining lines to six — the two taking the draw and four around the circle — instead of 10 aims to clean up the draw and stop fouling that often gave a team initial possession. The rest of the players have to stay behind the restraining lines on each side of the field.

Tucker said she likes more room to work around the circle, but Reese was concerned about having a crowd behind the restraining line, because some draws will reach them.

"I get the intent of it," Reese said, "but now there's so many people crashing in on it off the 30 that it's like a Red Rover game, so we'll see if this ultimately can clean up the draw. If people are drawing longer what does that do, because now you've got eight or nine people on the 30 as opposed to six? I think it will clean it up around the draw circle. It will definitely be an advantage to teams that can draw to themselves."

The change of ball placement on the draw isn't one most coaches like.

To take the draw, the centers have the ball placed in the back of their stick heads and then pull up to release the ball into the air. Some centers have excelled at getting the ball to where they want it to often so they can possess it themselves.

Dillon said moving the ball from the center of the head to the top third gives the centers less control over the direction of the draw. She said part of the reason some centers had gotten so good at drawing the ball to themselves was because sticks are being designed to give players an edge on the draw with their shape and with the way they are strung.

"If they can [win the ball] legally where their physical ability to beat another player is fair and square, go for it," Dillon said. "They're not beating people with physical ability but with a stick that gives them a huge advantage. Everybody should have access to that stick, but everybody has sponsorship deals [with different equipment manufacturers]."

Some coaches, however, said it was simply an attempt to even the playing field, and they weren't happy that there was no test period and no feedback taken before making the change permanent. Dillon said it was not a rule change but a change in "official mechanics," which can be made without a test period.

Loyola assistant coach Dana Dobbie, who excelled at the draw while playing at Maryland, said she was surprised by the change, which also allows different placement of the bottom hand on the stick.

"The thing I've spoken more on is that it's not a rule per se, it's more of an actual skill, so forcing centers so abruptly to change the mechanics of a skill like that has been a little bit frustrating," Dobbie said. "It's obviously something you have to go along with and figure it out and honestly, your draw specialists are going to find a way to win it. It was just something that was so surprising and I don't know if it was needed."

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