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Free movement in college women's lacrosse sparks even faster pace

Just when it seemed women’s college lacrosse could not get any faster, yet another rule change will push the pace this season.

Players no longer have to stop and stand on every whistle. Free movement allows them to go anywhere they want on a foul or when the ball goes out of bounds.

With a few exceptions — such as keeping 2 meters away from the player with the ball on a restart and keeping farther away from the crease on an 8-meter shot — players can continue to race downfield. The player with the ball, on most fouls outside the critical scoring area, doesn’t have to wait for the official’s whistle to take off anymore. She can self-start the play from the point of the foul or the inbounds play.

“It’s just like every other sport now, so it’s not that we introduced free movement, it’s that we took away something on the whistle, which is how I like to look at it,” said Loyola Maryland coach Jen Adams, chairperson of the NCAA women’s lacrosse rules committee.

“Then there are moving parts that have to go along with such a drastic rule change. You take away something on the whistle and it is obviously going to affect a lot of bits and pieces of the game. I think the free movement coupled with the self-starts — we’ve always talked about lacrosse being the fastest game on two feet and I think, for any fan that watches any sport, you come out and watch women’s lacrosse now and that will be the feeling you have when you walk away from it.”

All the Division I coaches in Maryland like free movement. Navy coach Cindy Timchal was a big proponent.

“Athletically, it didn’t make sense to be freezing on the whistle. No other sport in the world has that,” said Timchal, in her 36th season as a Division I head coach. “I think ultimately it is good for the game to self-start and things like that. We’ll see how it goes this year, but I can’t imagine ever going back.”

One coach likened watching a high school game, which will not include free movement this year, to “watching paint dry” after seeing the game with free movement.

The women’s college game has undergone many changes in the past few seasons, all intended to make it faster and, at the same time, safer. Last season’s addition of a 90-second shot clock along with a number of new rules this year not only improve the game, according to local coaches, but also help it become more fan-friendly and eventually, they hope, an Olympic sport.

“There was so much dead time following setting up a foul, stopping on the whistle,” Adams said. “Now the athletes, the coaches, we’re getting more game for our 60 minutes. That’s what I like about it. I also think it allows the officials to focus in on the things that they need to focus in on — the safety part of the game — without worrying about a lot of other very small details that they don’t need to be blowing whistles for.”

Liz Brush, a college official for 18 years and manager of the women’s officials development program for US Lacrosse, agrees.

“It’s more player-focused. I feel like we have to interrupt a lot less,” said Brush, one of about 500 college officials who worked with players and coaches during fall ball and preseason scrimmages.

“The focus definitely comes off the officials. We’re not controlling every start and every stop, which is great. There’s more focus on the players. It’s a players’ game, so it should be focused on them and we become just sort of a filter for things that are illegal or unsafe and unfair rather than being focused on every inbounds and every restart.”

A complementary rule change to keep play flowing through the midfield penalizes a defending team for a third foul before the opposition crosses the restraining line into its attacking end. The third foul draws a one-minute releasable penalty.

“At first, I thought when teams were clearing there would be some unnecessary fouls to try to slow it down, but going through the fall, you really didn’t see it that much,” Maryland coach Cathy Reese said. “I thought that maybe we would lose a little bit of the transition game, but that turned out not to be true. You can see even more of it because of how fast the ball and the players can move.”

That means a lot more quick thinking for the players.

“Obviously the pace of play increases and it asks these players to think ahead a little more,” Towson coach Sonia LaMonica said. “To highlight a specific example, on defense when a shot goes out behind the cage, typically you would have a little time to reset and adjust before play restarts on a whistle. Now as soon as that ball is picked up, that offensive player can go and I think you’re going to see defenses get caught and get scored upon because they’re not quite ready. That’s one of the areas we’ve highlighted as a danger zone. Players have to think on the fly and anticipate for any situation that’s restarting right away.”

Another change necessitated by free movement keeps players farther away from the crease on an 8-meter shot. Because players can now move around, they have to stay out of a new rectangular restricted area that is 12 meters wide with the crease in the middle.

“That definitely makes it safer,” Brush said. “Kids are shooting quicker and harder and with one step, [defenders] used to be right in front of the goal.”

Although that would draw a shooting-space foul and give the attacker another free-position shot, it didn’t always deter defenders from jumping in.

In addition to this change, the three-seconds foul against a defender not marking an opponent within a stick’s length in the 8-meter arc for three seconds has been returned to major foul status, resulting in a free-position shot. With some zone defenses choosing to camp out in the arc because an infraction didn’t result in a free shot, safety necessitated the switch back to a major foul.

With free movement and other rules changes, including allowing just three players from each team inside the restraining line on the draw until the ball is possessed, fall ball helped players, coaches and officials get accustomed to the rules. But only playing the actual games that begin this weekend will reveal possibilities for new strategies in transition and around the goal.

“I think we’ve got to get playing to see how this really works out,” Reese said. “I can’t wait to see how people handle situations and it continues to evolve as we go through the season, but it’s a totally different game.”

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

twitter.com/kdunnsun

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