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Tick tock: Division I women’s lacrosse prepares for implementation of possession clock

When Division I women's lacrosse teams began playing with a 90-second possession clock in fall ball, two things stood out.

First, 90 seconds is a lot longer than anyone thought.

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Second, there's still a lot to learn about managing the clock once the games actually mean something.

This spring, Division I teams are playing with a possession clock for the first time in college competition. From the second a team gains possession — no matter where that is on the field — it has 90 seconds to put a shot on goal. If the shot sails wide, the clock keeps counting down.

Many coaches have been clamoring for years for a "shot clock" to end the boring stall-ball that has taken over some games. In recent years, coaches have almost always resorted to stalling away the final minutes — sometimes for 10 or 15 minutes — if they have a lead in a close game, especially in a championship game.

North Carolina coach Jenny Levy, last year's Division I Coach of the Year whose Tar Heels have won two of the past four national championships, has been one of the most vocal proponents of a possession clock. Like most coaches who prefer a quicker-paced game, she would have her team hold the ball late in a critical game to preserve a lead, but she prefers not to have that option.

"I think 90 seconds is a really long time, personally," Levy said. "The positive is that you go into games knowing that a team can't hold the ball for 10 minutes, which we've seen a lot of — someone's going to start the game and spread it out, play four corners and take a dog's life to even make progress toward the cage. So I'm happy about that. If someone wants to play slower and limit possessions, they can, but at some point the clock will expire."

Maryland coach Cathy Reese prefers a quick tempo, but she has also resorted to running out the clock when her team held a lead late in a game.

"It was always in the rules," Reese said. "We remember losing the championship in 2011 to Northwestern when they held the ball behind the cage for 15 minutes. Frustrating as it was, there was nothing wrong with them doing that. That was the start for when we put through a request saying we have to look at this. Other sports have gone to it and we need to think about this. It's something our sport's needed. It's going to make it exciting to watch and to play."

Navy coach Cindy Timchal, in her 35th season as a Division I head coach, said the possession clock "doesn't come without a lot of angst," but that it's necessary to grow the sport.

"It's something that like in basketball where the women were the first to put in a really fast shot clock to pick up the pace and keep the game exciting," Timchal said. "That's what we're looking for. People don't want to watch teams just holding the ball."

At first, most coaches and players thought 90 seconds would never be enough time to set up a high-percentage shot. Loyola Maryland coach Jen Adams, the first Tewaaraton Award winner (in 2001) who still holds NCAA Division I records for points in a season and in a career 16 years after graduating from Maryland, was skeptical, too.

Adams is a member of the rules committee that used plenty of research to come up with the 90-second length, including videos of many games supplied by Stefanie Sparks Smith, the committee's rules editor.

"We went through a ton of footage and 90 seconds actually is well above the average of typical possession throughout the past three years of games that have been played both at the championship level and at the regular-game level," Adams said. "It was neat for me to see that kind of research. People were like, 'There's no way. Ninety seconds is too quick,' and things like that and it's not so bad after all."

Megan Whittle, the All-American junior who led Maryland in scoring last season, agrees.

"When we first started playing with it, we would be rushing a lot of shots or taking the first shot and then we'd realize we still have 50 seconds on the shot clock," the McDonogh graduate said. "I think the fall went really well getting used to it, but at the same time it's pretty much the same lacrosse principles — everyone can get a touch, let's take our time, but take the smart shot."

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While players and coaches got used to the 90-second possession time in fall ball, they never had to manage it in critical situations. Nobody's playing to win in the fall, so everyone still has a lot to learn about strategizing those final minutes in a close game that counts.

Teams have to be careful not to panic when the clock runs down. When they can't get a good shot, they might have to turn it over intentionally — send the ball to the corner and set up their ride. Coaches don't want to see their players forcing a dangerous shot to beat the clock.

"To be honest, there are going to be players that are just mentally frazzled and they are scared of what the repercussions of a turnover might be," said UMBC coach Amy Slade, the 2004 Tewaaraton winner while playing at Virginia. "And it's up to the coaches to tell the kids, 'Hey, you're not putting anyone in harm's way [with a dangerous shot] because not only is that going to get you kicked out of the game, but that's not how we play the sport.' It's up to the coaches to … establish that strategy, practice it and make sure you're not putting anyone in danger."

Florida coach Amanda O'Leary said she thinks teams will have to prepare plays for 30 seconds left and 15 seconds left, so players "aren't taking those desperation shots or ill-advised shots."

"I think everybody understands the repercussions of taking that shot or at least we think they do," she said. "We talk about that a lot."

Another rule change might help with safety. The three-second foul — called when a defender is not within a stick's length of an attacker in the critical scoring area for more than three seconds — has been switched back to a major foul resulting in a free-position shot for the attack.

With zone defenses becoming more prevalent — Towson and UMBC switched last season from man-to-man — changing three seconds to a minor foul last season had unintended consequences.

"People got loose with the zone and off-ball defenders were sagging into the 8-meter [arc]," Johns Hopkins coach Janine Tucker said. "I'm happy the rules committee was able to say that's not how the rule was intended and have it go back to a major foul. If players were in there and not penalized, they were going to take advantage of it and that's exactly what we saw happen."

Now with the season under way, teams will hone their strategies late in games when players are tired and their options are limited by the clock.

"I'm sure we'll see different ways to look strategically at it," Reese said. "There's still a lot to see as the season progresses. We're going to learn as we go and see what works for us."

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