During the short-lived XFL, each game began, not with a coin flip, but by placing a football at midfield and letting two players sprint at it from 10 yards away to see who could get there first. And despite color commentator Jesse Ventura’s gruff insistence that there were several different, intricate strategies each player had at his disposal, the reality was that the quicker man to the ball was rewarded with the option to kick off or receive.
Many people perceive the face off in lacrosse to be very similar to this. Since most audience members can see is the Greco-roman-esque butting of heads going on at midfield, it is hard to understand that there are as many working parts interacting as there are in the moving castle in Miyazaki’s Howl’s Moving Castle.
Before the face off even occurs, people of a certain stature are selected simply because of their measurements. Although claiming not to be the prototypical face-off man, despite checking in at 6-4 and 235 pounds, Cornell face-off man, sophomore Tommy Schmicker points out that face-off guys are built a lot like wrestlers.
[img_assist|nid=21939|title=I got it|desc=Sophomore Tommy Schmicker (center) — who has won 47 of 72 face offs this year —scrambles for a loose ball in the Red’s 13-8 win over Notre Dame last Saturday.|link=none|align=left|width=100|height=64]
“[Face-off guys] are usually a bit shorter and stronger and kind of squat,” Schmicker said.
Sophomore Pat Kirwan, who backs up Schmicker as the team’s face-off man, registers at a smaller 6 feet, 210 pounds.
“I mean I’m still 6 foot, I wouldn’t say I’m a small guy,” Kirwan said. “I just grew up a little bigger than most people, so I guess that was one of the reasons I started. I kept doing it, though because I guess I just had a knack and reflexes. You can’t really teach reflexes. You can work on them, but it’s just something you have.”
Both players admit that reaction time and speed is probably the most key element when that whistle blows, despite the enormous amount of strategizing that often goes in to the two dozen or so face offs each game.
“Speed is huge,” Schmicker said. “It’s definitely important. The faster you are, the more control of the ball you have. You kind of get in to the other guys head.”
Still, Schmicker explains, when walking towards that draw circle, it is essential to choose a move ahead of time. While there is a myriad of things one can do at the draw circle, most legal moves derive their origin from the three basic moves the clamp, the rake and the jump. According to Schmicker, since his talent derives mainly from his strength, his go-to move is often the clamp.
“The clamp is when you just try and trap the ball against the ground immediately,” Schmicker said. “… With the rake you just swipe and try to pull the ball out quickly. The jump is you just disregard the ball and jump over and knock the other player over and then try to sweep it in direction you want to go.”
“When I explain the face off to people who don’t know about it, I compare it to rock paper scissors,” Kirwan said. “Everyone is equal in strength and quickness. It comes down to the strategy of and knowing which move beats which. Some are better suited against others. You kind of anticipate what your opponent doing and counter it.”
So like scissors cutting paper, or paper covering rock, the sweep, or rake, move will effectively counter the jump move since the man abandons the ball and goes for the player, but the clamp move will stymie the sweep move any day of the week. These are lessons that proved critical in the Red’s recent win over Colgate.
“What most face-off guys do for each move is they put their hands in a different way,” Schmicker said. “Pat noticed that the other coach was reading my hands for face offs. And he was just yelling out what he thought I was going to do. This happened about two or three times before we realized it. So I set up my hands like I was going to jump. The sweep is really easy to counter a jump so he set up for that. Before the face off, though, I switched back to the clamp position and he tried to sweep and I took it away easily.”
For the Red that day, everything fell into place after that. After losing three out of the first five, Schmicker would only lose three out of the next 16, allowing the Red to dominate the possession and tempo of the game on its way to a 16-6 victory.
Winning the face off battle continued to be important the following weekend against then No. 8 Notre Dame. Schmicker took an astounding 18-of-24 face offs, giving the Cornell offense an enormous amount of looks at the goal in a 13-8 victory. Tambroni called it a “game changing performance,” pointing out that controlling the face off “X” also means keeping the ball out of the hands of the other team’s best offensive players.
While the face-off man on the sideline doesn’t usually catch the other team reading hand positions, (“I noticed them talking to each other a little loudly,” Kirwan said.), he is essential in feeding information to the face-off man when he comes off the sideline.
“When Tommy’s out there he’s focusing only on the ball, but there’s a lot of other things going on around him,” Kirwan said. “I get down nice and low and check out his stance and watch where their wing men are going and tell him where our wing men went. I’m kind of like a second pair of eyes.”
Each team has a wingman on each side that can charge to the middle after the whistle blows to try and snag the ground ball. As important as the move at the “X” is, the ball is often controlled by one of these middies. Still, like a good offensive or defensive coordinator in football, much of the strategy of what move to use is decided beforehand in the video room.
“[Assistant] coach [Kyle] Georgalas [’05] has been extremely vigilant in breaking down clips and exacting tendencies and passing on what he thinks we should use,” Schmicker said.”
This pre-work paid off last weekend against Notre Dame, where Schmicker captured 75 percent of the face offs.
“[Georgalas] noticed [the Notre Dame face-off man] used a … grip with two hands over and used a lot of power and just clamped the ball and pulled it out,” Schmicker said. “Coach thought if I was quick off the whistle, I could beat his clamp. He also noticed if I put my shaft on his shaft and held it down we had a better chance at picking up the ground ball.”
Still, for all the pre-planning one does, the ref can only see so much with the two players huddled over the ball.
“I’d say there’s a good amount of cheating,” Schmicker said. “I don’t really view it as cheating, though, just trying to get an edge. The one thing I see is tilting your head toward the ball, or moving the butt end of your stick forward a little bit — that helps to clamp. Lots of guys like to stick a few fingers into the other guys mesh, and some guys like to forget about the stick entirely and jump the ball, grab it with your hand and throw it to a guy behind them. … You have to feel out each ref. Each ref is different with how they call a game.”