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September 21, 2010

Uncensered: Death of the Dodging Attackman

by Joel Censer | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online | Censer Archive

Former Virginia star John Christmas is among the last of a dying breed, writes LMO's Joel Censer.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

The way John Christmas tells it, when he was playing with the Boston Cannons, teammate Mikey Powell approached him a few times during pre-game warmups with a question.

“John, you feeling quick? You feeling fast?”

Powell had played against Christmas in college and knew all about the former Virginia attackman’s exploits. How as a freshman and sophomore, the pride of Lower Merion, Pa., would explode past quality defenders like they weren’t even there. How when Christmas dodged from "X," he wasn’t thinking about prodding his way to any five-and-five; he was thinking about getting right in front of the cage.

Likewise, Christmas had seen Powell turn countless defenders into pretzels with a breathtaking array of stop and gos, finalizers, spins and swims. He watched the Cavalier defense, despite having Division I football-caliber athletes like Brett Hughes, Steve Holmes and Ned Bowen, resort to a whole host of gimmicks -- from shut-offs, to zone, to conceding top side and sliding adjacent -- because Syracuse’s wunderkind from Carthage was a little faster, a little quicker and a little more creative than everyone else.

But Christmas and Powell were playing together now, far removed from their first encounter in Charlottesville, their hyper jets both a bit rusted. Christmas had never really regained the same burst after a nasty sports hernia his junior year. Powell after graduating had focused more on his guitar strings than his shooting strings.

Yet with a bit of a fraternal nod, Powell now wanted to know if Christmas still had the wheels for another dance. Because Powell knew that despite Christmas' injuries, they were among the select few remaining that knew what it was like to square up a defenseman from behind, blow past 72 inches of aluminum and have to fearlessly face the stark reality that even if he scored a goal he might get destroyed by some bulky defenseman co-opted to protect the back of the net.

“Yeah, I’m feeling quick,” Christmas would say back to Powell. “Are you?”

Get Out of Dodge

In college lacrosse, teams today attack in settled six-on-six offense by having a player dodge with the hope that he will either score or be enough of a threat to draw a double-team. If the player does draw a slide, then the offense wants him to “bang,” “skip,” “push” or “slice” the ball to a teammate. The hope being that the rock will move fast and efficiently enough that the offense can identify and take advantage of the numbers. (If the dodger has drawn two men, there’s going be someone open -- if only ephemerally.)

Take one glance around today’s Division I men's lacrosse landscape, and whether it’s a jitterbug on the invert or a thoroughbred shooting on the run, the players who generally initiate are midfielders. In contrast, attackmen’s roles in settled offense now primarily consist of managing the team’s offense, finding the open man, attacking when the defense is unsettled or finishing (on the inside or on the perimeter) what their teammates started on that initial dodge.

“Ryan Boyle’s the quintessential modern attackman,” University of Denver head coach Bill Tierney said about the Team USA and Boston Cannons quarterback he coached at Princeton from 2001 to 2004. “Today, it’s more reactionary; it’s more about reacting to that first slide."

It wasn’t always that way.

“Attackmen are definitely dodging less," Tierney said. "In the old days, an attackman was often ‘the guy’; he’d go hard to the goal and take on anyone.”

The advent of quick-sliding defenses and more choreographed offenses have created the need for more reactionary attackmen -- smaller, more skilled QB types like former Princeton standout Ryan Boyle.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

This doesn’t mean dodgers -- like Christmas or Powell -- have gone the way of the dinosaur. Or that some asteroid took out anyone who could ever inside roll. But it does mean that for every Billy Bitter, Curtis Dickson, Ned Crotty, Jack McBride or Garrett Thul, there are dozens of starting attackmen relegated almost entirely to finishing and distributive roles.

A position whose very name -- attack -- connotates aggression, is now manned mostly by cerebral opportunists looking to exploit various defensive lapses.

Certainly, it’s not the first time a position has been transformed. In August, Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on the demise of the every-down back in the NFL -- how the Jim Browns, Walter Paytons and Emmitt Smiths have been replaced by two-man platoons and third-down specialists.

Understanding the reasons feature backs became an endangered species, how rule changes helped encourage pass-happy offenses and how defensive players became bigger and faster than ever (which means running backs have an even shorter shelf life) provides some clues as to what has happened to dodging attackmen in lacrosse.

Explosive dodgers -- like Christmas, Powell, UMass’ Mark Millon, Notre Dame’s Dave Ulrich and Hopkins’ Kyle Barrie -- or power guys, like Carolina’s Dennis Goldstein, Hopkins’ Craig Bubier and Loyola’s Tim Goettelmann, didn’t just stop playing. But over time they have had to adapt (or at least move to midfield). Whether it’s the result of rule changes, shifts in coaching philosophy or the impact of the sport's growth, it’s clear outside forces have made the dodging attackman a rare entity. Just like the feature back now has to be comfortable pass-blocking and pass-catching in what’s now a pass-first NFL, attackmen who initiate have to be adept in the world of draw-and-dump lacrosse.

Rules of the Road

Former Army coach Jack Emmer remembers 1980. Actor-turned-politician Ronald Reagan was elected president, the U.S. Olympic hockey team shocked the Russians at Lake Placid and George Lucas’s "The Empire Strikes Back" was released. It was also the same year the NCAA disregarded the faceoff after a goal. So instead of pitting two pitbulls in a battle of crouch-and-clamp for the ball, possession was immediately awarded to the team that had been scored on.  And while the rule change only lasted a year, its effects, according to Emmer, caused fundamental changes in the way the game was played.

“When the ball was given to the team that had been scored on, the opposing team would send long-stick midfielders onto the field," Emmer said. "Teams would have six long sticks on the field."

And even when the faceoff was brought back fulltime the next year, teams continued to take advantage of surplus poles. The trend certainly helped Emmer’s own Army outfit, an intimidating, athletic and aggressive group that would ride as many as nine long sticks. But by 1986, the NCAA, wanting to open up the game, put a quick end to the long-pole lovefest, limiting the number allowed on the field to five. In 1989, the fifth pole was eliminated as well.

With only four long sticks on the field -- and three of those assigned to guard attackmen -- the midfielder was given further incentive as an initiator.

“When they changed the rule to four long poles, teams started to go to guys who had short-stick defenders," Emmer said. "Attackmen deferred to the midfield."

Because as Towson head coach Tony Seaman aptly pointed out, “You want your offensive guy going against the guy with 42 inches and not the guy with a 72-inch pole.”

Limiting the number of long-stick midfielders wasn’t the only rule change that made life more difficult for dodging attackmen. In 1999, the NCAA banned the “dive” shot, a move popularized in the mid-‘90s by the Virginia attack tandem of Michael Watson and Doug Knight.

Before keeping "the dive" alive in the MLL, former Virginia attackman Michael Watson and teammate Doug Knight popularized it in the NCAA. The move was soon outlawed as unsafe, further hindering dodging attackmen.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

The term “dive” accurately describes the move. Players who had dodged and gotten a step on their defender would then propel themselves airborne like a torpedo as they approached the net. Their goal was simple: put the ball past the goalkeeper and the goal line before they landed inside the crease. The move was colorful, bold and exhibited a kind of fearlessness that would bring fans to their feet and, if the attacker was talented enough, maybe win him political office in some lacrosse hotbed -- a small town in Long Island or a suburban enclave outside Baltimore -- a dozen years down the road.

But the NCAA abolished the move, arguing that it was dangerous to goalies and attackers alike and that it was difficult for officials to discern whether the ball had broken the goal plane before the player hit the ground.

Generally speaking, attackmen work from behind the net or from the wing. The aim during most of these initiations is to get “topside” of the defender, meaning the attackman wants to continue moving in a circuitous path that will bring him closer to the center of the net, so he will have more angle to shoot. It isn’t as easy as it sounds. Most defenders and defenses generally are trained to prevent an attacker from getting topside, meaning they work to turn the attackman back and force him underneath, to a place on the field best described as a sort of offensive purgatory. Purgatory, because in that space, unless the attacker veers off towards "X," he’s forced to either shoot a low-angle shot or run directly through the crease.

In many ways though, the dive was an antidote for this type of defense, because attackers forced underneath could still take a well-angled, high-percentage shot if they sacrificed their body and dove through the crease and in front of the net. Once the move was outlawed, the attackman’s options became more limited. While the talented ones can still leave the crowd “oohing” and “ahhing” when forced underneath (Mikey Powell proved that), the room for error -- so as to avoid stepping in the crease or getting crushed by an oncoming slide -- has become significantly smaller.

Virginia assistant coach and offensive whiz Marc Van Arsdale, who viewed firsthand Watson and Knight’s diving prowess and has since coached modern-day attack dodgers like Christmas, Matt Ward, Ben Rubeor and Danny Glading, agreed, saying “there’s risk going into the crease on an inside roll.”

Getting Defensive

Besides the fact that there are fewer long poles prowling around midfield and tighter boundaries are enforced around the cage, the dearth of dodging attackmen today can also be attributed to real changes in coaching.

Talk with the collective brain trust that makes up college lacrosse -- from Van Arsdale to Seaman to UMBC head coach Don Zimmerman -- and there seems to be consensus that in the age of specialization and increased substitutions, coaches take a more hands-on approach to their squads. 

Seaman skipped the pleasantries: “What happens is coaches take over the games.”

And when coaches exert more control, teams generally become more conservative and deliberate. They take their time trying to generate high-percentage shots on offense.

To prove this point, Zimmerman recounted his recent visit to the 25-year anniversary celebration of Johns Hopkins’s 1984 national championship team. An assistant coach for that team, Zimmerman was given a stat sheet of the NCAA title game (a 13-10 win over a Tim Nelson-led Syracuse squad), only to be reminded that the Blue Jays had scooped 74 ground balls that day, a number unheard of in the modern game. Zimmerman’s 2010 Retrievers, for example, fetched an average of 31 ground balls a game.

Because ground balls often indicate a change of possession, the statistical implications are clear. The game is now less about running up and down the field and more about executing well-choreographed possessions. And in this kind of environment, dodging attackmen often take a back seat. Why would a coach want to initiate with guys who have long poles draped all over them when a midfielder can shake-and-bake some helpless short stick?

Former Princeton and current Denver coach Bill Tierney, whose schemes helped diminish the role of dodging attackmen, says they could be due for a comeback.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Additionally, coaches have created, developed, implemented, tweaked and learned to counteract sophisticated defenses that try to take the ball out of the hands of dodgers. 

Often overshadowed by memories of the Gaits battling Dave Pietramala and Brian Voelker at midfield was Blue Jay attackman Matt Panetta’s five goals in Hopkins’ 13-12 loss to the Orange in the 1989 final. Only a sophomore, the Elmont (N.Y.) native scored most of his goals the old-fashioned way: by putting his head and shoulders down and charging hard to the net.

Looking back, Zimmerman, who by 1989 was the head coach at Hopkins, isn’t entirely sure that Panetta could replicate that performance. It’s not meant as a knock; Panetta was a bull of a kid who could get it going on anyone -- including the Orange’s talented backline of Mark Stopher and Panetta’s high school teammate Pat McCabe.

But “in the ’89 championship, there wasn’t much sliding defense. Everyone was responsible for their own man. We’d clear out space and allow Panetta to go to the goal,” Zimmerman said. “Now, as soon as the ball came into the stick, he’d see a double team.”

The advent of this well-organized, quick-to-double defense can be attributed to Tierney. A Hopkins assistant from 1985 to 1987, Tierney learned from coaching legend Fred Smith, with whom he shared defensive coordinator responsibilities.

When he arrived on Princeton’s campus in 1988, Tierney didn’t find the same kind of stud athletes -- like Pietramala, John DeTomasso and Bill Dwan -- that he had at Homewood. But he adapted, taking Hopkins’ sliding “seven” defense and adding one critical wrinkle. Instead of defenders only sliding to the ball carrier when he was a threat, Tierney was now instructing his guys to double as soon as an offensive player started moving towards the goal.

The synchronization didn’t end there. The Tigers would support the “slide guy” by coordinating secondary slides to occupy the areas and attackers subsequently abandoned by that first double. In Tierney’s new defense, a five-on-four still existed somewhere, but the idea was to slide quickly and efficiently enough that the offense didn’t have time to recognize it.

The Tigers figured out the new schemes quickly. (It is Princeton, after all.) Players bought in, and Princeton went from a perennial doormat to winning six national championships from 1992 to 2001 behind a quick-sliding defense that became an institution.

Unsurprisingly, Tierney’s success encouraged imitation. Over the next 10 years, nearly all the top-flight teams implemented their own sophisticated versions of the Princeton defense, defenses whose goal was to force initiators to move the ball and beat them after the initial dodge.

The spread of the quick-slide defense had serious implications for the dodging attackman. Of course, one obvious consequence was that an attackman who posted up or dodged hard was now quickly met by an orchestrated double team.

“Before, if an attackman beat his guy he might get slid to, but it was in slower motion," Tierney said. "There was less defensive choreography."

But just as important -- if not more subtle -- was that offenses began to understand that beating modern Princeton-style defenses meant moving the ball very quickly. And with midfielders doing most of the heavy lifting to draw the initial slide, attackmen needed to have nuanced enough sticks to move the ball effectively and be able to finish consistently in those unsettled five-on-four situations. So for a dodging attackman to have the athleticism to beat his man as well as the requisite skill set to fit into modern offenses became a combination that was, well, rare.

Growin’ Pains                 

It’s not only team defenses that have gotten better and forced offenses to adapt, often at the expense of the dodging attackman.

“The overall caliber of athlete with a long pole in their hands has improved,” Seaman said.

Zimmerman agreed. “Defensemen are able to play guys one-on-one better than ever before," he said. "They’re getting more and more athletic.”

The growth of the game provides one explanation. According to a Wall Street Journal article last year, the number of high school boys' lacrosse participants has nearly doubled in the past decade. The 2009 US Lacrosse Participation Survey counted 136,710 players nationwide at that level. Top prep programs now exist as far west as Seattle, San Francisco and San Diego.

As a result, there’s now an Olympic-sized pool from which to recruit top-notch athletes. But that pool doesn’t necessarily include attackmen. Because as the position has become more focused on guys who are effective “reactionary” players, its most coveted prizes have become those who are not necessarily the best athletes, but the most skilled. And to be skilled at attack -- to handle the relentless defensive pressure, finish in tight, find open space and hit the open man -- often means being proficient in fine-motor skills that take years to develop and are often best incubated in places full of quality youth programs and competition. Places such as Upstate New York, Long Island, Baltimore, D.C., suburban Philadelphia, Ontario and British Columbia.

Spot-up shooters like Johns Hopkins' Kyle Wharton are more common on attack nowadays, thanks to improved stick technology.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

But defense is different. It’s not easier than playing attack, but d-ing someone up, throwing a cross-field pass, picking up a ground ball or filling in on the backside doesn’t take the same kind of sophisticated stick. Meaning Virginia coach Dom Starsia can go to a place like New Trier outside Chicago, which Sports Illustrated ranked as the high school with the 12th-best overall athletic program in the country, find the best athlete on the football team, slap a “V” on his helmet, hand him a long pole and say, “Go to work.” In contrast, when Georgetown finally nabbed a Canadian attackman (Travis Comeau) last year, the kind of creative and crafty off-ball attack threat the Hoyas have recently lacked, he was 5’5” and 145 pounds.

It makes sense that defensemen are now going to be generally more athletic than attackmen. Whereas a college attacker might have been the best athlete in sixth grade at Boys’ Latin (Md.), he now has to compete against defenders who were recruited specifically for their physical prowess -- freaks and machines who may have started the game late, but only because they were too busy doing up-downs to notice this exotic stick-and-ball sport they could dominate.

Improved stick technology has likely also had negative impact on dodging attackmen. In addition to defenders wielding lighter, more effective long poles, players are also able to shoot harder and more accurately now than 10 or 20 years ago. And the material design of synthetic polymer heads and lightweight shafts probably contributed to the rise of spot-up shooters who can’t initiate very well but can find a spot and snipe away, like current Johns Hopkins star Kyle Wharton.

When you have an iffy stick, dodging is a worthwhile risk, because it gets you close to the net. When you have a more capable tool, you can play the modern chess game that involves more passing in a possession and shooting from afar. (Think about changes in combat as the rifle became a more effective weapon.)

As endangered a species as the dodging attackman has become, most coaches still haven’t given up on him. And Tierney, whose defensive innovations helped facilitate the dodgers’ demise, thinks they may be due for a comeback.

“It could be coming back en vogue because the evolution of the double-teaming defense has meant more fake slides, and not sliding so early,” he said.

From my perspective of both a player and a fan, one can only hope. Watching an attackman who can effortlessly break down a defense -- be it with quick feet or broad shoulders -- is one of the more exciting aspects of the sport. It’s also the reason Warrior put Casey and Ryan Powell on posters and younger brother Mikey’s highlight reel has generated nearly 650,000 YouTube views.

As Neal Hicks, the lead attackman of last year’s slow-down Notre Dame squad said, “Yeah, it’s fun to dodge. When you have the ball in your stick, you can be creative.”

Dodgers' Duel

May 25, 2002. The day of the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse semifinals at Rutgers University in Piscataway, N.J., was one of those hot and humid days. More than 20,000 fans had come to watch quality lacrosse and forget, if only for a few hours, that they were just a mile away from the Jersey Turnpike.

The second game of the doubleheader pitted Syracuse, a private school that feels very much like a public university, against Virginia, a public school that feels very much like a private university.

But when the two teams played lacrosse, their differences melted away -- each a blur of blue and orange, trying to one-up the other in the same game of free-wheeling, creative, athletic lacrosse.

The semifinal also marked the second time Powell and Christmas faced off, and the show stoppers didn’t disappoint.

Early in the first quarter, legs pumping like overcharged pistons, Christmas bolted by star Syracuse defender Sol Bliss to score the Cavaliers’ second goal. He ended up taking 18 shots that day and scoring three goals, all off the dodge.

Mikey Powell's legacy at Syracuse might also include being last, great dodging attackman in the history of college lacrosse.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

Two quarters later, Powell dazzled the crowd by sprinting by his guy at "X," swim-moving past an oncoming defender in a way that would’ve made a bullfighter blush and dumping to an open Mike Springer on the crease.

Cavalier attackmen Joe Yevoli and Conor Gill also scored on individual efforts, as the Virginia attack tallied seven of the team’s 11 goals that day. For the Orange, Josh Coffman was the rugged post-‘em-up ying to Powell’s glitzy yang.

With the game tied in the second overtime, UVA went to Christmas at "X," who after cleanly beating his Syracuse defender underneath missed high and was called for stepping in the crease. (Replays showed it to be an incorrect call.)

When Syracuse gained possession, Powell couldn’t even get the ball. He was stymied by the shut-off defense of Brett Hughes, a Columbus, Ohio, native who had received overtures from Ohio State’s football team.

Eventually, Tom Hardy, an unheralded second-line midfielder, dodged a short-stick from behind, got a step and finished to send Syracuse to the national championship game.

As quick and fast and confident as Powell and Christmas may have felt that day, they weren’t just dodging their defenders. They were dodging history.


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