February 8, 2011

Thinking Inside the Box, College Coaches Find Parity in Pairs

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

At Drexel, former pro indoor player Chris Bates instituted a box-style offense "based a lot on survival." Now at Princeton, Bates has translated the system to suit Ivy League-caliber lacrosse players.

© Greg Wall

For the past eight years, Drexel has opened its season against Virginia. The game is usually cold -- playing lacrosse in mid-February in West Philadelphia or Central Virginia will never be a picnic -- and up until 2007, generally pretty lopsided in the Cavaliers' favor.

Not surprisingly, when the two teams met Feb. 18, 2007, the temperature hovered just above freezing and the game had to be played on UVA's Astroturf facility, where piles of snow still bordered the field.

Harsh winds, overcast skies and the occasional snowbank were nothing new for either team. But a tight game was, and with less than 20 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Drexel had possession in its own offensive zone, trailing by just a goal.

For head coach Chris Bates, watching his team go toe-to-toe with the reigning national champs must have been gratifying. The Dragons had played Virginia the previous five years, losing each game by an average margin of 11 goals.

But Drexel had consistently improved during Bates's tenure and now had talent all over the field. They were also disciplined and hard-nosed -- traits easily developed, or refined, in the gritty urban recesses of West Philly.

After the Cavaliers stormed to a 6-2 advantage late in the second quarter, the Dragons, buoyed by solid defense and some creative scoring, began grinding away. With less than a minute left and the Cavs clinging to a one-goal lead, Virginia midfielder Steve Giannone took an ill-advised shot that resulted in a turnover. After a quick clear, Drexel called timeout with just 16 seconds left.

Drexel, however, was not particularly equipped to score a quick goal against a Wahoo defense chock full of talented athletes. Bates had no Paul Rabils or Ben Rubeors at his disposal, superstars who with the slightest jab of the head or squaring of the shoulders could get a defense moving. Looking around the huddle, Bates instead saw a bunch of crafty, skilled, high-IQ lacrosse players. Guys who could find the open man, finish with time and room, and -- with some well-timed hesitation moves -- create some separation from their defenders.

But 16 seconds left little time for rocker steps.

So Bates adapted. Attackman Andrew Chapman was to start with the ball on the right wing, sweep hard to his left hand and run right off a Greg Casey pick. Casey, having stepped down from the top of the box to set the pick, would then roll hard toward the goal to carry his defender with him (or be wide open). On the far left side, righties Jon Van Houten, Ron Garling and Mike Filippone would be in a stack-like formation, where they would screen for one another and pop out, providing an easy dump pass if the defense slid to Chapman. Quarterback Colin Ambler would sneak from "X."

The play unfolded like something out of Hollywood. Chapman barreled hard off the pick and got a step on defenseman Ken Clausen, who was forced to navigate past Casey by going under him. Even though "Chap" was more than 20 yards out and moving east to west, UVA long-stick midfielder Mike Timms started inching upfield, well aware of the two bullets the Canadian attacker had ripped from the outside earlier. But sliding has consequences, and Chapman recognized the 4-on-3 on the backside immediately. Ambler, creeping up the left pipe, caught and finished his pass on the doorstep to knot the game at 10.

Moments later, Drexel's Zak Fisher pushed the ball forward on the faceoff and at the point of the fast break found Ambler, who hitched to his right hand and unleashed a sidearm scorcher post-marked for the back of the net. The game-winning goal came with just three seconds remaining.

Video above: The final 16 seconds of Drexel's historic 2007 victory over Virginia that helped serve as an impetus of the box lacrosse revolution in the American college game.

Beating the vaunted Wahoos did more than give Drexel its first signature win. It also gave Bates continued confidence transcribing box lacrosse offense to the field game. That tying goal had been the result of a high pick-and-roll with some reverse-field action, a simple play that had origins indoors. A play that, despite being hastily drawn up during a timeout, paralyzed Cavalier defenders unaccustomed to two-man games and pick-and-rolls.

Bates had thought about using a box-style offense before. He had played in the professional indoor league for nearly a decade, and set enough picks and screens to know they created both space and confusion. He had also talked to Jamie Munro -- who had instituted something similar at Denver -- and watched when the Canadians used one to upset the Americans in the 2006 world championships.

"I had the background playing indoor and I was interested in the offensive concepts," Bates said. "I just needed the right personnel."

The seamless execution of that one play in Charlottesville convinced Bates to run a version of it at Drexel. By the time conference play opened that year, the team had implemented "Pairs," a motion-style offense that incorporated picks, fake picks, re-picks, slips and flips.

In 2008, the Dragons continued to use it (albeit exclusively with its first midfield line), and the year after made it the team's full-time base offense. When Bates was tapped in the summer of 2009 to take over for coaching legend Bill Tierney at Princeton, "Pairs" came with him.

For Drexel, using an offense modeled on the box game made a lot of sense. It was in many ways a guerilla tactic, meant to make guarding them in the half-field more an exercise in focus and communication than athleticism.

Bates admitted as much. "It was based a lot on survival," he said.

But Princeton? The Tigers have never had much trouble finding offensive players to draw slides. Certainly Josh Sims, Matt Striebel, Brad Dumont, Dan Clark, Mark Kovler and Rich Sgalardi (to name a few) didn't need many screens to create quality shots.

The fact that Bates continued "Pairs" at Princeton means that he views its potential beyond that of gimmick. That a box-style offense provides better looks -- not just for a team like Drexel trying to manufacture and grind out goals, but for a team like Princeton which more often than not has the horses to break you down.

Such a distinctive brand of offense invites questions. How exactly does it work? Where did it come from? Can the Tigers, loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, win with it?

In this era of stifling half-field defense, is this the next offensive innovation in college men's lacrosse?

Box Rebellion

While at Loyola, current Edmonton Rush star Gavin Prout was the only Canadian among the top 40 scorers in Division I lacrosse in 2001. Last year, 15 of the top 40 were Canucks.

Box lacrosse originated in Canada nearly 80 years ago when hockey team owners were trying to find a practical use for empty rinks in the summer. The sport they ended up creating is considerably different than its outdoor counterpart. Besides having hockey boards for boundaries, it's six-on-six instead of 10-on-10, cross-checking is legal and there are no long sticks. The goals are significantly smaller, there's a 30-second shot clock and, at the higher levels, fighting -- in the NHL tradition of jersey-grabbing and flailing fists -- is just a five-minute major penalty.

There's also considerable variance in how settled offense plays out. In field lacrosse, midfielders are often tasked with dodging down the alley or working off an invert to get a defense moving, but indoors, the size of the box goal (4.75 feet by 4 feet in the pros) and the rink's tighter confines (it's just three or four yards from goal line to the boards) mitigate those moves' impact.

"If you split down the side, that shot will be saved 99 percent of the time," said Ryan Boyle, a Baltimore native, Princeton graduate and Team USA attackman who has played in the National Lacrosse League since 2005. "The move's not transferable."

So settled offense in the box eschews the traditional field formations predicated on drawing a slide and working the ball through "X." Instead, teams split the floor in half, with right-handers staying on the left side facing the cage, and left-handers staying on the right side facing the cage. It doesn't take an astrophysicist to figure out why. Keeping the stick in your strong hand and to the inside improves shooting angles and precision in a game where goalies take up most of the cage. If there's any net to shoot at, it's the size of a lacrosse ball.

To initiate offense, the two-man side -- whether it's two lefties or two righties -- usually runs a pick-and-roll. The play, as John Stockton and Karl Malone can attest, is tough to guard. If the pick is set right and the defenders don't switch, the attacker (as Chapman's sweep showed) has a head start to the goal. But if the defenders do switch, it gives the screener space to seal his guy and roll (with his defenseman behind him) toward the cage.

The odd-man side of the floor remains active during the two-man game. Because defenders (especially the high guy) want to slough to the middle to contest the pick-and-roll, it's the job of the three offensive players working off the ball to keep them occupied, if not a bit confused. The attackers do this by constantly moving -- screening for one another, cutting through and trying to find the kind of space that keeps the middle of the floor open, but makes defenders pay if they slide across.

As in field lacrosse, where the first dodge is often well-covered, the initial pick-and-roll isn't always there. So the ball is supposed to cycle through the entire offense, giving the three-man side the opportunity to initiate -- and to create the three- and four-yard, dead-center shots needed to score.

"You want the ball to touch every stick," said Jordan Hall, who grew up in British Columbia and now plays for the NLL's Rochester Knighthawks.

Indoor Influence Apparent at USL Convention

Think the Canadian influence on the game isn't alive and well? You must not have attended the 2011 US Lacrosse National Convention, presented by Champion. Johnny Mouradian, Dave Huntley and Jamie Munro were each on hand to wax poetic on the box-field lacrosse hybrid... READ MORE

Playing box lacrosse, which is confined almost exclusively to Canada and Native American reservations, instills certain, often distinct skills. Indoor players learn to use their wrists to finish on smaller goals and develop the kind of sophisticated sticks and instincts necessary to play a read-and-react, pick-and-roll offense. And it's this skillset -- learned playing a different version of the game no less -- that make them hot commodities for American college coaches.

Conscripting indoor players is not new. Ontario native and Cornell legend Mike French helped lead the Big Red to the 1976 national championship, while British Columbia's Tom Marecheck and Paul and Gary Gait dominated at Syracuse during the late 1980s and early '90s.

But as defenses have become more athletic and six-on-six goals even harder to score over the last decade, coaches have increasingly sought to recruit players familiar with the box game. In 2001, only one of the top 40 scorers in Division I was Canadian (Loyola midfielder Gavin Prout). By 2006, nine were, and last year that number surged to 15.

The phenomenon extends beyond upstarts like Jacksonville, Bellarmine or Robert Morris, or even perennial top-20 schools like Drexel, Hofstra, Delaware, Ohio State, Stony Brook or Denver. Elite programs like Virginia, Duke, Syracuse, Georgetown and Johns Hopkins, all of which have their picks of the recruiting litter, have all started a Canadian attacker the past four years.

As happy as schools are to outsource their finishing duties to former box guys, there hasn't been a similar effort to translate the schemes and two-man games they use indoors. Among the different explanations for this, the most obvious is that college coaches' lacrosse experience is generally confined to the field game.

Former Denver coach and "Pairs" advocate Munro, whose Pioneers were using it fulltime by 2007, had suited up for the Boston Blazers after starring at Brown. Bates, a two-time, All-Ivy League attackman at Dartmouth, turned an open audition for a sport he had never seen before into an eight-year stint in the pros (seven of those with the Philadelphia Wings).

"I remember my first tryout when guys were telling me to 'stay on this side,'" Bates said of his early box lacrosse experiences. "I didn't know what I was doing. For me, every day was new."

But he learned quickly playing with the likes of the Gait brothers, Marechek and Kevin Finneran. By 1996, in his one and only season with the Charlotte Cobras, Bates garnered second team All-Pro honors in an otherwise forgettable 0-10 season. Two seasons later, he retired after winning his third championship with the Wings.

Pair Me

It was with these bonafides and knowledge of the indoor game that Bates set about implementing "Pairs." Similar to box, where players are married to a specific side, in "Pairs," players are connected to someone who shares their strong hand. Generally, a lefty on the right wing and a lefty at the top right corner of the box work together (again, so their sticks will face inside); while a righty on the left wing and a righty at the top left corner work together on the opposite side. The crease and "X" guy are "paired" with one another as well.

To start the offense, one of the "pairs" initiates with a (surprise, surprise) two-man game. The pick-and-roll or the pick-and-pop are options, but if the guy setting the pick is covered by a long pole, it doesn't make much sense to bring a potentially disruptive force to the ball carrier. In those instances, there's also the pick-and-slip, where the screener acts like he's going to pick before rolling hard toward the goal (forcing his defender to stay with him). Or the screener can forgo the pick, and instead give his teammate room to dodge by mirroring his movements toward the goal.

Operating in "pairs" can cause confusion for unaccustomed defenders, as pro player Stephen Berger (center) and Chesapeake Bayhawks general manager Spencer Ford demonstrate here in an instructional shoot for US Lacrosse and ESPN Rise.

© John Strohsacker/LaxPhotos.com

At the same time, the "pair" opposite the ball works to get open by cutting through, screening for each other, sealing down or curling off a pick. And if the "X" and crease guys are off the ball, they're exchanging with one another continuously, evacuating the crease and keeping the middle of the field open.

"Conceptually, the idea that it's a 1-3-2 [one behind, three across, and two up top] is really a misnomer. It's more of an open [circle] set," Bates said.

The unselfishness and ball movement prevalent indoors -- "touch both corners" is a common refrain in box -- is just as important in "Pairs."

"We preach sharing the ball. There's no room for a black hole," Bates said.

There are obvious advantages to this box-style offense. The constant picks help create matchups (if teams are forced to switch). Players dodging east to west put more immediate pressure on a defense than widened alley dodges. And it's hard for opposing defenders to slide authoritatively when everyone on offense is often above goal line extended (with their sticks to the inside and in their strong hands, to boot).

It's also confusing. Most Division I defenders didn't cut their teeth in some stripped rink in St. Catharines, Ontario or Burnaby, British Columbia, and aren't well versed in or naturally predisposed to snuffing out pick-and-screen games indigenous to box.

"When you take a team's crease slide and second slide away, it forces them to use different communication," said Princeton offensive coordinator Stephen Brundage.

As perplexing as three, simultaneous two-man games may be for the defense, it's just as complex for the offense. In traditional sets, the dodger usually has some time to see where the slide is coming from and react accordingly. But in "Pairs," spacing is considerably tighter and the screener can bring a potential double right to the ball. So the offensive player has to read through his progressions more quickly: Is a teammate open on the slip? What about the guy flashing from the opposite wing? Is the backside sneak there?

Cashing in on these reads requires a certain amount of lacrosse IQ as well as a corresponding skillset. Offensive personnel have to be able to throw a three-yard touch pass, and then have the hands (choking up helps) to catch it as well.

These nuanced skills take time to develop. For former Drexel defensive midfielder Kevin Dart, a talented end-to-end guy who was a 2009 USILA North-South game selection, "Pairs" ended any hopes he had of playing offense.

"The short passes, the timing routes -- you can't replicate it on a wall and I didn't really have experience before with it as a field player," he said.

Dart's not the only one whose offensive game didn't match.

"Some kids couldn't really get a hold of it," said Adam Dennis, a Drexel midfielder who thrived in "Pairs" in 2008 and 2009. "Guys who are strictly right-to-left or left-to-right dodgers. You can't really have that."

Guerrilla Tactic

Drexel was the perfect laboratory for "pairs," with Colin Ambler serving as the quarterback.

© Kevin P. Tucker

Drexel was in many ways the perfect laboratory for "Pairs". During Bates' tenure, the team's strengths favored the defensive side of the field, with the Dragons ranking seventh in goals against average in Division I in 2007 and 2008. All-American goalkeeper Bruce Bickford, who started from 2006 to 2008, was the centerpiece. He was backed by stalwarts like All-American defender Adam Crystal (graduated in '07) and long-stick midfielder Steve Grossi (graduated in'08), whose on-ball abilities were matched by a certain moxie between the stripes.

On offense, Ambler, Dennis, Greg Casey, Kevin Stockel and Scott Perri were versatile threats who could score, dodge and make the extra pass. And there were, of course, the Canadians. It started with Chapman, a Toronto native who transferred from Division II Mars Hill in the summer of 2006. A bear of an attackman -- "a bear with touch," he clarified --"Chap" was as adept rumbling off a pick as he was finishing on the perimeter. Kyle Bergman, another Toronto native, came as a freshman in 2009 and contributed immediately. Last year, under new coach Brian Voelker, freshman Robert Church of Coquitlam, British Columbia, led the Dragons in scoring.

For all the talent Bates brought in -- whether poaching a box stud from Western Canada or convincing a kid from the Philly suburbs to stay close to home -- he didn't have much success recruiting the kind of dynamic offensive players who could effortlessly run by a long pole and finish from 12 yards out.

It wasn't for lack of effort. Bates is a tireless recruiter known to arrive at the office in the early hours of the morning.

But as Munro pointed out, there simply aren't too many players who can consistently generate offense like that in the half-field.

"There's only a couple Paul Rabils around at one time," he said. "How many guys are like that?"

Moreover, these types of players (the Rabils, the Seibalds, the Harrisons, the Bitters) are pretty easy to identify in high school and unlikely to be split-dodging in obscurity.

For all Drexel has to offer (quality education, access to a major city, up-and-coming lax program, fully-funded scholarship dollars), it still has a hard time competing for these blue-chippers. Despite significant development the past few years, University City (the school is located west of the Schuylkill) doesn't have the same appeal for a lot of lacrosse recruits as Chapel Hill or Charlottesville. The Dragons' recent success still doesn't compare to the deep roots and tradition at Hopkins or Syracuse. And no matter how good Drexel's engineering, computer science or co-op work study programs are, Princeton is, well, Princeton.

So without a whole cadre of midfielders or attackmen to consistently draw slides, it made sense for Drexel to adopt a different strategy, a strategy less focused on offensive guys beating their men one-on-one and more focused on using skills, savvy and constant off-ball movement to get high-percentage looks. Replicating a box offense was ideal for this approach.

Drexel had plenty of success with "Pairs." In 2007, the Dragons went 11-5 and made the CAA semifinals. A year later, they ended the season ranked 11th in the country and were a goal away from winning the conference title. In 2009, after graduating Chapman, Bickford and Grossi, Drexel struggled to a 7-8 record. But the Dragons kept almost every game close and rattled off four straight wins at the end of the year to get back to the CAA playoffs.

The offense wasn't perfect; some guys weren't comfortable with it. There were games they had trouble getting anything going. And during the three years Drexel ran it, the Dragons never averaged double-digit goals per game.

But more often than not, "Pairs" provided a different look, encouraged ball movement and turned games into the kind of grinding slug fests that favored Drexel and its vaunted defense.

"You could tell a lot of teams hated defending it," Dennis said. "We would just wear teams down."

From Market to Nassau Street

When Bates left upstart Drexel for six-time national champion Princeton, the change wasn't so drastic. Both teams play good defense, are smart and have been able to compete with anyone in Division I the past few years.

Princeton attackman Jack McBride had trouble adjusting to Bates' box-style offense. "Ar first, I was like a chicken with my head cut off," he said. "I didn't completely understand the flow or intricacies."

© Greg Wall

But unlike the Dragons, the Tigers have traditionally had offensive dynamos who can draw a double-team. They aren't around all the time (2004 to 2008 certainly weren't boon years), but players in the mold of Josh Sims or Matt Striebel aren't just ancient relics from Tierney's championship years, either.

Last season, cousins Jack and Chris McBride were two of the better dodging attackmen in the country, while Mike Chanenchuk and Scott Mackenzie were athletic midfielders who could work one-on-one against a pole.

Whereas Drexel could rely on Chapman and Bergman, Princeton has never had Canuck scorers -- although Bates said one is most likely on the way. It's not just the Tigers; it's the entire Ivy League. In 2010, if you discount Cornell's six Ontario natives, only two Canadians were on the other five teams.

So at first glance, "Pairs" doesn't seem as natural a fit for Princeton as Drexel. If one of the McBrides were given the ball at the end of the game, bringing a screen over (and an extra defender) might crowd his dodging space and make it more difficult to get to five-and-five. Not to mention that none of the current Tigers grew up practicing pick-and-rolls.

In 2010, its first year running "Pairs," Princeton had ups and downs. To open the season, the Tigers scored 17 goals against Hofstra and reached double figures in their first six games. But coaches and teams watch a lot of film, and Princeton hit 10 or more goals just three times in its last 10 games. In the first round of the NCAA tournament, the Tigers were knocked out by a methodical Notre Dame squad, 8-5.

Looking back, Jack McBride admitted there was a learning curve. "At first, I was like a chicken with my head cut off," he said. "I didn't completely understand the flow or the intricacies."

It would be unfair, however, to characterize "Pairs" as a "circle set" being forced into a square peg.

While hybrid box-field skills may be nuanced and difficult to master, they can be learned. This year, the Tigers seem more comfortable, and are figuring out how to make the offense their own.

"It's been a process. Like anything else, the more you do it, the better you're going to get," McBride said. "It looks so much smoother and in synch this fall."

Alex Capretta, who played in spot duty on attack last year, agreed. "We're much more comfortable at this point," he said.

It helps that "Pairs" has been tweaked to better align with the freelancing ability of some of Princeton's best players. Guys can now switch their partner mid-dodge. The offense doesn't just work out of the one-three-two this year, but out of a more spacious one-four-one formation. Bates and Brundage have also implemented "starter plays," scripted plays (like a mumbo or an invert dodge) that allow the Tigers to play in traditional field sets and gradually work into "Pairs."

There's a precedent for innovation at Princeton. When Tierney arrived on campus as head coach more than 20 years ago, the former Hopkins defensive coordinator quickly realized he didn't have the same athletes he had at Homewood. To mask any individual defenseman's deficiencies, he instructed his guys to double-team the ball carrier as soon as they began to dodge. What started as a survival tactic and a way to force teams to beat them with ball movement became an institution once superior athletes (Dave Morrow, Christian Cook and Damien Davis) were integrated into the Tigers' schemes.

Whether box-style offense is the next big trend -- and, ironically enough, the proper response to Tierney's quick slide defense -- remains to be seen. The jury's still out on Princeton.

But if last year's Duke-Notre Dame championship game taught us anything, it's that even elite teams often find it hard to create space. In this era of hyper-athletic defensemen and complex defensive schemes, traditional offensive sets seem altogether fatalistic for some groups.

Whether Princeton continues to get better with picks and screens, "Pairs" and Bates' unconventional approach to offense should at least be understood.  Being innovative but staying nimble, being unconventional but not dogmatic, and thinking outside -- or in Bates' case, inside -- the box reflects what it will take for many offenses to effectively deal with modern defenses.

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