Lacrosse historians are likely to remember 2019 as a landmark season. At the college level, the dive was made legal once again, and a standard, hard-and-fast shot clock was implemented. While the details of each new rule might get tweaked a little in the next few years, many people agreed that “they” finally got it right.
Viewership seemed to be up, games were exciting, and we saw improving numbers at Championship Weekend in Philadelphia. “The fastest game on two feet” was back.
But before we turn our attention to fall ball, freshmen who will make an impact, the announcement of team captains, and 2020 strength of schedule, let’s give credit to a different rule change that – in my opinion – might be one of the best, but most under-the-radar rule changes we’ve seen in a long while.
The change wasn’t at the college level, but at the scholastic level instead. So, nope, not the shot clock. Nope, not the crease dive.
No, what I’m talking about is the legalization of the cross check hold.
Ah yes – the cross check hold… maybe the least-called penalty in the rule book.
To be honest, I thought throughout the spring season that the change had been made at both the college and scholastic levels, but upon some cursory research, I found that the new rule exists only in the 2019 National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) Boys Lacrosse rule book:
“A player may employ the handle of his crosse (between the hands) to legally hold an opponent if his hands are no more than shoulder-width apart, employs ‘equal pressure,’ and does not employ a thrusting motion.” (p. 95)
Wow. That’s a game-changer.
No, really. I’m being completely serious here. If you’ve ever tried to defend an opponent, especially using a short stick, especially against a bigger player, without cross-checking him a bit, you know exactly what I mean.
Old-school purists used to teach legal holds – the V-hold, the butt-end fist holding the center of an opponent’s back. There was the poke-and drop, and the slap check. As a young kid, I remember doing combination drills – poke, punch, and slap.
But you know what? That big guy with the ball could still run right by (or through, or over) me. Oh sure, every once in a while these checks worked, but for the majority of situations, the advantage definitely went to the guy with the ball in his stick.
And the cross check hold was so misunderstood. I mean, was it a cross check, or was it a hold?
By definition, it was the latter, a technical foul punishable by sitting for 30 seconds. The “big boy” – the actual cross check, when you strike an opponent with the part of your stick between your hands – was a personal foul, punishable by one to three minutes.
Of the two calls, the personal foul was called more frequently. While the cross check hold probably occurred more often during the course of any game, the cross check personal foul was the one that made it into the score book.
The truth of the matter is that the cross-check hold was used by most every short stick defender, except they got sneaky with it. They made it look like they were using their hand, more than the handle between their hands, or they held their stick vertically so it didn’t look so obvious. They held the check for only a second (before they used it again, and again), and by the time an opposing coach – or referee – would recognize it, the damage was done, and often the after-effects seemed minimal, so there was no call. I remember officials defending their no-call: “The defender isn’t impeding on the ball-carrier.”
Coaches screamed foul – literally (personal experience). Refs agonized (right?).
And so it continued.
At the college level, it seemed like short stick defenders got away with the cross check hold more than they ever got called for it. More and more offensive coordinators were planning their attack against opponents’ defensive short stick midfielders, so those poor guys were always the targeted match-ups. In order to survive, they clawed, scratched, cheated – and used the forbidden cross check hold; in time, it seemed like referees were allowing the cross check hold as a legal, effective way to repel offensive dodgers.
I’ve watched defensive shorties like UNC’s John Haus, SU’s Matt Abbott, Notre Dame’s Drew Schantz, and Ohio State’s Ryan Terefenko with due awe – but they were all guilty.
After all, the NCAA men’s lacrosse rule book clearly states:
“b. Holding is permitted under the following conditions:
1. An opponent with possession of the ball or within 5 yards of a loose ball may be held from the front or side.
A.R. 10. May a player use the portion of the handle of his crosse that is between his hands to hold an opponent? RULING: No.
2. An opponent in possession of the ball may be played with a hold check from the rear if the hold exerts not more than equal pressure.
For (1) and (2), a hold check must be done with either closed hand, shoulder, or forearm; and both hands must be on the crosse.” (pp. 61-62)
So imagine my surprise and dismay when I went to referees’ meetings this past winter, and saw this new rule change. My first reaction was negative – what were “they” going to legalize next? Throwing sticks back and forth from the bench?
But then I started teaching some Oswego HS newbies the defensive basics, and you know what? The cross check hold was one of the first, most basic principles I had. Two were foreign exchange students who played a lot of soccer; two others were volleyball/basketball players in just their second year of lacrosse. In a pretty short period of time, they were indeed (cross check) holding their own.
Unfortunately, the two exchange students gave up on their lacrosse journeys and left the team, but the other two worked into starting roles on this past spring’s varsity team. I dare say that, without a legal cross check hold, they wouldn’t have been able to be as successful as they were.
Near the end of the season, I started reffing a little more, mostly junior high and ULA summer league games. I watched as, time after time, good defense consisted of tough, minimal ground-giving, good defensive body positioning, cross check holds.
And there were residual dividends. There was less stick swinging, which meant fewer slashes. By holding an opponent at bay with a cross check hold, defenders were now in position to throw second and third checks, instead of relying on that coaches’ nightmare all-or-nothing check that usually made the defender look more like a matador than a lacrosse player.
And any box lacrosse fan, player, or coach can now begin to see the soft connection between the now-legal cross check hold and a gentle, defensive cross check, a staple in every box player’s toolbox. The black and white lines that have long separated box and field are now a little more gray, which I think is a good thing for all involved.
In years to come, some older purists might cringe when they see defenders doing what they were taught not to do. Others will see the technique and never give it a thought.
Let’s face it – the cross check hold was the red-headed step-child of the lacrosse rule book, one that never got a fair shake, and one that was never understood by the masses. The 2019 rule change didn’t catch the attention of many, but it cleaned up a cloudy area of the game that had existed for years. This particular technical foul had a difficult name, and it had an even more difficult application.
There will still be illegal holds – technicals worthy of a 30-second man-down situation, and there will always be cross checks – personal fouls demanding one to three minutes in the sin bin. But in youth and scholastic lacrosse, we’ve (hopefully) seen the last of the cross check hold. Maybe the NCAA will eventually realize their wording and definitions are no longer practical or relevant.
So, this might sound cruel, but RIP, CCH. Though you may still live on (for now) in obscurity in the NCAA rule book, your days of misinterpretation, confusion, and controversy are now over – at least, at the youth and scholastic levels.
Drive carefully, everyone!
- Dan Witmer
Dan Witmer is the author of two books. The Best of Road Trip Dad – the Laker Lacrosse Collection is an accumulation of 45 articles written for JustLacrosseUpstate between the years 2012 and 2018, about the history and traditions, the people, and the stories of the Oswego State men’s lacrosse program. The book is available on Amazon.com, and at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, the SUNY Oswego College Store in the Marano Campus Center, The Sports Outfit on West Genesee Street in Fairmount, and Geared 2 Sports in Cortland. ...and piles to go before I sleep - The Book of Wit is his memoir describing his 33 year career teaching HS English and coaching at Hannibal Central School. It is available on Amazon.com and at the river's end bookstore.