Road Trip Dad – I Think They've Got It!
Dan Witmer |March 25, 2019
As we hit the half-way mark of the college season (huh, how did that happen already?), I think the jury has made up its mind.

These new NCAA rule changes are great!

The addition of the legal dive and the visible shot clock have transformed the game – at least the ones I’ve seen – into exciting, back-and-forth battles. Yes, there are more turnovers, but the pace has picked up considerably. Riding has returned to the teams’ collective toolbox, and a lot of the subjectivity connected to the referees seems to have been eliminated.

Sure, it’s not perfect. Some say the 80 seconds is too long, especially when an attacking team gets a rebound and a new 80 seconds – and then does it again. The dive is still a bang-bang play, difficult for officials no matter what, but if you watched the Syracuse “instant classic” overtime win against Duke yesterday, it sure is exciting.

And maybe that’s what was missing the most – the excitement.

For too long, college lacrosse fans have watched teams sub their entire defensive midfield unit as they successfully cleared the ball, burning up to 30 seconds of clock in what was still called “transition.” They had 20 seconds to get the ball over the midline, and they usually used most of it to guarantee clearing success.

Well, they still have 20 seconds, but now the riding team is throwing the kitchen sink at them to force a turnover and, if nothing else, help burn 25% of their offensive possession (I know; I know – the ESPNU announcers used that “kitchen sink” reference yesterday, too; forgive me for using the same term they used, but obviously the phrase fits).

More and more defenders – long sticks as well as short stick d-middies – are now pushing the ball in transition. They’re taking shots, leading fast breaks, and in doing so, keeping their opponents’ offensive middies on the field. Sure, that was happening before, but not to the degree that it’s happening now.

The March issue of Lacrosse Magazine featured an article that hailed the debut of the “Swiss Army Knife” midfielder – the guy who could play defense, offense, and maybe even stay on for face-offs, man-up, and/or man-down (by the way, the staff at SLV was using that Swiss Army Knife phrase last summer, so I don’t want anyone thinking that’s a cool new term for two-way middies; hopefully we can come up with something better. OK, LM?).

The day that magazine came to my house, I got a text from one of my favorite players/captains/leaders/midfielders/projects Todd Zahurak ’96, head varsity coach at Westwood HS in Massachusetts. He joked that we must have been decades ahead of our time: “New revelation to the lacrosse world… Who knew you were ahead of the curve 20 years ago when you let me play defense AND offense in the same game… Sometimes on the same shift… Mind blowing.”

But that’s been my position all along. In my experience, the slow-down, if you will, was happening more at the D-I level than anywhere else. Back in the day, we didn’t have enough kids to specialize, so we had all-league midfielders like Dan Rossiter ’96 and Jason Hawthorne ’02 face-off at 60% or better AND lead the team in midfield scoring. We had players like Zahurak who played more and more every year, to the point that he did play offense, defense, man-up, and man-down. He did not face-off, but he was probably on the wing, as he was one of our best GB guys, too. I used to tell him to come off the field at half-time, but not until then!

And speaking of wing play, we also used close defenseman Greg Peel as a face-off wing, because no one went after the ball like he could. That All-American defenseman went 2-2 against Potsdam his senior year, and set the school record for most ground balls once or twice, too.

So now the specialist everyone is looking for is the kid who is NOT a specialist – the player who can play D and O, the midfielder who can be part of a man-down unit as well as push a fast break or find the open man for the EMO group.

It’s about time.

Let’s run and gun a little more. Let’s take some of the control aspects out of the micro-managing D-I head coach’s mind-set and replace it with a free-wheeling “let ‘em play” mentality. Instead of chess, let’s think tag. After all, we’re supposed to be the fastest sport on two feet, right?

Look at the scores. Delaware beats Michigan 16-13. St. John’s downs U Mass-Lowell 15-13. Penn knocks off Cornell 16-15. Virginia beats Hopkins 16-11. And that’s just this past weekend.

Yes, SU/Duke was surprisingly low-scoring, but it wasn’t for lack of offense. SU had 44 shots; Duke had 31. Both goalies were double-digits in saves. It was hardly a slow game.

But the rule changes were key factors. When Duke led by four goals in the fourth quarter, SU knew they’d get the ball back – maybe less so last year. That shot clock keeps everyone honest, and you can’t keep running minutes off the game clock like you used to.

Duke might have taken a few ill-advised shots, and they certainly struggled with face-offs down the stretch, and suddenly SU had the ball. Even when the Blue Devils won one or two possessions, Syracuse had enough time to know that Duke couldn’t just hold the ball. The shot clock kept the two teams attacking, just like it’s supposed to.

And then there’s the dive. There were several dive attempts and resulting goals and penalties called during the game, by players on both teams, and I think the officials made the right call on all of them. Sometimes the defenders were guilty of pushing the attacker from behind, and sometimes the shooter dove on his own. If he scored, the goal counted, and if he didn’t, he got called for a crease violation. I didn’t see any cases of the attackman diving at the goalmouth itself, so none of those calls were made.

Everyone wins (except, this time, the Blue Devils). Congrats to Brendan Curry, yes, but hats off to the officials working the game, too, as well as the NCAA Rules Committee.

I think we’ve got a great product right now, and as the TV schedule starts to load up and teams play mostly conference games in the month of April, things are only going to get better. Looking at one poll, it looks like the top ten teams have a combined 17 losses, so there’s plenty of fodder for water cooler discussion.

Let’s forgive the NCAA Rules Committee for its past transgressions (no face-offs in 1979, the “get-the-ball-back-into-the-box-within-10-seconds-every-time-it-comes-out” rule, and the impossible to explain or defend “let’s-release-the-penalty-if-the-man-down-team-gets-the-ball-into-the-box” rule) and give them credit where credit is due.

This is exciting lacrosse!

Of course, timing is everything. By sheer coincidence, my son Brian wrote an article for www.insidelacrosse.com this past week about the proposed rules for Olympic lacrosse. While I understand the position and concerns of the IOC and all the organizations invested in the pursuit of Olympic lacrosse, it just makes me wonder…

Will we ever be done making rule changes to this game? Something to think about…

Drive carefully, everyone!

- Dan Witmer daniel.witmer@oswego.edu

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.