Faceoff men go front and center

It might be considered lacrosse's grunt work, but faceoffs often are the difference between winning and losing


For David Tamberrino, the University of Maryland senior who pokes fun at his lack of athletic ability, it's a role that has given him a way to stay in the game he treasures.

And each time he crouches down low with his stick on the ground, inches away from his opponent as a lacrosse ball rests between them, Tamberrino sets himself for another intimate battle. It begins with the blow of the official's whistle, usually lasts a few seconds, and can help dictate the result of a 60-minute contest.

Tamberrino has scored one goal in his collegiate career. But, as Maryland's faceoff specialist, he embraces his crucial place on the field. Win possession, either on his own or with the help of his teammates on the wings, and the Terps control the ball and an opportunity to score, possibly out of a fast break. Lose it, and Maryland is back on defense.

Either way, Tamberrino sprints off the field and prepares for another shot to give his team a spark the next time around.

"It's a personal little war," said Tamberrino, 5 feet 8, 190 pounds, a product of Loyola High School. "It's two guys. The wings may play a factor out there, but someone is going to win and someone is going to lose."

Whoever wins the NCAA tournament that begins today probably will point first to the shooters or the defenders or the hot goalie that stood out during its title march. But nothing happens before the issue is decided at midfield, around a 4-inch square, where faceoff confrontations go a long way toward setting or changing a game's tone.

The ones who do the game's ultimate grunt work come bearing differing roles and various moves, counter-moves and the occasional dirty trick in their arsenal.

Many, like Tamberrino and Delaware junior faceoff star Alex Smith, are pure faceoff men, also known as FOGOs - meaning they "face off, get off" the field. Others, like Hopkins senior Greg Peyser and Denver senior Geoff Snider, who will go against Tamberrino today in a first-round match at Byrd Stadium, are two-way players and integral parts of their team's offenses.

The faceoff man often is the key to generating a fast break and establishing a scoring run. If his team is converting in spurts, he probably is fueling what resembles make-it-take-it basketball. If the opponent is running off goals, he can put a stop to it by winning a draw.

And if you don't think the position is important, consider that seven of the tournament's 16 teams feature specialists ranked among the nation's top 13, in terms of faceoff winning percentage. They include Tamberrino and Snider, who leads the NCAA (69.5 percent).

"It's hard to score, and if you don't get the ball repeatedly, it's hard to get on multiple-goal runs. [A good faceoff man] can certainly hide a bad defense," Maryland coach Dave Cottle said. "Those guys have a lot to say about when things are going really bad or really good."

Practice, practice

It can be a dirty, exhausting job, and those guys love to do it. Take Smith, the Boys' Latin graduate who led the country by winning 71 percent of his draws a year ago to help get Delaware into the playoffs, and could end up among the game's all-time greats by the time he graduates.

Smith said he realized early on at talent-rich Boys' Latin that his future was in the faceoff game. So he got immersed in it with private lessons and endless repetition, became very adept, then turned down the serious recruiting efforts of Towson, Notre Dame and Rutgers.

Smith spends nearly two hours a day during the season, taking up to 150 faceoffs in practice. On light days, he works on specific techniques about 50 times in a session. And he is a testament to the price a faceoff man sometimes must pay. After a recent 13-12 victory at Towson, during which he took 20 faceoffs in the first half alone against the Tigers' Matt Eckerl, Smith was a mess.

"My knees got so skinned up on the [artificial] turf, they were raw. I have so many scars and scrapes on my knees, I barely have any skin left," said Smith, who took all but four of Delaware's 385 faceoff attempts this spring and led the Blue Hens with 146 ground balls.

"You have your wing guys coming in to help when the ball is on the ground, but it's still a very physical, one-on-one battle. It's kind of like wrestling."

Mark Goers, the former Navy assistant coach who played at Towson in the mid-1990s, started out as a wrestler. That background served him well on the lacrosse field, where in 1994 he won 77.6 percent of his faceoff attempts, a single-season record that still stands. Goers is second in career winning percentage (.701).

The way Goers sees it, the faceoff game is, and always has been, all about getting your hips positioned low to maintain leverage, using your quickness to spring a basic move with your hands first, and thinking the game. Look at your opponent's hand positions to guess his move and counter it. Don't show the same move too many times in a row. Try to anticipate the whistle a hair early to get a jump and gain an advantage.

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