Delaware's Smith rules his world

Boys' Latin grad controls games not through scoring or defense, but with faceoffs

May 17, 2007|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun reporter

Newark, Del. -- Here's how ridiculously good senior midfielder Alex Smith has been for so long.

If he wins only 60 percent of his faceoffs for the University of Delaware - a number most specialists would welcome - Smith feels a sense of failure. And on those rare days when he wins only half of his one-on-one battles, even his spoiled Blue Hens teammates scratch their heads.

"When [Smith] goes 50-50, he'll be apologizing to us coming off the field, and we'll be like, `What's wrong with you today, man?' " Delaware senior midfielder Dan Deckelbaum said.

Mount St. Joseph graduate and Blue Hens junior goalie Tommy Scherr added: "Even when [Smith] doesn't have what he thinks is a good game, he still gives us 10 extra possessions. You play the averages, and you say sooner or later, he is going to have a bad game. But he doesn't have a bad game."

There might not be a Division I player who spends so little time on the field but provides his team with a larger return on those precious minutes. Among the eight teams remaining in the NCAA tournament, possibly no role player is more responsible for his team's survival than Smith.

The 12-5 Blue Hens, four days removed from a stunning 14-8 first-round rout of No. 2 seed and defending national champion Virginia, are much more than a one-man team.

Yet, does anyone doubt Delaware essentially is defined by The Man at the X? Could the Blue Hens be within one victory of the school's first final four without the Boys' Latin graduate who long ago concluded he lacked the skills to affect a game as a typical position player?

There is nothing typical about Smith, once you get past his average 5-foot-11, 185-pound frame and his bookish looks. Soon, he will graduate with a business marketing degree. But he is a scientist when it comes to getting into that crouch at midfield and figuring out a way to beat his faceoff counterpart and give Delaware the ball. Over and over.

For the third consecutive year, Smith is leading Division I in faceoffs, winning 73.7 percent of them in 2007.

While winning 69.4 percent of his career faceoffs, Smith has set NCAA records by winning 1,008 faceoffs and grabbing 543 ground balls. His 292 wins this year broke a single-season record formerly held by Bill Dirrigl, who won 274 faceoffs in 15 games for Syracuse in 1988.

Not bad for a kid who drew the recruiting interest of only Delaware, Notre Dame and Navy. Not bad for a kid who said he could not hang with the talented midfielders who filled the Boys' Latin program, then set about finding his niche by making faceoffs his all-consuming passion.

"Ever since middle school, I really wanted to start the play. I liked having control of that, and I really liked the one-on-one matchup," said Smith, who first tried facing off when he was 6 or 7.

"When I got to high school, I could see there were some excellent athletes [at Boys' Latin]. Sure, I would get on the field. But, at best, I figured I was a second midfield type of guy. I thought, why not make something of myself as a faceoff guy? Study technique, practice it, really work hard at it."

The work ethic that began at Boys' Latin, where Smith studied instructional videos, worked on moves and counters off campus with college players such as former Towson University faceoff ace Justin Berry and even practiced in his bedroom with audio recordings of whistles, has never waned.

Smith said he took every faceoff for Boys' Latin after making the varsity team as a sophomore. As a junior in 2002, he sparked the Lakers to an MIAA A Conference title and a 20-2 record. Boys' Latin went 52-10 during Smith's three years as the faceoff specialist.

"His focus was amazing. Every year, Alex clearly got better," Boys' Latin coach Bob Shriver said. "It became a make-it, take-it game with him."

Delaware's 29-year coach Bob Shillinglaw said: "I've never come across a guy in high school like that. Alex told us, `I'm a FOGO [faceoff, get off the field]. This is what I do.' And that's his world."

At Delaware, Smith spends two hours a day in his world, working with assistant coach Brandon Webster and backup faceoff partners.

"I've literally been able to do my own thing for four years," Smith said. "[Shillinglaw] has given me that freedom, which a lot of coaches wouldn't do."

Smith estimates he has taken about 50,000 faceoffs in practice over four years. He has fought through wrist injuries and turf burns that have shredded the skin around his knees. Occasionally, he will take a nasty shot from an opposing wing player. But he has never missed a game.

The Blue Hens wonder where they would be without him. Smith has fueled scoring runs, stopped runs by the opposition and ignited Delaware's transition game.

He even had three goals and an assist last month in a 12-9 win over Sacred Heart, as Delaware was building momentum after a 1-5 midseason stretch. And his 18-for-26 effort at Virginia last week helped doom the Cavaliers .

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