Stick Stringing Remains a Hot Topic in Midst of New Rules
Every two years, the NCAA rules committee meets to discuss proposals submitted by the coaching body across Division I, II and III. For the 2016 season, 15 on-field rule changes went into effect, highlighted by self-restarts to increase the pace of play, defenders being allowed to play the ball within their defensive crease, and sudden victory overtime.
However, the positive feedback on most of these rules is being overshadowed by confusion on Rule 5-28 in Appendix E, which states the illegal manipulation of sticks and stringing will result in a non-releasable yellow card. The NCAA Women's Lacrosse Rules Committee worked extensively with US Lacrosse prior to the season to provide more black-and-white guidelines and specifications.
"When the rules committee convened last June, the intent of the rules changes regarding sticks and stringing was to provide more clear and objective directions and applicable, measurable standards for the evaluation of sticks and stringing," said NCAA secretary rules-editor Stefanie Smith.
On Feb. 28 though, a lack of clarification was brought to light when the Syracuse-Northwestern game was delayed 20 minutes before the start of the second half due to two Orange sticks in question.
Wildcats coach Kelly Amonte Hiller requested a stick check on the team's draw stick used by senior Kayla Treanor in the first half. The officials also checked a second team draw stick used by Devon Parker. While the sticks were not in possession of the players themselves and the violations were recorded as "team" in the box score, they each served a two-minute, non-releasable yellow card penalty. Syracuse still outdrew Northwestern 20-10 overall, but played a closer 9-6 second half battle. The Orange won 16-12.
"Our sticks meet all the specs that are designed for sticks in the rulebook," said Syracuse coach Gary Gait during the postgame press conference. "It's just a judgment call if it creates an advantage or it doesn't create an advantage. It's a fine line between providing your players with the best opportunity to have success, and without a clear rule, it's a tough one to work with."
The halftime discussion revolved around which player would serve the penalty since they were team sticks, but also the legality of the sticks. Similar to illegal pocket depth, the reverse side of the pocket also was considered too deep. It was ultimately deemed an advantage for the Orange, despite the latter scenario not written as a specific rule.
"There are very specific parameters that the officials are to stick to on their card they're given to measure sticks. However, there still is discretion for the official to remove the stick from the game if they feel like it is advantageous for that player," said NCAA national coordinator of officials Melissa Coyne. "There was really no guidance for the officials prior to the game for what they should do in the instance that a stick was picked for checking that is not actually on the field. ... They had to revert to how it's treated if Kelly had picked a stick that was simply laying on the bench or a coach's stick, because they are up for grabs as well."
Gait ensured he had the same two sticks checked prior to their next competition against Florida on March 1. Both sticks passed as legal.
"All it needs is to be tightened up a little bit and it'll be fine. It's much like a stick that's too deep in the pocket, except it's too deep on the backside. It's not a rule, but I'll just make sure it comes out better so the refs will have to make a judgment call if it's too deep or not too deep. Maybe I'll get them to make the call before the game. Then we'll know," said Orange coach Gary Gait following the team's win over Northwestern on the sticks in question, which were checked prior their matchup against Florida. (ESPN3)
Prior to the season, officials received a stick check card that outlined the three different stick checks – the pregame stick check, the pregame random five stick checks and the coach-requested stick check. In addition to using measuring tape to supplement the ruler printed on the card, they are instructed to take pictures of sticks if they see something new and different that is not covered in Appendix E.
"We've encouraged officials during clinics over the past few months that if they come across stringing that is different, that doesn't mean the stringing is illegal," said Smith. "If the stringing in question is not delineated among the specific guidelines and directions on the stick card that was provided to officials (as well as to coaches), officials are not expected or encouraged to penalize."
The pregame stick check executed by the officials only examines pocket depth, with a brief glance at the head, stringing and shaft. This is the same rule as written for 2015. However, if an official visibly sees a violation such as the shooting strings not being directly attached the sidewall, he or she will allow the player to fix it prior to the start of the game and the non-releasable yellow card will not be issued. If more violations are suspected, which cannot be visibly determined, like the distance between the thongs, they could warrant further inspection and measurement. But according to Coyne, "they're not encouraged to do so. That's not the purpose of the pregame check."
Five randomly selected sticks per team are checked based on specific measurements listed on the card, which include stick length (90-110cm), minimum inside width at the widest point (16cm), minimum inside width at the narrowest point (6.7cm) and outside width of the head at its widest point (18cm-23cm). The random five also checks pocket depth and, again, a brief glance at the head and stringing.
The coach-requested stick checks, three per team, can be asked during timeouts, halftime, before the game, before an overtime period or before a draw. They require extensive examination of the stick, excluding the length and width measurements outlined in the random five, but including sidewall attachment and thong measurements, shooting string inspection, an investigation to ensure there's no baking or drilling, and more.
It is important to note that while the US Lacrosse Board of Directors approved rules changes pertaining to the women's lacrosse stick manufacturer's specifications for the 2016 season, which were accepted by the NCAA and endorsed by the NFHS, US Lacrosse and the NFHS have not introduced additional stick checks or the penalty for the sticks that have not met the new specifications.
One day prior to the incident in the Carrier Dome, a similar scenario, yet involving both pregame stick checks (the usual pocket depth and random five), left the Brown coaching staff questioning what's legal and what's illegal.
At the 22:12 mark in the second half against Denver, three different yellow cards were issued to the Bears – the first two to draw specialist Alex O'Donnell and the third to Rose Mangiarotti.
Pioneers coach Liza Kelly requested O'Donnell's stick to be checked prior to the draw, which was deemed illegal, despite being cleared during both the pregame check and random five. Officials then asked O'Donnell to grab a second stick to check, which was also illegal. Upon the refs' second request for a third stick, she then grabbed a teammate's to examine, again, which was illegal.
"It's not only confusion," said Brown coach Keely McDonald. "It's just confusion all around, which is understandable in the first year. It would just be nice if the penalty wasn't so steep. In the first year, I can understand these are a lot of changes and a lot of really small details that have nothing to do with intent."
While Brown didn't purposefully alter their sticks, Smith identified the reason for the increased penalty was to deter "the widespread intentional manipulation of sticks and stringing that occurred last season," which drew national attention after Penn State's NCAA quarterfinal matchup against North Carolina for the stringing of the Tar Heels' draw stick.
O'Donnell was ejected from the game after serving her two yellow cards, while Mangiarotti was selected to serve the third penalty as a deputy. The Bears played down two players for two minutes, then one player down for two minutes, for a total of four minutes. All of Brown's sticks were deemed legal prior to the start of the game.
"For officials, they have to treat each scenario independently," said Coyne. "They couldn't go back to a coach and say, 'This was checked prior to the game and we said it was fine.' They have to make an assessment of the stick at the time it's being asked to be checked, and that assessment can change from the beginning of the game to the middle."
While the stick check card is supposed to provide clearer guidelines, much of the disagreements between coaches and officials lies within the subjectivity of the officials' decisions on whether the stick stringing provides an advantage to one team or another, especially when the scenario, like the depth of back of the pocket in the case of Syracuse, is not a rule.
"That's a very difficult decision for an official to make and it's not a position that we like to put them in," said Coyne. "I'm certain we're going to revisit that again with the rules committee after the season because ... they can't specifically point to a specification in the rule book that's been violated, yet they're being asked by the opposing coach to look at whether or not that's an advantage."
Smith has recognized more discretionary judgments being made by the officials from game to game, despite the amount of guidance and training they have received, but the overarching goal was to improve consistency.
"The whole point of having the stick card and the increase in objectivity of Appendix E is to address the intangible request for 'consistency' in a tangible way," said Smith. "You can say to be more consistent, but that isn't helpful. You have to find tangible ways to address inconsistency and encourage consistency."
The rules committee welcomes feedback regarding the new rules throughout the season so they can make the necessary tweaks, but in the meantime, Coyne hopes a balance can be achieved between the coaches and the officials.
"The officials are doing their best to address a concern that was brought to them by the coaches," said Coyne. "Ultimately, there has to be a better balance between the officials' responsibility to enforce the rules and the coaches' responsibility to follow them."
McDonald understands there's a learning curve with every rule change year, but it requires more practice by all parties – officials, players and coaches – which means double- and triple-checking every stick when possible.
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