Recent MLL Rule Change Indicates "The Faceoff is Here to Stay"
In the 2015 season, New York Lizards faceoff specialist Greg Gurenlian dominated Major League Lacrosse, breaking the league's single-season records for faceoff wins, winning percentage and ground balls en route to helping his team win the MLL championship and earning the league's Most Valuable Player award. It was the first time a faceoff specialist had done so in MLL's 15-year history.
Last week, the league announced a faceoff rule change. Specialists will no longer be allowed to carry the ball in the back of their stick, taking away the widely used "pinch-and-pop" maneuver.
"It will have the wing play matter more than it used to," said Colin Keane, the MLL Director of Lacrosse Operations. "For them to get the ball out, it will cause more ground balls, [which] will have more of an impact on the wings."
At first glance, it may seem the league proposed the rule solely because Gurenlian was so much better than his counterparts in 2015.
Lizards teammate Brian Spallina tweeted as much, saying, "Love the faceoff rule @MLL_Lacrosse changed. Typical! Sorry @GregBeast32 was dominant. Lets change it bc of squeaky wheels.#circus"
This is not, however, the NCAA banning goaltending in basketball because of George Mikan's ability to catch the ball on its downward path, or why NCAA lacrosse players were forced to keep the stick in constant motion because Jim Brown would bowl through people.
The rule actually was changed in the collegiate ranks — where Gurenlian has not presided since 2006 — as part of changes prior to the start of the 2015 season. Gurenlian himself said he was in favor of the rule change and understands why it was done.
"I think for the casual fan, it's important the game is similar across all levels," Gurenlian said. "Lacrosse is tough enough to pick up for a casual person. You watch college, it's on ESPN, then you want to watch the pro game and there's a whole set of rules to pick up. I want to see uniformity."
According to Keane, the rule was not made on a whim, but discussed and reworked with the cooperation of a number of league stakeholders over an extended period of time.
"This one has been in discussion since October of 2015," Keane said. "Each year, we evaluate the face off. It's an integral part of the game. It's always one of the topics we evaluate. We discuss with the faceoff athletes, one from each team at least, just to get feedback on what they recommend changing. This one was proposed by one of our teams. They submit proposals about which rules they would like to see adjusted. We talked about it with the rules committee for two to three months, came up with the proper wording, brought it to the GM meeting in January and then discussed it for about an hour before coming up with the finalized rule."
Keane said the league talked with 10 current MLL faceoff specialists about the proposed rule. In addition to Gurenlian, the press release from the league added Boston's specialist Craig Bunker, Denver GM Tony Seaman and Ohio Machine head coach Bear Davis as those in favor of the rule.
Gurenlian would go on to say he was confident the rule would not keep him from still being the top guy at his position.
"No one cared about me up until four years ago," he said, referring to people's perception of his style of play. "Until I blew my knee out, I never held the ball in the back of my stick. I actually learned to do that because it means I didn't have to chase the ball as much."
"No one will ever break the ground balls in a season record, so in a selfish aspect, I'm happy about that, but you're going to get more play in the midfield," he added. "I don't think I'll have a season like last year. I do consider myself the best in the league and will hold myself to a higher standard, but you will see more fresh faces making a name for themselves."
There are two parts to Gurenlian's comment of new players making a name for themselves. For one, like the faceoff specialists who have garnered more of the focus in recent years, needing to use the wings more, although how much can be debated, because of the new rule will make the long-stick midfielders even more important and front and center.
"Guys like Brodie Merrill, Scotty Ratliff, those guys are making their names in being a transitional player and scoring," Gurenlian said. "You're going to have guys who, if you are an LSM and can take it to the rack, it's a great time for you to be it in the league."
The rule will also help the rookie faceoff specialists, who are coming into the league right out of the college season, not have to adapt to new rules immediately which will help them make more of an immediate impact.
They will, however, still have to adjust to the MLL faceoff mechanic. The main differences between the new MLL and collegiate faceoff rules are the cadence and penalties.
In MLL play, faceoffs begin once the official has placed the ball on the ground, walks away and initiates a swizzle, which is a "set" call followed by a quick whistle. This differs from NCAA play in which an official places the ball on the ground, calls "set" and steps away to blow the whistle. Also, in MLL, there are no technical penalties issued after three violations on a face off.
"We discussed allowing collegiate athletes to have an immediate impact in our league, such as Jordan Wolf or Joey Sankey, or Joe Fletcher," Keane said. "This allows the faceoff specialists to make an immediate impact. It's something our rules committee and GMs were on board with as well."
One such player would be Boston's second-year specialist, Joe Nardella, who was very excited about the passing of the new rule for both himself and the chemistry of the entire faceoff unit.
"One of my strengths is going after the ground ball. [The rule] gives me an opportunity to steal back some ground balls," he said. "I always tried to get my wing guys involved. If you can get them balls, they're more willing to fight for you in 50-50 balls. They don't feel like they're just running in and not a part of it."
Another big reason Nardella and Gurenlian are in favor of the rule change is because they see it as an effort to clean up an area that previously lent itself to cheating.
"It helps the image of faceoff guys," Nardella said. "You're fighting for a fraction of an inch in milliseconds of reaction time, so guys try what they can."
Gurenlian added that by making an effort to clean up that facet of the game, it also shows the league is committed to the position and making it as great as it possibly can.
"When you look at where this position was three years ago, where a lot of people were trying to say we should get rid of it, I applaud the rules committee to work with the guys to eliminate cheating," he said. "Since we have rules in the NCAA and they work, the league has taken it seriously to clean it up. That means the faceoff is here to stay."
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