Sept. 3, 2008
Note: This article appeared in the "Lacrosse Classroom" section of the November 2007 issue of Lacrosse Magazine, a US Lacrosse publication available exclusively to its members. Join today to start your monthly subscription.
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by Matt DaSilva, Lacrosse Magazine Online Staff
In an honest moment, Washington Bayhawks attackman Andrew "Buggs" Combs admits his frailty.
"I really wasn't good enough to concentrate on two things," Combs says of his lacrosse career. "So I figured I'd concentrate on the one thing I knew would get me on the field. I knew if you scored goals, somebody's got to notice you."
Buggs concedes he has never had the strongest handle, fastest shot or slickest moves. Heck, he only played one season of high school varsity lacrosse. His only scholarship offers came from two Division I programs -- Michigan State and Butler -- that are now extinct.
It was as a walk-on for the University of Maryland, during the Dick Edell days, that Combs decided to specialize as a threat without the ball.
"When I got to Maryland, we had maybe 12 or 13 attackmen that were in front of me. I just had to find any type of role to even get on the practice squad," Combs says. "I found the ball was getting taken away from me a lot, so I just started playing off-ball."
Buggs' ability to read defenses may be linked to a vision honed in other sports. He grew up stalking his father, Towson University football coach Gordy Combs, on the sidelines. (That's how he became known as "Buggs," short for "Bugaboo," as Gordy called him.) He also played goalie in ice hockey.
Though with the ball he seldom made defensemen miss, Combs found ways to elude them without it.
Along the way, he developed a unique catch-and-release style that allowed him to explode for 50 goals in 2001, his senior year at Maryland, and has made him one of the most potent finishers in Major League Lacrosse today.
"As the guy inside, you're kind of finding out where all six of those defensemen are. Your guy might be the first slide, but you've got to find how far away the second and third slides are. You really have to know the whole offense and the whole defense," says Combs, who now has an office next to his father's as Towson's offensive coordinator under lacrosse coach Tony Seaman.
"You have a tougher job, but the reason you have that job is because you're not carrying the ball."
Combs recently linked up with former Los Angeles Riptide teammate and feeder Spencer Ford, a Towson graduate who in 2007 set the MLL single-season assist record, to demonstrate how to lose a defender and finish goals with consistency.
Now You See Me, Now You Don't
Combs was bred as the crease man in a classic 1-3-2 offense, with a feeder behind, two offensive players on the wings beside him and two middies up top. Most defenses will counter a 1-3-2 offense with a slide package that starts with an initial departure from the crease. Combs found that as a quick-handed, sure-minded finisher, he could flourish in those split-second openings.
Here's his advice:
As the ball makes its way behind the cage, draw your defender away from the crease and toward the restraining line. You want to be 10 yards out by the time the ball reaches the feeder.
A good defenseman is trained to keep his head "on a swivel," meaning he'll alternate looking at you and following the ball. Observe his patterns, and time it so that when the ball reaches `X' and he follows it there in anticipation of the slide, you make a split-second cut off his backside.
When he turns back to find you, you won't be there.
Where you execute your cut depends on where the second slide is generated. If the second slide comes from a defending middie up top, you'll be left naked on the doorstep for a feed. In this case, cut towards the ball for a quick-stick. (See photos for this example.) If the second slide comes adjacent to the feeder, he'll probably roll back behind the cage, in which case you want to make a backdoor cut for a goal on the reverse side.
Either way, time your cuts for when the defenseman's focus shifts toward the ball behind.
Catch and Release
Finishers don't have the luxury of cradling or setting the ball on their shooting strings to unwind. There's a finite window, milliseconds, available for a feed on the crease before you become road kill.
So when you make your cut from 10 yards out, bring your stick back behind your ear in shooting position to catch the ball there, and not out in front of you. Ideal finishing position, Combs says, is 5 yards out.
Give with your stick as the ball approaches. When it hits mesh (or leather, if you're still into that), immediately install the push-pull mechanic. Use your bottom hand like a lever to generate shot power (you don't need much, given the proximity), and use your top hand and front foot to direct the ball.
The ideal target with any shot, but especially a quick stick, is low and toward the goalie's offside. Considering the ball is coming from behind the cage, the goalie will have been hugging the nearest pipe. A quick release targeted low and to his offside leaves him little time to adjust his stick and body positioning, respectively, as he pivots to address the shot.
"Don't bounce it," Combs adds, as that might bring the ball back up to the point where a goalie can snatch it with his stick. "Aim for net."
Be like Buggs, and you'll seldom miss.