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2013 Legal Heads

A Solution to the Stick Dilemma

32 - Published March 1, 2013 by in College, High School, Mesh, Stringing

With new rules being put in place to regulate the length of shooters, how far down they can be placed, and whether or not to do a back test, I think it’s time we take a look at the bigger issue – the stick itself. Take the 2010 stick rules into account, and this is clearly a huge issue, but one that isn’t often discussed.

Earlier this week, Spike Malangone put forth a thought-provoking argument about what the new rules are doing to the game. You may agree with him all the way, on some of it, or maybe not at all, but you can’t dismiss the fact there is something askew with today’s rules.

While I don’t agree with everything Spike argued, he brought up some great points about putting too much judgment on the ref’s shoulders. As the introduction points out, I think the problem goes deeper than the shooters, shot clocks, or even width of the box, and it’s about time we readdress the dimensions of the sticks.

Just to make it clear, I love the new rules in regards to the box, no horns, and speeding up the play itself with quick restarts. All of those really do help to speed the game up and address the issues of safety. I was actually reading yesterday that, according to CollegeCrosse.com, goals are up 1.21 per game, shots are up 6.53 per game, and penalties are up 1.02 per game.

Old School STX

After restringing an old school stick I was given, it got me thinking, why have sticks gotten so pinched? Jim Brown, Jimmy Lewis, and even Kyle Harrison played with wider heads and still tore it up on the field. Even in the super wide stick I strung up, it still had a nice pocket in it. To help with accuracy, I threw in two U’s and it shot great – I actually nailed the first shot I took with it and about had a heart attack. (I’m still not sure why I was so surprised by that.)

Kyle Harrison

Photo from Lax.com

Today it is just the opposite, most kids start out with super pinched heads and learn to play with something that only aids in helping them develop bad habits. They spend upwards of 16 years with pinched heads, then are required to switch to a wider head for four years once they get to college, only to be allowed to go back once they graduate. Someone please explain to me the thought process here.

I couldn’t tell you exactly when sticks started getting super pinched, but I do know that every stick I played with starting out was already too pinched for my own good. In 2010, the heads were addressed and it was required that 2010 legal heads be widened out at the throat, but were allowed to be a little more pinched up top. A good start for sure, but again, it was only required for college play.

2010 Stick Regulations

Image from MadLax.com

As hindsight is always 20/20, it’s easy for me to sit here and say they should’ve just widened the heads even more in 2010. I went through multiple Super Powers because, despite the new requirements, they still pinched far beyond legality during play. This leads me to my main point though – widening heads.

My 2014 Universal Head Proposals for Youth through NCAA levels of play.

2014 Stick Regulations

Width of Heads

Why not require all heads to be 3.25, 3.5, or even 3.75 inches across through the throat? A lacrosse ball is required to be 62.7 mm to 64.7 mm in diameter, this is roughly 2.5 inches. Adding a quarter of an inch on either side of the ball is definitely not enough for a well placed check to knock the ball out. This is especially true when you consider how deep sidewalls and pockets are, and how most heads naturally pinch through ground balls, checks and face-off play.

As a player, I can tell you right now that people schemed up ways to get passed the 4″ rule within a week or two of the rule passing. The lead in photo is a great example, just look how channeled that mesh is.

While I would never consider myself a face-off expert, I took a lot of face-offs during college and definitely held my own at the x. My biggest frustration though, was having my stick pinch to the point where the ball would get stuck and I’d get called for an illegal stick. Widen the stick out a little more and you won’t even have to worry about the ‘back test’.

Widening heads could do wonders for the proper development of fundamentals, it would make catching easier for young kids and show them they shouldn’t be dodging through four guys. I think it would also lead to less penalty minutes and more ball movement. Defenders wouldn’t have to worry about checking harder and could focus on the well-timed poke checks to knock the ball out. Offenses in turn, would be forced to make smarter decisions, and move the ball quicker.

2010 Legal Heads

The above heads are all 2010 legal for play (or were in some cases). I am currently playing with an Easton Stealth Core which is pretty wide up through the throat and I actually prefer it over other pinched heads I have the option of playing with. You can see in these pictures how little wiggle room there is in some heads with the pinch.

At the end of the day, the biggest factor in making this change is going to come down to whether or not the stick manufacturers are willing to ‘buy-in’ to the new requirements. Considering the amount of money a lot of them could potentially lose in not being able to sell their old heads, I could see a lot of backlash in making this happen – and if that is the case, and the narrow heads are holding back the game, then that is pretty sad.

Rule Alignment

No matter if the rules change or not, the youth and NFHS need to align more with the NCAA rules. As you read previously, it blows my mind that we allow our youth and high school players to grow up with a false sense of security with their pinched heads.

It would make learning how to catch the ball a ton easier and would teach kids that you can’t dodge through an entire defense just because your older brother strung you up a sick pocket with a lot of hold. I look at many of the kids on the high school team I coach and see the same thing. The heads are all pinched, so of course they are going to take advantage of it.

To make sure I just wasn’t up here sitting on my soapbox (which I probably am), I reached out to a local referee and a coach, who have both been around the game as players, coaches, and refs since the late 80’s. I asked each of them the following two questions (easiest interview ever) and they both offered me great viewpoints on the new rules and how the game has changed.

1.) From your perspective, do you think the 4″ rule on sticks was the best move to make? 

2.) Big picture, should the NFHS and youth levels consider adopting these new rules as well?

I think it is very important to consider both because one is from the referee’s side, and the other the coach’s side.

From the Ref’s perspective:

In my opinion the ability to customize your pocket is one of the most unique aspects of lacrosse that is virtually non-existent in every other sport. I personally don’t believe that it will have any major impact as players will just find new ways to manipulate the pocket. Honestly this seems to me to be more of a situation where the head measurements need to change in order to actually have a real impact on the game.

As far as the bigger picture, I really think all the organizations should get together and come up with a complete specification and adopt it for a set number of years instead of the constant changing back and forth so kids don’t have to constantly relearn their game.

Furthermore, I personally believe that the head and stringing technologies have made it increasing more difficult to create a loose ball situation, which is why we have seen much more violent play over the years. As defenses have realized that they can’t possibly take the ball away with simple checks, it has forced them to switch to a more passive containment defense which has also contributed to the slowing down of the game.

Additionally, the defense players now are well aware that the only guaranteed way to make sure a shooter can’t somehow dodge through them (with one handed cradling shenanigans a la Mark Matthews) is to put the player on the ground leading to much more violent and risky body checks (like the horrid hit on Billy Bitter a few years ago). These days at the higher levels you literally have to flat back a short stick in order to get the ball loose as best illustrated in last year’s Syracuse vs Albany game where a d-pole was just hammering on one of the Thompson kid’s gloves to zero avail. (EN: see below video)

From the Coach’s perspective:

In the late 90’s to early 00’s Brine came out with the first offset head (Edge) and that was the next revolution in head technology. By this time 90% of pockets were mesh and you were starting to see multiple shooting strings and the U and V shooting string formations. STX came out with the Proton (my brother Aaron was the designer of this head!) and due to patent issues called it the “forward cant.” These were the heads that REALLY began to change the way lacrosse is played today. The head design made it nearly impossible for a player to self eject the ball and seemed to naturally funnel the ball into the sweet part of the pocket. Warrior started in the late 90’s and became the 3rd manufacturer in the lacrosse head market and started pushing the envelope for the stick widths. I think Warrior started the pinched head craze that we enjoy today.

Do I think that the shooting string changes and the head width requirements will have a significant impact on the college game? No. I think it will eliminate some of the crazy stick fakes and cause players to work harder on some shooting techniques. I think that the shooting strings will cause the pockets to become less channeled and potentially allow for more dislodging of the ball.

Yes, I think it would be easier to regulate this with a wider head than measuring the shooting strings. In my opinion shooting strings are easier to move/change than head width, which makes the official’s job more difficult. Kinda like the deep pocket. It could be deep one minute and be legal the next. Shooting strings can slide down, especially with the resurgence of the traditional pocket.

Do I think that the shooting strings and the head width have hurt the overall passing skills of lacrosse players in the past 20 years? Yes. I think that passes today require stick head to move further 10-2 versus 11-1 with the old style pockets. This is what they mean by passes come out “slower” than they did in the old days. It takes longer to basically load the stick.

Am I in favor of a wider lacrosse head? Yes. I think it makes the game more exciting when defenses are able to create more turnovers. I think that you are seeing a resurgence of the “old rules in an effort to make lacrosse more marketable for television. Lacrosse doesn’t want the soccer image of 90 minutes of action and a 2-1 final score. Americans like scoring. Scoring sells. If you look at NCAA trends the scoring is down dramatically. I used to tell people lacrosse would typically have 20-30 goals scored between both teams. Today that number is close to 15-20.

The truth is today’s athletes are bigger, stronger, faster on average than the old stick era. If a player can really play-the head and pocket can be overcome or adjusted to. Does it make it easier to play with-yes. Tiger Woods could be 90% of the worlds golfers with 1980 Wilson clubs in his hand-the equipment helps equalize players-it doesn’t make the player. In my opinion.”

I’d like you to take away a couple main points away from both of these: the safety aspect from the ref’s perspective, and the adaptation aspect (last paragraph) from the coach’s perspective.

From a safety aspect, having more checks actually work would mean defenders wouldn’t be forced to check harder and more aggressively to get the ball out. They still could sure, but you could really see the whole surgeon vs. butcher mindset come into play more.

From an adaptation aspect, people will adapt. You saw it in 2010, this year, and any other year there are rule changes. People find ways to get around the rules when the items in question are able to be manipulated. People would probably complain about the width of heads if this were to ever happen, but I think they would be just as inclined to adapt and change the way they play.

I’ll leave you with highlight video, it has a solid mix of newer and older lacrosse, but watch for two main things, 1) how quickly the ball moves in the older shots and 2) how the defense gets more aggressive and check focused in the newer shots. I’d like to say this can be attributed to the sticks.

Announcers may say passing is crisper and shooting more precise, but I think a lot of those things are more a factor of the actual game play rules than themselves. Either way you look at it, I think it’s about time we focus on the root problem here – the sticks.

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