Pete Lasagna, the head coach at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, has been writing for Inside Lacrosse for years. He’s an extremely smart guy, with a lot of character, and I’ve always enjoyed reading his articles, and learned a lot. His most recent article talks about the loss of off-ball play in lacrosse, and as usual, Lasagna kills it with his typical mix of self-effacing humor, realism and positive thinking.
Lasagna’s post on Off Ball Play is much more than just a worth while read filled with poignant thoughts though, it is a blueprint for winning if you don’t regularly pull in Blue Chip players, and it’s a recipe for domination if you do pull those kind of kids in.
The main point of the post is that the skill of moving off ball has been slowly diminishing, and I would definitely tend to agree with PL on that point. It’s not a question, it’s not happening, it’s happened and what’s done is done. But that doesn’t mean people can’t bring it back, and it seems like a lot of top coaches are doing just that. The reasons for it are simple: it works. But the reasons whyare a little more complicated, and I think PL does a great job of getting that across. It keeps defenses honest, opens up the field for other players, and most importantly, it results in great scoring opportunities.
Besides, if your team is one that shares the ball (like any good team should), how long do you really have the ball in your stick? 1/6th of the time, maybe? That means for over 80% of the game you don’t have the ball in your stick. It’s time to get to work on those off-ball skills because YES, it’s that important.
As pockets have gotten bigger, sticks have gotten narrower (in general, this is still true) and offset, the ability to dodge through opposing players has been spread to more players. Years ago, a guy like Tim Desko probably would have dodged much like he does now, but after drawing the slide, he’d move it to an open teammate. But nowadays Desko, who has a GREAT set of stick skills but not the best wheels, can dodge through 2 or 3 guys just as easily as making the pass, and a lot of this has to do with the stick technology.
That being said, defenses have started to really adjust to this style of play, and some teams even employ an aggressive zone to discourage dodging-heavy teams from getting into a rhythm. I’ve explained the benefits of a real zone defense before, and in this day of midfield dodging heavy teams, there isn’t a better answer. UVa used a zone defense off and on last year and they won the National Championship. But that means that their offensive players also learned how to better play against one… and that meant they had to re-learn the two man game, and off-ball play as well. So the move benefited them on both ends of the field.
Virginia players learned how to beat their men one on one years ago, as Cavs and HS lacrosse players. But in order to use those skills, they needed to make the defense believe they could do something else. As it turned out, the complimentary offense ended up being their go-to offense, because teams just were not prepared for it, and because Virginia ran it so smoothly.
Overall, Lasagna’s article is just so spot on, and any high school or college coach out there should give it a thorough read. But there is one point that PL makes that I’d like to point out as being flawed. And surprise, surprise, it has to do with where he places the blame for the “death of off-ball play”. Lasagna definitely thinks that stick technology has a lot to do with it. I don’t disagree with him there. But he goes on to say that age-specific club teams, private instruction and even midfield dominated offense could all be to blame, and yet he somehow leaves the group that asks for all that stuff from the circle of blame: College coaches.
The midfield dominated game started in the college ranks. The stall ball, isolate on a shortie from up top started, and is still extremely popular, in the college game. College coaches wanted to see kids play in the fall against other members of their recruiting class. College coaches WANTED middies who were big, fast, and could dodge and shoot on the run. Those were the kids who got looks, so how can they be surprised that this is now what they are getting? Or that this is what some private lesson coaches teach? Is it the 110Mph shot the kids really want? Or is it the spot on the college roster? For years, the 110mph shot got them the roster spot, so I find it hard to blame them.
The fact is, college lacrosse dominates the lax landscape. It is the testing ground for new strategies, and the most highly organized level of play. The schemes are the most advanced, and the expectations are highest. So if college coaches have seen a death of good off-ball play, they really have no one to blame but themselves.
But that matter of blame means very little. In the end, what matters is what happens as we move forward. If college coaches again start to value players who can dodge AND shoot AND pass AND play a team offense, then they will get those kids. It’s all about supply and demand. And as Virginia proved last year it worked, so I’d expect demand to keep pace, and for good off-ball players to be more and more valuable, at least to programs that want to win.
So as current players look to elevate their games, off-ball instruction will once again rise to the top of the priority list. The college game will see more passing, more two-man games, and more team play. There will still be players like Shamel Bratton, and they will still be exciting to watch, the only difference is that they probably won’t be considered the best, or most valuable, player on the field.