Always play to win. The goal of any program, at some level, is to play and win lacrosse games. How you do it when you’re already winning can be tricky, but I think we’ve covered what to do in a blowout game. I’ll talk a little bit more about how to play to win even when you’re getting crushed a little later, but for now, let’s talk about teams that are really competing in games at a very high level, and what they are now doing to win those games. And Johns Hopkins is a perfect example.
Early in the season, Johns Hopkins was playing good lacrosse. They were putting away the teams that they should be putting away, and doing so handily. After wins over Towson, Delaware and Siena, Hopkins looked solid. And then they stiffened up against a Princeton team that hadn’t yet been racked with injuries, and lost 8-3. Two more wins over Manhattan and UMBC and they looked dangerous again. Then they lost 5-4 to Cuse in a game that seemed like it was theirs for the taking. And they never took it. At that point in the season, I was positive that Hopkins wasn’t really going to be ready until next year. How wrong I was!
Their goalie, Pierce Bassett, had been playing consistently great lacrosse, defensively, they were very adept at shutting down top threats and from time to time, they got excellent performances at the face off square. However, the relatively young offense still looked a bit reserved and pulled back. Transition was almost non-existent. Then they played Virginia, and were simply required to open it up a bit as UVA was (back then) pumping in goals. They saw they needed to make a change.
Photo courtesy Lax.com. It’s a good set of photos of Hop’s win over Loyola. Worth a look!
The same can be said for their games against UNC and Maryland. And Hop – Albany was a dominant performance by the Blue Jays, even though the conditions were less than ideal. In their recent win over Loyola, they still managed 8 goals in a game where the Hounds really wanted to get a W. What has held true through all of these wins, over excellent teams, is that Hopkins is playing to win, and they are taking risks to create chances. And then they are capitalizing on them. Young players like Ranagan, Greeley, Coppersmith, Guida and Palmer are playing like veterans (some of them basically are by now) on O and for the most part, the team is playing really smart lacrosse.
Hop is young all over, so I see why Petro was a little slow in taking the foot off the brake. Set up the base, then expand from there. And I was wrong to doubt him or think he didn’t have the situation under control. Because he definitely made the right decision, and judging by where the Jays now sit, I’d say his timing was perfect. They are no longer just taking what their opponents give them. They are taking risks and making things happen, when the time is right.
Ranagan has brought the ball over midfield in transition much more, and this has resulted in a lot more unsettled looks. Freshman Rob Guida is taking the ball to the rack and contributing like a much older player, and this is very rare indeed at Hopkins. Coppersmith has also emerged as a legitimate threat from up top. The defense is smothering, and have shown that they can take the ball away from opponents better than originally thought. Bassett has been a calming presence in net and been a nice stable point from which they could start. I feel he also gives them a confidence to take more risks.
At the beginning of this season, I was thinking that Hop would be ready to make a serious run next year, but it’s clear that they are ready right now. They’re playing competitive lacrosse and conceding nothing. In 50/50 situations, they are willing to fight for the 1 percent that creates reality, and this will prove to be the difference maker if they hope to capture a national championship. As an aside, it will also make their games more enjoyable to watch for the fans.
And this is where I’ll transition to playing to win in Youth Lacrosse, even when you’re getting creamed.
The team I help coach is made up of 5th and 6th graders from NYC and while we haven’t been competitive in a game score-wise, we have always been competing, and playing to win. We just want to win the little battle, and make sure we fight every one. And this is the same philosophy that Hopkins is espousing. For now, we’re losing most of the battles, but teaching the kids to fight the battles is the first step. A lot of these guys have never played before, and I’ve been so impressed by the kids’ ability to stay focused on the little things, and not worry so much about the score. The other teams we’ve played are much more experienced than we are, and most of the kids go to school together. Our kids come from all over the City and have only been able to have 4 practices.
But by focusing on the little things, fighting every battle and doing things right, we’ve seen some big improvements already. And most importantly, the kids are having fun, getting better and the games are fun… and still exciting.
This past weekend we played two games, and on Saturday, we were focused on getting a goal, but making sure it was assisted. We hit the pipe twice and had a number of other really close chances but no such luck. On Sunday, we came right back out and went back at it, and at the end of the day, we had scored 2 goals, and both of them were assisted… by the same kid. And at the beginning of the year, all he wanted to do was shoot. And now he’s leading the team in assists. Because that was how we defined playing to win for the day.
We also managed to have a defender clear the ball three times and actually got a middie to stay back. And the kids did it all on their own. Next week we’ll be teaching another lesson, and it will again be how we define “playing to win”, and week by week we will build up that base, which will prepare us to truly play to win the game.
Obviously, Hopkins and my 5th and 6th graders are two very different lacrosse teams. But when it comes down to it, the focus is really in the same place. Play to win just by competing when you start out, and hopefully, by the time these kids get to Hopkins (or before!), they’ll be ready to bring it all together and do it on the biggest stage, and achieve all their desired results. Set up your base early on, make sure it’s sturdy, and then build from there. Simple, but effective. Keep this in mind when designing practices and game plans and your team can see similar success.