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The Purpose of Preseason Lacrosse Scrimmages

Scrimmages are commonplace in all divisions of men’s and women’s college lacrosse. Many teams play real games on February 4, so much of the Division 1 landscape will feature pre-season action on Saturday January 28 or February 4.

College football doesn’t afford programs the same luxury. Football coaches understand the challenges of playing a week one game without a formal scrimmage while college basketball teams often scrape off the rust with a local opponent.

What’s the purpose of these preseasons dress rehearsals?

After practicing against the same colored jerseys for three weeks of training camp, it’s welcoming to see some different colors. Getting reps against quality stimulates growth. Practice is like marriage, everyone knows everyone’s tendencies. A scrimmage is a blind date. Teams reap the benefits of competing against a fresh opponent and reacting to the unknown.

Many lacrosse scrimmages start with half-field or EMO/EMD work. This I love. It’s game-like practice against new personnel and sets you haven’t memorized. You can pack a lot of learning into 15 minutes. At its core, scrimmages are about evaluating personnel and gauging team schemes. 

I went to Saturday’s Denver vs Hopkins scrimmage at Homewood Field. The team takeaways include…

  1. Denver has to ramp up their half-field offense
  2. Hopkins needs to clean up its clearing
  3. Hopkins has to fix offensive turnovers that create opponent run-outs. Look, it’s fine to play a position-less style of offense, but somebody has to get back in the hole and maintain field balance. All scrimmages provide personnel notes aplenty

Scrimmage performance can shift the two-deep. Who executes the simple play? Who’s paid attention in practice to bring that structure and discipline to the scrimmage? Some crumble under scrutiny, others thrive. How will butterflies and adrenaline impact performance?

These previews help educate freshman and transfers on gameday logistics and the pregame timeline. For road scrimmages, an initial flight, bus rides and hotel stays are educational. Somebody will be late for something, resulting in a lecture on how to travel. Scrimmages give players and staff a chance to rehearse and refine.

Preseason lacrosse scrimmages better acclimate inexperienced players to game speed. 

Coaching intent and strategy for scrimmages vary widely. Some teams pretend it’s a real game, formulate scouting reports and do film work. Some don’t. Some want to win. Some find a loss more beneficial. Jacksonville lost to Lynchburg on January 21 and then beat UNC on January 28. Go figure. Michigan blew-out Syracuse in a 2022 scrimmage only to be outscored by the Orange on Saturday. 

Substituting is the tricky topic. Some coaches treat scrimmages exactly like a game. Others sub liberally and protect their veteran stars. It’s common to treat it like a game for three quarters and then open the bench in the fourth. Many scrimmages have a fifth quarter for the “scrubs” where the quality of play can get raggy (I use the term with affection and love). For a substitute trying to climb up the depth chart, these minutes are critical. 

Watch midfield rotations. Is it 1/2/1/2 or is it 1/2/3-1/2/3 or is it 1/2/3-2/3-1/2/3? How many shorties play? What’s the FOGO rotation? Playing a bad second or third FOGO can drastically shift the possession balance.

The established lacrosse players and mega-stars, have more to lose than to gain during scrimmages. Every year, some star player gets banged up in a scrimmage and we ask why? To be a lacrosse player means to sacrifice without end, cradling in a constant negotiation between risk and reward. Lacrosse is a blood sport.

Who’s earning more playing time? Blue Jay freshman midfielder Matt Collison flashed on Saturday, playing too well to be stuck on the bench. The Wahoos football transfer Ricky Miezan showed he belongs playing offensive midfield. Maryland midfielder Dante Trader is earning playing time. 

Who’s executing the coaches directives and who’s not buying into the scheme? Why does Hopkins clear up the substitution box side so often? Why can’t midfielders run past the rider on a clear? Going rogue gets you a cold seat on the bench. Where are the Denver dodgers? Who can beat their man, penetrate, and draw a slide? Navy struggled to clear against UVA, but midfielders Dane Swanson and Patrick Skalniak will be a handful in the Patriot League.

What young players have the trust of the established starters?

Scrimmages are tinker time. Try guys in different positions. Experiment with a new combo or trio. Try new patterns or wrinkles. For example, short stick an attackman while double poling the midfield. Use a scrimmage to see if you can execute a fresh set play, a new ride, or a short clock play.

Scrimmages give a coach a sense of whether his team can handle half-time adjustments, minor or major. An opportunity for FOGO’s to get gameday reps with officials. For referees, its an opportunity to dust off the winter cobwebs and communicate the 2023 points of emphasis which include sportsmanship and illegal picks (screens). Moving picks were whistled on Saturday with gusto.

Most teams wear practice jerseys and often switch jersey numbers which seems to fly in the face of NIL. My jersey number is my most recognizable brand. Coach asks me to change my number, I say no thanks. Competing in full sweats weighs you down, but you have to stay warm on the bench. Thankfully, Johns Hopkins and Denver wore their real numbers which greatly enhanced my preparation for television games involving both in February (Georgetown @ Johns Hopkins, February 11).

Maryland and Georgetown were more stealth-like. The Terp defense is terrific and goalie Logan McNaney might emerge as the team MVP. He’s so patient, has bionic eyes, waits on shooters, and doesn’t give up rebounds. Offensively, Maryland hasn’t found the dynamic options of 2022. 

If you’re a fan, these afternoons can be brutal as you freeze your ass off misery. Staying warm is about head, hands, and feet. We caught a break on Saturday, cloudy and 52 degrees. What other sport dares to play outside in January and February? Lacrosse was once a spring sport, but has now pushed into winter by administrators.

For rookie parents, you’ll get an early indicator of which of the veteran parents are loud mouthed jerks, and which ones you can sit with peacefully.

Pre-game dinner at Sammy’s restaurant (Hunt Valley, MD location) and post game tailgates are reserved for the regular season. Look deeper than the scoreboard for true performance barometers. Use the day as a stepping stone to individual, unit, and team growth. The Monday film session will be intense and loaded with teaching points. The immediate practice following these exhibitions is meaningful. Make the fixes, clean it up, get better.

Putting stock in pre-season lacrosse scrimmage results is a dangerous assumption. The scores don’t matter. What they reveal is the story. Now, we look forward to real games. What’s next, is most important.

Quint Kessenich covers lacrosse for the ESPN Networks