Lacrosse is a rare sport in that a team is never forced by rules to give up possession of the ball. A team with a superior faceoff man can score and maintain possession indefinitely, so it is no coincidence three of the four top-ranked college teams in the country have faceoff men considered among the best.
Steve Stenersen of North Carolina, Steve Kraus of Virginia, and Tom Donahue of Syracuse have enabled their teams to keep control and momentum by winning faceoffs. On the other hand, rallying attempts by the opposition can be quickly cooled in the same manner. At times, in this craft can be invaluable.
Virginia embarrassed Maryland, 23-12, at Charlottesville on April 11 in a game that was virtually over 29 seconds into the second period. The Cavaliers built an 8-1 lead by that point while Maryland had gained possession only four times. The one person chiefly responsible was Kraus, winner of 13 of 17 faceoffs in the first half alone.
Stenersen has won two of his every three faceoffs this year, including 10 of 11 in the first half of a 13-12 overtime conquest of Maryland. Donahue won better than 90 percent of his faceoffs last year for 12-2 Syracuse team that lost to Johns Hopkins in the NCAA quarterfinals. This year he has been successful on 70 percent and the Orangemen are 7-2.
Another of the respected faceoff men is Albert Ray of Rutgers. If not for Ray, the Scarlet Knights would be much worse off than their current 6-6 record, and probably would have been out of contention early in their losses. He won 14 of 18 against Navy and 18 of 23 against Maryland-Baltimore County. In a 13-12 loss to Penn State, Ray won 17 of 20. In the third quarter, his success allowed Rutgers to keep possession for nine straight minutes and score four goals to climb back into the game.
In 1979, faceoffs following goals were eliminated from NCAA games in an attempt to neutralize teams with devastating specialists. The change lasted one year.
"It's always been a big part, an important part of the game," said Hopkins Coach Henry Ciccarone. "It gives a team a chance to come back. If you can control the faceoffs, you might be able to score three goals in a minute or a minute and a half."
Ciccarone's Blue Jays are 10-0 and ranked No. 1 although their best faceoff man, Ned Radebaugh, has played little due to injury. Ciccarone works 20-25 minutes a day with Howard Offit, and has turned the senior from a 50 percent faceoff winner last year into a 65 percent winner this season.
The only faceoff man to leave a deep impression on Ciccarone this season has been Kraus. "He's probably the best in the country," said Ciccarone.
Kraus, a senior from Long Island, played football and lacrosse in high school, with an equal like for each. He made the Virginia football team as a freshman walk-on, but a lack of playing time caused him to turn his attention to lacrosse full time. He quickly learned the difference between faceoffs in high school and college.
"It wasn't as intense and specialized in high school," said Kraus, winner of 17 of 18 faceoffs in last year's 9-8 double-overtime loss to Hopkins in the NCAA title game.
Kraus proved to be a quick learner, and the best lesson may have come from Rick Wey of Hopkins two years ago. "He had a move I had never seen before. It was a power move where he came right at me." Kraus now overpowers many opponents with the same move.
His faceoff abilities enabled Kraus to scratch out additional playing time at midfield. He now runs at times with all three midfield lines and plays more minutes than any other Cavalier.
A solidly built 5 feet 9, 180 pounds, Kraus often goes up against much bigger former football players who tend to become lacrosse faceoff men, such as the 6-3, 220-pound Stenersen.
"He's been a standout," Virginia Coach Jim Adams said of Kraus. "He's a good all-around player. He's worked on his defense, and now he plays when we are short-handed. On faceoffs, his quickness pays off against the bigger opponents. During the course of a game, he usually figures out a way to handle it."
If he cannot outmuscle someone, Kraus relies on other strategy. "For a guy like that (Stenersen), I have to get a quick clamp, a quick rake and try to get out of there as fast as I can."
Faceoffs are some of the most brutal confrontations during a lacrosse game, but Kraus surprisingly said cheap shots are rare between the two players who will usually battle 20-30 times a game.
"It's such an intense situation -- just one on one," he said. "The two guys facing off have more respect for each other than anyone else on the field."