By Dan Guttenplan
---- — Newburyport assistant lacrosse coach Todd Francis prepared to wrap up the final practice before his team’s first game in early April, when a few players interrupted the coach. They were concerned that they didn’t even know how to begin the first game.
All lacrosse games — or even halves — start with a faceoff in the middle of the field. Newburyport senior Sam Francis, Todd’s son, took just about every faceoff for the Clippers during his freshman, sophomore and junior seasons, before tearing his anterior cruciate ligament in his knee during a football game last fall. With Francis sidelined for this lacrosse season, Newburyport needed to find a new faceoff specialist during the final preseason practice.
“The guys asked me, ‘Who’s facing off?’,” said Todd Francis, who has plenty of faceoff experience as a former All-America at Cornell. “We had Sam for three years, so we never had to worry about it. I let Sammy decide who would do it this year. He looked at a few people, and there’s something to be said about the eye test.”
Sam and Todd Francis settled on Trevor Bradbury, a 5-foot-8, 165-pound junior, based on a number of factors. Although Sam Francis was one of the team’s top players in recent seasons, a faceoff specialist does not have to be a goal-scorer or even a full-time player. The role calls for a combination of quick relexes, toughness, and determination. The first goal of any faceoff is winning the clamp — or having the quickest reaction to hearing the ref’s whistle. The player with the quickest reflexes often ends up with the ball under his stick.
Although Sam Francis routinely secured the clamp last season, he claims that was just a small part of winning faceoffs.
“You have to be relentless,” Sam Francis said. “It’s not just being quick on the faceoff,. You have to get the groundball. You’re never going to win it clean. It’s really a team stat. Most times, it ends up being a 50-50 groundball where you’re using the guys on the wings.”
Over his career, Francis often scooped the groundball himself, and started a fast break. In fact, Newburyport coach Ed Gaudiano estimates that situation played out “80 percent of the time” last season. Faceoffs take place after all goals as well as the start of halves.
Bradbury makes it clear he is not trying to emulate Francis.
“It’s two different styles of play,” said Bradbury, who, like Francis, also plays football. “There are quicker, finesse players who get the clamp and the ball in one sweep. With me, I try to tie it up a little bit. I use an aggressive approach. I tie it up and either kick it or put a shoulder into another guy and let somebody else get the ball off the wing.”
As a team, Newburyport (11-3) has changed its faceoff strategy over the course of the season. Initially, the coaches stuck to what worked last season. They put their best faceoff specialist on the ball in Bradbury, and they put two long-stick middies on the wings. That way, in the event that Bradbury couldn’t win it himself, two defensive middies would drop to the defensive zone.
As the season has progressed, Gaudiano and Todd Francis have removed some of the pressure from Bradbury. Rather than asking him to win faceoffs on his own, like Sam Francis had in the past, the coaches put two of their top offensive players on the wings, in hopes of winning a 50-50 groundball. One of the team’s top groundball specialists, Drew Bourdeau, is on one wing now, and either Matt Kelleher or Michael Shay is on the other.
“We made coaching moves to help Trevor,” Todd Francis said. “Trevor’s gotten better, but he’s still the same guy. He’s not the kind of guy who wins it and goes on a fast break. So we gave him a goal to set up a 50-50 groundball every time. We surrounded him with people to help him, and it’s been pretty successful.”