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ESPN's Anish Shroff: The Inner Battle at the X

US Lacrosse Magazine welcomes ESPN play-by-play announcer Anish Shroff as a contributor for the 2020 college season. Shroff’s columns will run every Tuesday on USLaxMagazine.com, including “Deleted Scenes” from ESPN broadcasts and weekly top-10 rankings.
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The beauty of lacrosse lies in its connectivity. Each position and each movement impacts the other. A well-timed slide leads to a poor angle shot. A poor angle shot leads to a save. A save leads to an outlet and a clear. A dodging midfielder draws a slide to move the defense. A few passes later, a crease attackman finishes on the doorstep.

Strike the cymbal.

Each artery has a hand in the outcome, even if the box score only pays heed to a few. But after a goal, the movement stops. The game of a thousand moving parts hits pause. It becomes mano a mano on a lonely island at the center of the field.

No position in lacrosse is more misunderstood or more technical than the faceoff. But the heart of the craft lies beneath the helmet.

“Faceoffs are 90 percent mental,” says Faceoff Academy coach and co-founder Greg Gurenlian. “If you lose one or two, it’s an isolating place. You can vent all you want, and no one can help you except other faceoff guys.”

For Gurenlian, the mental exercise begins with scouting. Not the opponent, but the official.

“How many steps back does the official take from the time he says, ‘Set,’ until he blows the whistle?” he asks. “What do they let your opponent get away with? What do they let the wings get away with?”

Knowing the officials is part of the mental checklist for four-time first team All-American Trevor Baptiste, too.

“I want to know which ref is blowing the whistle,” he says. “Some guys have a faster whistle. Some have a slower whistle. Usually after the first two or three faceoffs, you know exactly how they’ll call it. They have tendencies just like players.”

The mind games begin long before the opening faceoff.

“The first one is the hardest,” Gurenlian says. “You sit around all day waiting. Odds are so high of false starting. Pregame, you need to drill yourself into the ground so the first faceoff feels like your 10th faceoff.”

In a game that often pivots on emotion or “juice” plays, the faceoff demands zen-like detachment.

“As soon as we score, I take a 5-yard separation from the team,” says Yale’s All-American TD Ierlan. “You can’t get too excited. You can’t get too low.”

“I’ll do a lot of breathing exercises,” says Baptiste. “Inhale for four seconds. Exhale for four seconds. I do it two to three times to get back to neutral.”

Gurenlian calls adrenaline a faceoff artist’s “greatest enemy.” It’s an enemy that grows exponentially stronger after a faceoff goal.

“When you score off a faceoff, that’s a huge momentum swing. Your team is juiced up, and you’re juiced up,” Baptiste says. “Right after that, you’re breathing heavy, and that’s when you go early. You have to battle yourself and bring yourself back to the moment. The most important faceoff is the next one.”

After each draw, it’s largely on the player to make adjustments. Sometimes, the other members of the faceoff unit will offer insight, but most coaching staffs at the collegiate level are unable to offer any tangible advice. An adjustment from the coaches usually results in a substitution.

“It’s so much harder to be in the zone as a faceoff guy,” Gurenlian says. “You lose a couple and you sit on the sidelines. You’re alone.”

Losing faceoffs used to take a toll on Baptiste.

“Early in my career when I’d lose a faceoff, it would really upset me,” Baptiste says. “[Denver head coach] Bill Tierney told me not to let your emotions come into play. Be analytical. Figure out how and why you lost.”

It’s all about moving to the next one.

“I remind myself there’s going to be 30 faceoffs, sometimes 40,” Ierlan says. “You’re not going to win them all.”

“I tell my guys that you can’t feel bad for yourself once you get to the sideline,” Gurenlian says. “That’s when you have to be analytical. Self-diagnose. Self-correct. The best guys adjust and have great second half numbers.”

Baptiste says self-diagnosis requires hunting for tells like a poker player.

“Is he standing or is he on a knee? If he’s on a knee, he’ll clamp or tie you up most of the time. If he’s standing up, it’ll be more of a rake to get it out in space, or they may go initially and then try to beat you to the ground ball.”

But with all the inputs and checklists, there’s an off switch, too. Tabula rasa.

“Once you go down, you can’t be thinking about anything,” Baptiste says. “If you are thinking at the whistle, you’ll be too slow.”

“When I approach the X, my mind goes blank,” Ierlan says. “I’m Patrick Star from ‘SpongeBob’ with the drool.”

“When you get in that zone, it’s like ‘The Matrix.’ Things happen really slow,” Baptiste says. “Let that feeling propel you. You’re Morpheus. You’re just chilling.”

Zen teaches us that the self is the obstacle. The axiom holds true in the circle, too. “If you beat yourself,” Ierlan says, “the other guy will beat you.”

Therein lies the truth. The battle at the ‘X’ is as much man versus man as it is self versus self.

“When you get in that zone, it’s like ‘The Matrix.’ Things happen really slow. Let that feeling propel you. You’re Morpheus. You’re just chilling.”


I spent some time with High Point lacrosse. Volunteer assistant Connor McKemey gave me a golf cart tour of High Point’s gorgeous campus. They have a real life sports science laboratory that quantifies the biomechanical movement of athletes.

Practice started at 7 a.m. with the Beastie Boys’ classic “Fight for Your Right” blasting through Vert Stadium. “Crazy Train” and “Dancing in the Dark” also made the rotation. Unfortunately, so did Chumbawumba’s “Tubthumping.” Jon Torpey needs to talk to someone about that.

McKemey also operates a drone at High Point practice. The aerial footage is used in film study. The overhead angle makes it much easier to visually teach and show concepts.

The team motto “Leave No Doubt” is everywhere you look. On the scoreboard. On team apparel. In the team offices. The bitter taste of missing the NCAA tournament last year still lingers. High Point beat Duke and Virginia in the regular season but lost in the SoCon tournament.

Watching Virginia and Duke in the national semifinals wasn’t for everyone.

“This is the first time in 15 years I didn’t watch the final four, just because of that experience beating but those teams last year,” Asher Nolting says.

Nolting, an All-American, is multi-talented. He’s a single-digit handicap golfer who could’ve gone to Kansas to play golf. Nolting’s dad played golf at Kansas.

The coaches love freshman goalie Parker Green. He steps into dinosaur footprints replacing Tim Troutner, but Green’s upside is considerable. Green flew under the radar coming out of Memphis, Tenn. He’s an old soul at heart. He listens to classical music before the game, and his playlist is old school. No, not 90s music. But music from the 50s and 60s. He’s a Memphis kid, so there’s plenty of Elvis.

(as of Monday, Feb. 24)

A few items before diving into the top 10.

The Ivy League made a bold early season statement. Banking significant wins in non-conference games gives the league freedom to cannibalize itself in league play while limiting the damage to RPI. Yale edged Penn State. Penn toppled Duke. Princeton took down defending champ Virginia on the road. The Ivy’s off to a roaring start. Even Dartmouth is 2-0!

Kudos to Gerry Byrne and Mike Morgan. The Byrne era at Harvard began with a win against in-state rival UMass. Morgan’s Merrimack Warriors won their first game as a Division I team, taking down Michigan. Merrimack’s been competitive in every game this season.

Michigan’s stunning loss highlighted a terrible, horrible, no good week for the Big Ten. Johns Hopkins lost by seven goals at home to UNC. Maryland lost a mid-week tilt to Villanova. Penn State lost to Yale ... again. Rutgers was upended by Loyola. Woof. It’s still early, but the B1G has work to do.

Princeton’s Michael Sowers has raced out to the early lead in the Tewaaraton race. The senior has racked up 33 points through three games. At his current pace, he’d shatter Lyle Thompson’s single season points before the start of the Ivy League tournament.

Chaos reigned in college lacrosse this past week. We’re just getting warmed up.

1. Yale (2-0)

Beating Penn State on the road doesn’t require style points. Yale held Penn State to its lowest goal since the start of last season in a sloppy but hard-fought 12-10 win. The Elis have strung together consecutive road wins against Nova and Penn State. Andy Shay doesn’t like attention, but Yale can’t hide anymore. Until further notice, Handsome Dan is the lead dog.

2. Penn State (3-1)

One loss, especially to Yale, doesn’t change the season’s outlook. The Nittany Lions have now lost to Yale three times since the start of last year. They are undefeated against everyone else. The buzz on campus keeps growing, and Panzemonium is real. A record crowd of 2,478 showed up to Panzer Stadium. The Ivy League gauntlet continues with a trip to Penn next weekend. March begins with a trip to Charlotte to face Cornell in the Crown Lacrosse Classic.

3. Syracuse (3-0)

The Orange continue to be the best entertainment dollar in college lacrosse. Wild comebacks. One-goal games. Edge-of-your-seat thrillers. Check. Check. Check. Syracuse rallied from down 5-1 to clip Army, 9-7. Jamie Trimboli spurred the comeback with five goals. The oft-overlooked Trimboli leads the team with 11 goals. The ACC is loaded with elite goalies. Drake Porter could wind up as the best of the bunch. He was spectacular with 18 saves.


4. Notre Dame (2-0)

The pieces fit. Liam Entenmann looks like the real deal in the cage. Freshman Pat Kavanagh is a difference maker on attack. Bryan Costabile is arguably the nation’s top midfielder. It’s easy to get Matt Kavanagh/Sergio Perkovic flashbacks. (Yes, Matt is Pat’s older brother). Those Kavanagh/Perkovic teams were national championship contenders. So is this one.

5. Penn (1-1)

The Quakers flashed considerable resolve in a three-goal win against Duke. Penn shook off a tough loss to Maryland and won without its best player, Sam Handley (who could be out for some time). Penn hosts Penn State in a pivotal Keystone State showdown this weekend.

6. Cornell (3-0)

The Big Red are winning faceoffs. That’s a scary thought for defenses. This was one of the most efficient offenses in the nation last year despite winning less than 40 percent at X. Health and matchups contributed to the problem. This year, Cornell has won 67 percent of faceoffs and is averaging a robust 19 goals per game.

7. Princeton (3-0)

Ride the tiger of rebellion to relevance! Princeton’s win at Klockner was its biggest in years. Since Bill Tierney left a decade ago, the Tigers haven’t won an NCAA tournament game. They’ve only been to the NCAA tournament twice. The last time Princeton reached Championship Weekend (2004), Ryan Boyle was on the team. Senior Michael Sowers looks every bit the Princetonian that was Promised. As gaudy as the numbers are, Sowers’ highlight reel oozes with sizzle and substance. He breaks ankles and spirits. He’s the type of player that moves the needle. He’s must-see TV. He grows the game. Princeton’s resurgence and Sowers’ star power make the game that much better.

8. UNC (4-0)

Chris Gray. Chris Gray. Chris Gray. Every Johns Hopkins fan just clicked off. It’s OK, we’re near the end, anyway. Gray’s impact on UNC... wait… that’s what we talked about last week. You get it by now. Gray’s infused life back into this program. He torched the Blue Jays for eight goals on Saturday. Not to diminish a road win at Homewood, but Johns Hopkins isn’t a top 20 team right now. We’ll learn more about Carolina after this weekend’s road tilt at Denver. The stock, however, is still a “buy.”

9. Virginia (2-1)

Talent-wise, this is still one of the top two or three teams. Virginia ran into Michael Sowers (four goals, four assists) and a hot goalie on Saturday. Cade Saustad could be returning soon to bolster the Hoos defense. Offensively, more was expected. Virginia has yet to score more than 12 goals in a game. The Hoos can avenge last year’s loss to High Point on Tuesday. Quint, Carc and I will have the call from Klockner at 5 p.m. on ESPNU.

10. Maryland (3-1)

Maryland exhausted its quota for how many times you can run out of a burning building without a scratch. After staging huge second half comebacks against Richmond and Penn, the Terps couldn’t quite pull it off last Tuesday against Villanova. Maryland’s game with Navy this past weekend was postponed due to a Norovirus outbreak. It’s easy to write off Maryland given all the close calls. Before you do, keep in mind — this is still an immensely talented roster, and Virginia rode a season of close calls to a championship last year.