Chris Gray is one of five Tewaaraton Award finalists.

How the Player Possession Efficiency System Predicted the 2021 Men's Tewaaraton Winner

PPE has become paramount in healthcare settings over the last 20 months in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another PPE acronym has started to gain traction in lacrosse circles over roughly the same period.

The Player Possession Efficiency system developed by GAV Lacrosse Analytics uses 20 different metrics to measure how positively or negatively a player impacts his or her team.

The Lehigh men’s team used it early in the 2021 season. It has been used to scout college matchups. And now Justin Heckler and Brandon Woronoff’s senior project is using it to predict the Tewaaraton Award winner in the same way they used it to score their own high school team’s players in recent years.

Heckler and Woronoff are seniors at Upper Dublin (Pa.) High School, the school that produced Michael Sowers, one of five men’s Tewaaraton Award finalists along with Jared Bernhardt, Jake Carraway, Chris Gray and Pat Kavanagh. And while they would love to hear Sowers’ name called on June 5, the Duke standout isn’t who the numbers favor.

“Bernhardt scored really well,” Heckler said of the Maryland attackman who helped his team reach the national championship game.

Haldy Gifford, a businessman who has coached state champion lacrosse teams on the side and is the current offensive coordinator for the Upper Dublin boys’ team, helped to create the metrics for the PPE system. He started toying with metrics three decades ago as a means to explain player strengths to parents who weren’t as familiar with the sport.

“I wanted to give them some empirical data so I could back up the decisions I was making about playing time starting and not starting,” Gifford said. “I started charting kids in practices and games. Rather than a plus-minus system, it got pretty sophisticated. It wasn’t just me. There are 20 metrics involved that once a guy gets the ball in his stick, what happens next? The 20 metrics pretty well cover what’s going to happen.

“The metrics that evolved were actually a compendium of 20 different high school and college coaches and also some analytics guys like Michael Mauboussin, who’s published a number of things on lacrosse analytics. He’s a brilliant mathematician.”

“I think it’s interesting. I think there are people far smarter than I that will put it to great use.” — Denver head coach Bill Tierney

The PPE system charts those 20 different metrics and assigns a value to each result of a player’s actions: goal, assist, hockey assist, dodge to draw a slide, good pick (it has to create space for another player), ride the ball back, ground ball pressure, ground ball no pressure, missed shot, shot off pipe, draw penalty, unforced turnover, forced turnover, recovered drop or bad pass, penalty on the offensive player, 1-v-1 goalie save, traffic save, missed ground ball pressure and missed ground ball no pressure. A goal or assist nets a player plus-5. An unforced turnover, on the other hand, is a minus-4.

“You can use it to see how much of an impact a player has on their team because you see every touch they have, and you can see per touch if they’re having a positive or a negative impact, or even no impact,” said Woronoff, a midfielder for Upper Dublin. “At the end of the game, after you watch the film and mark down everything they’ve done, you divide the total value of points that they got by the number of touches they had, so if they get a positive score, it means they positively helped their team.”

Heckler and Woronoff, along with a small group of Upper Dublin players, charted every game of the five Tewaaraton Award finalists. They also scouted for the North Carolina-Virginia men’s game for GAV Lacrosse Analytics. Lehigh used the system to chart some of their early games in the midst of a 10-2 season in which it earned the No. 8 seed to the NCAA tournament, its most successful season since 2013.

“We found it to be really helpful,” Lehigh coach Kevin Cassese said. “The stats and analytics are important. My assistants dive into those pretty deeply — John Crawley on the offensive end and Will Scudder on the defensive end. They were providing basically their scouting report based on the analytics. That’s where I found the most use, reading their thoughts and the breakdown of the data they were able to produce and spelling out for you, in this game, this is how this player performed based on his statistics and using the deeper dive into the analytics. That part had been really helpful.”

Analytics are part of a growing trend in every sport. iPads are starting to become a more common site on lacrosse sidelines, and finding new ways to quantify a player’s impact are on the rise.

“It’s been really fun for us,” Denver coach Bill Tierney said. “It goes hand in hand with these, and if you watch the game, you’ll see a big difference in the sideline video usage.”

Injured defenseman Oliver Dina helped Denver evaluate analytics this season. The Pioneers focused more on team-wide statistics such as their shooting percentages from different spots and the effects of different lengths of possession, rather than on individual breakdowns.

“I think it’s useful,” Tierney said. “I think it’s interesting. I think there are people far smarter than I that will put it to great use. At the end of the day, the emotion, the psychology, being able to read young men and young women and what’s going on in their lives, no analytics guy is going to be able to read when a guy’s girlfriend broke up with him and he’s having a bad day, or he didn’t get breakfast that morning, or he has a test tomorrow.”

Gifford spoke about the PPE system at last year’s USA Lacrosse convention. Last spring, he tested the system by charting a trio of high-profile players. Sowers had a monstrous 1.02 PPE through six games. Gray stood at a gaudy 0.90 when the season was canceled, and Jeff Teat, the top pick in the PLL College Draft, was at 0.70.

“About three years ago, I finalized how I was going to do it,” Gifford said. “Two years ago, we were still doing it by hand. Then a bunch of guys got together and threw some money at me and we made it automatic. We actually created a portal, wrote the software, and it’s not finished.”

Each game takes approximately one hour to score through a portal on a computer or iPad. The PPE system scorer clicks a button for each action and the program automatically assigns a point value for the action to the player.

“I found it to be accurate, and I found it to be helpful for verifying the guys that we were playing at the time we were playing them,” Cassese said. “If anything else, just being able to question if are we doing the right things, and having a set of data points to be able either verify that we are or confirm that we’re not was useful. Not that we would solely use that and make wide sweeping changes in what we were doing, but it would force us to raise an eyebrow at a couple things we were doing and who we are playing where and at what points in the game and who we needed to have the ball flow through more or get more touches and things of that nature.”

GAV Lacrosse Analytics similarly can assess a GAV, a Goal Attributed Value that attributes the number of goals scored by a team to each player, so even players who aren’t actually scoring goals have a performance contribution value.

“After watching the film and scoring them, you get to really know the players and their style,” Heckler said. “The one thing that sticks out to me is you can think a player is going to score a certain way and then you go back and score the film and it comes out completely different than you expected. You can think that someone played positively based on them scoring a lot or having a lot of assists, but then if you go back and score it, it turns out they didn’t score that well, and sometimes vice versa.”

Heckler served as a team manager for Upper Dublin this spring after tearing his ACL last year. There are several other players on the Upper Dublin team that have also done analysis for college programs after gaining experience scoring themselves during recent seasons.

“This past season, being a manager and not playing, it gave me such a different perspective on the players,” Heckler said. “I’ve been pretty much scoring all of our Upper Dublin games and doing the stats and giving them to the coaches. When I watch the film and watch players throughout the season, I can almost tell when a player is going to do something bad or do something well because I’ve gotten so used to the way that they score. I can see it coming almost.”


Jared Bernhardt is the Tewaaraton frontrunner based on the PPE model.

Heckler, Woronoff and three others from their team used the PPE system to assess the seasons of the Tewaaraton finalists for their senior project. Bernhardt, according to the PPE system, tops the Tewaaraton finalists. With a total of 751 touches this season, he has a PPE of 0.85. Gray has a PPE of 0.57 in 870 touches. Kavanagh has a PPE of 0.55 in 726 touches. Sowers has a PPE of 0.53 in 838 touches. And Carraway has a PPE of 0.30 in 787 touches.

“Before I started this, I didn’t know much about the players,” Woronoff said. “I learned a lot about them as I was going along. Sowers was considered if not the best, one of the best players, in college. So I thought it has to be him. As I watched him, and watched more Bernhardt and Gray film, I realized Bernhardt is playing really well and he’s a really efficient scorer unlike some of the other guys. Like Carraway is a high-volume shooter, so it makes his scores worse because you lose 2-4 points for taking a bad shot. At first, I scored a lot of Gray games and I thought he might win because he was getting a ton of assists and goals, but when it came down to it, especially the last two weeks, I think Bernhardt is running away with it.”

The PPE system is geared toward offensive players. Assessing the women’s Tewaaraton would be difficult this year with the system because the women have a defender and goalie among the five finalists. Defensive players can use the PPE, but in the opposite fashion. Scorers chart the offensive player in front of a defender with the best defenders tallying a low PPE score. The system also can extend to assess not just a single player, but how a whole unit is functioning.

“I would say it evaluates systems,” Heckler said. “It evaluates how well the system is working for a certain player or a certain team. The difference with Sowers from last year, you can see the difference between the systems and you can see why the system at Princeton was better for him as a player and helped him perform better.”

GAV Lacrosse Analytics can customize its software so the metrics most important to a program are weighted more. GAV is leasing its program to interested teams, and more and more programs are looking at how to use analytics programs like their PPE system.

“It’s something that we’d like to continue using,” Cassese said. “It’s on the list to have some more discussions with them about better utilizing it going forward. It’s more of a verification of what we’re doing. If we can try to find a way to dive on it earlier in our preparation, I think it can help us get those things solidified earlier in the week. I’d endorse it. It’s definitely ground-breaking in our sport. It’s something that I think is going to get legs.”