U.S. Faceoff Specialists Reflect Evolution of Position

PHOTO BY JOHN STROHSACKER

Denver's Trevor Baptiste is one of just five faceoff men and three current collegians on the U.S. training team, which returns to action Oct. 7-8 at Team USA Fall Classic in Sparks, Md.


Face off, get off.

If you’re not cheating, you’re not trying.

These were unwelcome memes that only a few years ago had imperiled the faceoff position nearly to the point of extinction. But a new crop of specialists has revived the craft and swept aside tired stereotypes.

“Nobody wanted to face off. It was the weird thing that ruined your stick. Now people train for it,” said Greg Gurenlian, the 2015 MLL MVP who retired in August as the league’s all-time leader in faceoff wins and ground balls, in an interview before his final game. “It opened up things for guys like Trevor Baptiste, and they’re getting talked about for the Tewaaraton. That’s huge.”







Gurenlian led the effort to redefine the position through The Faceoff Academy, which he co-founded with Chris Mattes in 2013. They emphasized athleticism, rather than gamesmanship, and in short time built an impressive roster of disciples who brought new respect to the position at all levels.

Baptiste, a senior at Denver who trained under Gurenlian, became the first faceoff specialist to be named a finalist for the Tewaaraton Award, the Heisman of college lacrosse. While leading the country with a 74.4-percent winning percentage, Baptiste also finished with 12 goals. He emerged as a threat to shoot or feed off the faceoff, traits he likely developed even more over the summer playing box lacrosse.

Faceoff men are no longer the rogue, out-of-shape weirdos. Just look at the U.S. training team roster. In addition to Gurenlian and Baptiste, there’s Brendan Fowler, who went from walk-on to NCAA championship MVP at Duke and doubled as a college wrestler, and Joe Nardella, a Harvard assistant who started the Faceoff Factory. Tom Kelly, meanwhile, trained independently after lasting just two semesters at Virginia. Now he’s one of the best faceoff guys in MLL.

 

The U.S. training team faces off against reigning NCAA champion Maryland and NCAA semifinalist Towson at Team USA Fall Classic Oct. 7-8 in Sparks, Md. Buy tickets today at the US Lacrosse Member Store.

 

Baptiste, one of just three current collegians on the 49-man roster (Maryland’s Connor Kelly and Yale’s Ben Reeves are the others), said Gurenlian transformed the faceoff position.

“He’s changed the whole image behind facing off. Technically, athletically, he’s really put faceoffs on a new platform,” Baptiste said. “It’s amazing to be on the same roster as him, especially now that he’s getting older. I’m happy that I have the chance.”

Fowler did not play in the U.S. Blue-White game Sept. 3 at US Lacrosse due to an injury. Instead, coach John Danowski tabbed him to coach the White team. Tom Schreiber, also injured, coached the Blue team.

Danowski trusted the duo to make the right decisions on the sidelines. Fowler played for him at Duke.

“We want players to call timeout,” Danowski said. “We wanted our guys to talk to each other and listen to each other. They start to build a rapport and a chemistry not just on the field, but off of it as well.”

Faceoff men, included.

Phil Shore and Matt Hamilton contributed to this article.

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