Jake Withers is having himself a season.
And that’s kind of incredible, considering he’s a rookie.
Last weekend, the Rochester Knighthawks’ defenseman broke the league record for rookie face-off wins, going 22 for 28 against the Toronto Rock in a 14-11 win. With 243 wins, Withers passed Stephen Peyser’s 240, and has two more games this season to increase his total. Peyser set the record in 2009 with the New York Titans. Other names Withers passed on the top 10 list include Jay Thorimbert, Geoff Snider and Jordan MacIntosh.
“Every game is just as exciting as the last,” Withers says. “This season has been nothing but a dream come true. We’re at a good spot in the season right now and I’m hoping we can make a playoff push and bring a championship back to Rochester.”
The 24-year-old was drafted second overall by the Knighthawks in 2017 after he completed a standout career at the Ohio State University, where he was a captain in his senior year and earned a .647 face-off percentage. He was twice named the Big 10 Specialist of the Year.
Withers says that he started his college career as more of a two-way player, but stepped up when OSU needed him to.
“Face-offs were a spot that they were weak at so I just got thrown into taking them, so I worked hard on my craft and now I’m here in the NLL.”
Withers is already sixth all-time for the Knighthawks after just 16 games. He’s got a long way to go to reach first-place Dylan Evans at 949, but if he continues the pace he’s on he could reach it after just four years as a pro. He still has to pass Tim Soudan, Regy Thorpe, Cory Bomberry and Stephen Hoar.
Practicing with his pro teammates has certainly helped his development, especially since switches between three different sets of face-off rules depending on what team he’s with. He plays in both the MSL (Canadian box rules, Peterborough) and MLL (American field rules, Atlanta) during the summer.
“The field game is a little more specialized,” Withers describes. “There are guys when I go play in Atlanta who take a face-off and get off (where the term FOGO comes from) whereas [in box lacrosse] I can run down and try and score and play some early offense.”
Face-offs may be the strongest part of Withers’ game, but they’re not the only part. As a team, Rochester sits fourth with 1207 loose balls, and Withers is a big part of that. He and Graeme Hossack are tied for first on the team and fourth in the league with 137.
“It’s being aware and watching a lot of film and understanding your opponents,” he says. “If you’re making contact off the initial punch then it’s going to be a little more of a jungle ball scenario but if I’m having a good game and I know I can get the ball to a safe space I work with my wing guys and get them to open up space for me or I can open up space for them.”
Withers isn’t known for scoring but he certainly has the capability to do so and has scored six times this season. Watching him win the face-off to himself and streak right in on goal usually takes the crowd’s breath away.
Two of the players he depends on a lot are fellow ‘Hawks rookies Eric Fannell and Austin Shanks, teammates from OSU and current roommates. When Withers wins a face-off, it means the two forwards have more chances to score.
This season, the three are teaching lacrosse through the Knighthawks Academy and making community appearances on behalf of the team, getting to know their fans and their new home.
“Getting out in (my hometown of) Peterborough is one of my favourite things – giving back to the game that’s given me so much,” Withers says. “I always went down to watch games in Rochester as a kid and grew up idolizing the players and their culture so to get out here and help instill lacrosse values that I learned growing up is great.”
Though he’s living in Rochester for the season, Peterborough and its influences are close to Withers’ heart.
In two seasons with his hometown senior A Peterborough Lakers, Withers recorded a .735 face-off percentage and was a huge part of the Lakers’ Mann Cup national championship win last summer. He won that championship with some of the most important people in his life.
“Tracey Kelusky (Lakers assistant coach) took me under his wing. He helped me move from a boy to a man and I really feel like he’s always been in my corner. He’s a guy I can lean on when I need advice. Scott Evans as well and even his brother Shawn who I have the benefit of playing with now.”
His biggest influence, though, passed away in 2014.
Mark Evans, father of Withers’ best friend Turner (currently a member of the Toronto Rock), was “a real important guy in my lacrosse career. He coached us for a few summers. I learned a lot from him and I miss him every day. I’m always thankful for what I learned from him and I play with him on my sleeve.”