Lacrosse has skyrocketed in popularity; this is reiterated countless times a day by players, coaches and fans. Unfortunately, not many people outside the sport understand quite what it takes to be a topnotch competitor.
There are so many professional lacrosse leagues that it would be impossible to hold professional league recruitment combines. The events would overlap too many leagues’ seasons and events, and therefore comes down to college players competing at a monumental level without having the professional experience.
As the game continues its growth, these trainings and skills are more pertinent than ever. Enter NFC7: FaceOff Club’s seventh annual National FaceOff Combine.
Run by professional lacrosse veteran Nolan Godfrey, the event brings together the top 85-100 high school FO specialists in the nation each year. Godfrey was an NCAA All-American and has since played seven seasons in the MLL and Canadian box lacrosse, most recently for the Denver Outlaws.
This year’s National FaceOff Combine took place in Trumbull, Connecticut at the brand new, state-of-the-art InSportsCenter facility. What many won’t know unless they attend is that numerous college coaches, players, and pro-athletes stop in throughout the three-day camp to help instruct, recruit and check out the competition.
“NFC is a self-contained event that’s scheduled to be very visible for college coaches and recruiters. They will get to see all players at their peak performance against college-like competition,” said Godfrey.
He pointed out that any high school lacrosse player could have a fantastic record of face off win percentages, but that those statistics mean nothing when their competition is other high school specialists of questionable caliber.
The collegiate level calls for a much higher and more mature playing skill set. In high school, most face off guys go against opponents their own age, whereas in university attendance, a freshman faceoff specialist will likely come across a senior opponent. That can heavily affect their mentality and confidence, especially when the younger player is not accustomed to it. As FaceOff Club (FOC) continues to train players through their collegiate careers (14 NCAA All-Conference players in 2013), players from D1 UMass, Sacred Heart University and others came to train with the high school players and also ordain them into the upper echelon of competition they’ll see in the college ranks.
By bringing together all the best competition, players are able to experience what it’s like facing off against opponents with equivalent and better skill sets. All the players rotated in a round-robin style; numerous times high school freshmen found themselves practicing against high school seniors, and even some college players in attendance.
Faceoffs are one of the key focuses in lacrosse. They can set the tone and pace of a team’s performance. They are also the most physical part of the game and rules change nearly every two years. At the combine, players are taught recognition and awareness of dirty or questionable play in order to legally and effectively respond.
A specialist in this area must not only hold the skill sets to good face off procedures, but must also be able to recognize what the opponent is attempting and have abilities to counter it quickly.
The main FO techniques covered at NFC7 included: moto and traditional grips, clamps and jams, and various stances. These high school athletes got the privilege of practicing those skills repetitiously while at the same rate competing against others, giving them the opportunities to recognize and react.
“It’s encouraging from a recruiting standpoint to see how younger guys handle themselves when against older, more experienced players. Shows a lot about how they’ll handle themselves in an NCAA environment mentally and athletically [through their round robin style of play]. This is one of the premier events nationally and we [coaches] always look forward to it.” — NCAA Coach
There were two other professional players at NFC7 heavily assisting Godfrey with instruction: Craig Bunker (Boston Cannons) and John Ortolani (Rochester Rattlers). Both players have an interesting lineage with Godfrey and FOC. Bunker came to Godfrey as a freshman college player to learn the draw and make an impact for his Colby College team. He did that and more by winning three straight All-American awards and also the NCAA Specialty Player of the Year award as a senior captain.
Ortolani was recruited by Godfrey out of high school to Saint Anselm College prior to finishing his career at Endicott. The two founded FOC in 2007. In the final game of the 2013 MLL regular season, FOC came full circle when Bunker and Ortolani went head-to-head at Harvard Stadium as the Cannons faced the Rattlers.
The three players are great friends and have worked hard in the off-season each of the last few years as training partners.
During the second day, I noticed each of the three pro-players take a third of the group for instruction:
Nolan Godfrey tended to focus on technique without blowing a whistle to start. This forced players to react defensively (recognition and reaction). After a few repetitions, Godfrey would call the group back into a circle and review the completed exercise, then preview the next one.
Craig Bunker was more hands on. He would blow whistles and allow the players to go 100 percent against each other. This approach caused players to be ready for full contact no matter how tired they were, how long they’d been going, and working on their body spacing while practicing techniques.
John Ortolani took the second part of Bunker’s approach. He focused on body movement, positioning and awareness. First, he had players do walk-throughs or half speed faceoffs, just to better understand how their bodies were rotating, how to push away opponents, etc.
Now, to get to the exciting part: THE ATHLETES.
Mikey McDonnell (right) gets set for practice reps
Entering NFC7 was senior Mikey McDonnell, the reigning NFC6 2014 class champion. The NFC6 runner-up was Will Fox. Both came into NFC7 with high expectations knowing there would be great competition, a small rivalry between them, and hopes to grab another/new championship victory.
McDonnell is a relentless player who was up against much talent this year. In watching him, his focus is unmatched by other athletes. When he enters a faceoff stance, nothing will break that focus except the referee’s whistle, and when it sounds the opponent ought to be ready, as well. McDonnell uses his body to his advantage and is not afraid to put someone on the ground in the process.
Will Fox, on the other hand, reasonably coasted his way through NFC6 rounds last year, and realized he truly had to step up his game once he got to the championship. This year, Fox entered the clinic with that mindset from the start, and was not going give anyone a break. Through the entire weekend, he performed extra reps, talked more with the pros, and played his heart out.
The NFC7 Championship was a rematch between the two that went five rounds. McDonnell came out on top, and Fox the runner up once again.
As a result of their NFC6 performances last year, Mikey McDonnell (Middleburg Academy, VA) received a scholarship offer to Michigan, while Will Fox (St. Augustine Prep, NJ) accepted one to Fairfield. Both are D-I NCAA programs, and both players demonstrated their appetite to continue growing their game.
Other mentionable seniors include Joe Delasho (Fordham Prep H.S., NY) who is committed to Fairfield with Fox, Matthew Ernst (Episcopal Academy, PA) who is committed to Lehigh (my neck of the woods), Joe Stucky (Bullis School, MD) committed to Boston U., and William Fitzmaurice (Hamden H.S., CT) committed to W. New England.
Logan Lund, Jimmy Perry, Will Fitzmaurice and Joe Stucky made it to Quarterfinals, Joe Delasho and Matthew Ernst to Semifinals.
Senior Recap Available Here:
In the junior class brackets (11th grade) Mikey Giannopulos entered NFC7 with a commitment to Georgetown, made possible by the scholarship offer received in the days following NFC6 when the Hoya coaches saw where he stood on the national scale. Coming from Issaquah High School in Washington [State], Giannopulos was expected to compete with high intensity. He did not disappoint.
He had topped his entire class the previous year at NFC6, and showed strong determination this year. He is the type of player who enters the midfield circle without much body language or facial expression. Opponents will have a tough time reading him before the whistle, which is to his advantage. He is all business and is not afraid of hard work in the ‘faceoff zone’ as I call it.
This year, Giannopulos once again took the crown by overcoming Jack Mazurek (Don Bosco Prep, NJ) in the final, which went all seven rounds (best of seven faces). It was not an easy road for him either, as most of his matches on the way to the final also went six or seven rounds. That gets tiring on the body: being in stance repeatedly, hitting and pushing over and over, etc.
It should be known that Mazurek is full of talent himself. His older brother is a two-time NFC champ as well, so the game runs in their blood. He is a physical player and put it to the test against Giannopulos, who was able to beat him with experience (it was Mazurek’s first finals appearance).
Other notable juniors are Reece Belcher (TC Williams H.S., VA), who made it to the semifinals and lost to Mazurek. Alex Newhouse (Saint Andrews H.S., FL) also went to the semifinals, falling to Giannopulos after seven rounds.
Junior Recap Available Here:
Competing for the sophomores at the highest levels over the weekend were Conor Gaffney from Lenape, NJ and Brendon Luu of Chaminade, NY. They met each other in the final round which went six reps to crown Gaffney the champion.
Gaffney started out quite smoothly, erasing his first two or three opponents in clean sweeps. Once he got to the semifinal rounds, however, Conor overcame tough bumps and competition to secure his title. Gaffney is very diligent in reading his opponent, and is intelligent and quick with his defensive reactions.
Luu, competing in a comparable mirror bracket, had more of a fight to the finals. Most of his matches went for at least five faces, if not six or seven. Luu has a high lacrosse IQ most likely instilled by his high school coach; Kris Clarke is a fellow Chaminade alum and currently plays at Hofstra for the Pride. Luu has speed and with more force or accuracy could easily overcome the runner-up position.
The sophomore class undoubtedly carries the most talent depth of any grades in attendance at the National Faceoff Combine this year. The fact there were numerous upsets, full-length matchups, and close competitors only goes to show the extent at which the NCAA competition will continue to grow in the future (upon their entering it).
Evan Dennis – Brother Rice HS, MI
Charlie Leonard – Arapahoe HS, CO
Jared Hershman – Hendrick Hudson HS, NY
Jake Shriner – CaravelAcademy HS, DE
Andrew Whicker – Landon HS, MD
Oliver Hobson – North Central HS, IN
Full Recap Available Here:
Me: “Coach! Let me ask you a quick question, is there anyone or anything that stands out here for you?”
NCAA Coach: “I was walking amongst the players. Austin Ogle—a freshman—is really impressive. He is very strong for his age and has fast hands.”
That quote pretty much sums it up, folks. The freshmen class was a diverse and unique one. Some like Austin Ogle and Connor Cronin were sizable for their age. Others were tinier, yet quicker.
Austin Ogle (Moorestown, NJ) worked his way up the ladder ousting Griffin Ernst (Episcopal Academy, PA) 4-0, and followed that with a 4-1 decision in his favor against Demitri George (Simsbury HS, CT).
Connor Cronin (Northport HS, NY) started against Sam Uva (Seton Hall Prep HS, NJ) and took the 4-1 victory. He then went up against Jack Giovannetti (Chaminade HS, NY) which went all seven rounds. Cronin won 4-3.
Cronin and Ogle met each other in the finals. The took six faces against one another. Cronin is quick and accurate for his age. I could see some hesitation in using his body, but that comes with game experience along with physical growth. He is a quick learner.
Ogle was also quick, and used his body effectively. He was aggressive and determined. In the end, Cronin would take the victory 4-2 and will look to return for more competition in the future.
Full Recap Available Here:
The camaraderie I saw at this event was truly remarkable. Players were making small talk with one another and sharing tips and knowledge with each other during instruction. My high school lacrosse coach once said, “You’re only as good as your competition. You want to play against them, but never forget you’re playing with them.” That is exactly what was experienced and witnessed last weekend.
“Very few athletes have the opportunity to compete with and against the best HS FO men in the country… In reality, we are all aware that in order to be the best, you need to train against the best and be taught by the best. This camp will act as a way to work with the best coaches and players possible, while becoming a better athlete in the process.”
—Craig Bunker, Boston Cannons
FaceOff Club has established itself over the last decade as the leading manufacturer of collegiate FO talent in the nation. They have hundreds of players at the college level and it is common each Saturday in Division 1 NCAA lacrosse for multiple FOC alums to face each other as they have in previous NFC events and other FOC camps and clinics. These gurus and providers of college futures for the advanced high school player will have a summer version of NFC, which is called the Special Forces Combine. Players seeking consideration for an invite to this prestigious event can contact FOC (email@example.com). The FOC will also be out in full strength this winter and early spring rolling out their latest training clinics in Boston, Hartford, Washington D.C., Charlotte, Charleston, Miami, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, and Salt Lake City. For more information, consult their website (thefaceoffclub.com).
For all your players that were there, I wanted each and every one of your helmets/gloves. You guys had the sickest gear!
Craig Bunker of the Boston Cannons gives his insights into the game
John Ortolani of the Rochester Rattlers talks techniques and what to watch for in opponents.