The face-off is a uniquely specific moment in the game of lacrosse. Most fans wouldn’t even bat an eye at it.
However, a keen-eyed observer would identify this seemingly innocuous moment as something with far greater implications: it’s a personal battle between two players, one from either team, in the middle of the field for both bragging rights and a team’s continuous possession of the ball, a stat that almost always indicates who the winner will be.
And an even keener eye would recognize that these players that participate come onto the field for the face-off, stay on for 15-30 seconds, then leave until the next face-off.
So, while innocent at first glance, the face-off seems much more important than meets the eye. And its specialists? An enigma.
But this begs the question: what about this face-off is so enigmatic?
For starters, there are many different approaches to the face-off. As a face-off man, if you are quicker than your opponent in “the clamp,“ a position where the two players’ sticks are backward and, on the whistle, clamp down onto the ball to gain possession, then beating him to the clamp is an excellent strategy. If you are slower, countering—waiting for the other player to win the clamp and then knocking the ball out of his stick—is also a viable option. The face-off is only won when a team secures possession of the ball and begins to advance it forward.
“A lot of people think about who’s faster [to the clamp],” said Luka Difilippo ’25, Wabash’s starting face-off man. “But in reality, it’s who’s better after the clamp. If you’re quicker than the other guy but you can’t handle the ball, you might win every face-off. But you don’t really [win] if you get the ball knocked out of your stick every time after you win it.”
These strategies are just a few examples, which all happen in almost the blink of an eye. It’s more of an art form, a mind game that the two players must play each and every time they approach the center circle.
But why is the face-off so important, and why is it important to win the majority of the face-offs in the game? The simple answer is possession time.
“If you have a really good face-off guy, the game is controlled in your favor,” said Owen Hauber ’25. “If your guy is going 90% [a player’s face-off win rate] against the other team, there’s so many more fast breaks and scoring opportunities. Constantly getting the ball and working with your offense gives you a much better chance of winning the game.”
Something unique to lacrosse is that, after every scored point, each team has the chance to possess the ball at the face-off, as opposed to the change in possession in most other sports. This means that, if Wabash scores a goal, they can immediately regain possession during the face-off and have another chance to score.
It doesn’t seem like that much of an advantage, but when you step back and look at the statistics, those face-offs can add up. In Wabash’s last game against Hiram, Difilippo went 19-25 against Hiram’s face-off men, an astounding 76% win rate. This means that almost three out of every four times Wabash scored, they then retained possession and had another chance to set up their offense, tipping the time of possession scale drastically in their favor. This contributed to their definitive 21-7 victory on March 25.
Most premier lacrosse programs have many such specialists who dedicate their training time to mastering the many various techniques of the face-off, with a starting rotation of around four. But Wabash has just two face-off men who play on the scout team for most of the practice.
“At the start [of practice] we take our own time [to train] and do reps off to the side, but for most of the practice we’re with the team,” said Difilippo. “We don’t have the numbers. On bigger teams, face-off guys do face-offs for an hour.”
Having face-off men working with the scout team is virtually unheard of for most college lacrosse programs, which have two-to-three times as many players as the current Wabash squad.
So, even taking limited reps, Difilippo can hang with some of Division III’s best face-off men. During the face-off, his art form is on full display, if only for a few brief moments. And his success within those moments is one of the great keys to winning in the sport of lacrosse.