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Lacrosse Offense: Strategies for Success

The first decision a coaching staff must make regarding its offense is whether it wants to have a fast-paced/run-and-gun offense or a slow-it-down/deliberate and methodical scheme. Of course, the staff may also decide to go with something in between – something that allows for freedom to push the pace, but also includes elements of methodical ball control. This guide examines the pros and cons of running a fast- or slow-paced offense – and all versions in between.

Pieces to the Puzzle

All offenses are predicated on a team having at least one (and hopefully more) player on the field at all times who is able to drive and penetrate the defense, forcing the defense to adjust and rotate. Without someone on the field who can disrupt what the defense wants to do, a team has little hope of scoring enough goals to win a game. Great shooters won’t find themselves open in good spots to score if there isn’t someone who can draw defenders away from the shooters.

Only slightly less critical to a team’s offensive success is having good feeders at attack. Attackmen must be able to get a pass off while being closely guarded by a defenseman, and must be accurate with their throws. In addition to good dodgers and feeders, someone has to shoot the ball. Coaches should identify which players are their team’s best outside shooters. That way, they can find ways to get those players the ball in space and have them set their feet and fire some rocket shots into the net. Since outside shots are not always high-percentage looks, there also must be a player or two capable of consistently finishing around the cage.

A final determining factor regarding a team’s offensive identity is the ability of the faceoff man. Having a good faceoff man with the ability to control the ball on the majority of draws allows a coach to have both his offense and defense take more chances.

Run-and-Gun Offense

The fast-paced offense relies on the speed and natural athleticism of the players on the field. The coach must have full confidence in his players to think for themselves and make plays without much direction from the sideline. First and foremost, a run-and-gun offense needs fast midfielders and skilled passing attackmen who have good (if not great) field vision.

NCAA's Top 3 Run-And-Gun Offenses

  1. Syracuse: The Orange have won the most NCAA titles in history thanks to an offense that showcases attackmen with outstanding stick skills (see Gait, Gary) and midfielders who are big, fast and can unload heavy shots.
  2. Duke: Consistently featuring one of, if not the best attack units in the country, Duke loves to push the pace and finish fast-break chances. In 2008, Blue Devils attackman Zack Greer led the nation in goals, many assisted by current MLL teammate Matt Danowski.
  3. Maryland: The Terrapins almost always feature a very athletic attack unit along with a number of skilled midfielders capable of putting shots in the net. Maryland can always be counted on to have any number of talented scoers in the lineup.

The run-and-gun starts with aggressive defense on the back end, and a slick passing goalie. Defenders playing out on their men and looking to pressure and create turnovers leads to fast breaks. Goalies that can effectively throw an outlet pass also create transition. This is where the fast midfielders come in.

Aggressive pursuit of ground balls leads to transition opportunities. It’s imperative that a midfielder is able to scoop the ground ball quickly and be able to catch the over-the-shoulder outlet pass, so that he can use his speed and race up field ahead of a tired bunch of midfielders from the other team. Once the ball has been secured, it’s off to the races for the middy.

The attack now must race to be in proper position to manipulate the defense and execute the fast break. Fast-paced offenses rely on fast-break chances to score many of their goals, and coaches are willing to let players take a few more chances shooting or squeezing passes into tight places as long as these players are regulars at lighting up the scoreboard. If the offense is not able to score on the fast break, it moves right into the set offense. From there, it begins looking for cutters as the ball works through X and around the perimeter. In the run-and-gun, midfielders should constantly be cutting into open lanes (especially while attackmen have the ball) and looking for teammates from which to receive the ball at a moment’s notice.

Good conditioning and overall team speed are imperative to the run-and-gun offense. Midfielders (and sometimes defensemen) must be able to get up field ahead of the opponent’s midfield unit. Attackmen also must be able to get downfield quickly at a moment’s notice, in order to set up and execute the fast break.

Slow-and-Deliberate Offense

The slow-paced, methodical offense also has its advantages. It allows a team to control the pace of the game, and keep the ball out of the sticks of the opponents. It can also protect a weak or inexperienced defense and goalie. Teams that have inferior skill and/or speed, but intelligent, determined players, will often run a slow-down offense to keep the ball away from their more talented opponents. Another benefit of this offensive style is that it can tire out and confuse a defense over the course of a game. This will make that defense more vulnerable to mental and physical failings later in a game.

Discipline is the most important factor to running a slow-paced, ball-control offense. Whereas with an up-tempo offense, passes that might be considered risky or dangerous are encouraged, those passes are strictly forbidden in the ball-control offense. Slow-paced offenses rely on sharp execution of plays, and lots of in-game direction from coaches on the sideline. Discipline is the name of the game here. All shots must be backed up. Coaches want players taking only high-percentage shots. Mismatches must be found and exploited. Precisely executed and well-timed plays will deliver the scoring.

NCAA's Top 3 Methodical Offenses

  1. Johns Hopkins: Arguably the top team in the history of NCAA lax, the Blue Jays got where they are by slowing things down and executing in every facet of the game.
  2. Cornell: Playing in the Ivy League means the Big Red don’t have any athletic scholarships to offer, and therefore have to get by on smarts and slick tactics against superior athletes from other teams. By regularly relying on a superstar midfielder like it did in 2009 with Max Seibald, Cornell has returned to national prominence.
  3. Princeton: Though he left the program following the 2009 season, legendary coach Bill Tierney built a dynasty by installing an incredibly disciplined and intricate offensive system in the mold of his “Princeton” defense.

Methodical offenses normally are run when a team has one or two stud offensive players who will have to carry the scoring load over the course of the season. Since a coach doesn’t want to overwork the best player(s), control of the ball and pace of the game are very important. Players need to rest, especially ones who draw the opposing team’s top defender and inevitably take a beating over the course of a game and season.

Slow-down offenses are often paired with conservative defenses that are not looking to take many chances on the back end of the field. This makes fast-break chances few and far between, with far fewer turnovers being created by the defense. Fewer chances to do so places a much greater importance on being able to execute and score on set plays and on the man-up opportunities, as well as in the limited-transition opportunities.

Different Paths to Winning Games

There are many examples of championship-caliber teams using both styles of offense. The college game is full of teams that love to run and let it fly. However, there are also a good number of top teams that rely on disciplined offenses to control the game and keep the ball away from the opponents. Either can be effective, as long as the players have a good sense of their physical limitations, as well as what the coaching staff is looking for offensively.

Whether you want to slow it down or push the pace, the pros and cons of each of lacrosse's offensive styles are listed here. Ways to thrive in either style are discussed.
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