Until their recent loss to Georgetown, the Delaware Blue Hens rolled through their first seven games. At the end of February, Alex Smith rolled at the faceoff X against Wagner. Going a perfect 21 of 21, Smith set an NCAA record and solidified himself as one of the top faceoff men in the country. LAX was able to catch up with Smith and talk about technique, wing play, and the mental battle at X.
LAX: Congrats on 21 wins against Wagner. Why were you so dominant that day?
Alex Smith: It’s one of those things where they had a weaker faceoff guy, and we just were really on our game. By we I mean, I had 14 ground balls, there were 21 faceoffs, so that means seven faceoffs my wingmen got the ball for me. A third of the faceoffs that I won were won by my wing guys, so to say that I took all the credit for breaking the record is a little misleading. They played a great game, and there was a couple that they just really saved me. Together we just played really well. We got on top of the Wagner guys early, and we were lucky to win 21.
When you face off, do you try to win it yourself, or do you try to put the ball somewhere for a wingman? It depends on what the opponents are giving me. If they line up with there guys a certain way, and I realize one of my wingmen is open, then I will clamp and try to put it to them because it is a lot easier for them to try to scoop up the ball than me try to put it out in a direction and go after it myself. If they start locking off my wingmen, then I try and get the ball myself.
Do you have a certain communication with your wingmen, looks or nods or stick taps to subtly say where you want to put the ball? I pretty much tell my guys where I want them to be. Sometimes I want the other teams to see where I am putting them so that they try to adjust. Most of the teams that we play against put their pole and their shorty all the way down the line to try to prevent the fast break, so most of the time I tell my guys to go all the way down. I can clamp and put it to them. We also have a couple set plays we try to run off the faceoff. If I do put the ball behind, there’s certain things we can to do try to get a fast break with my pole and my shorty. I’ve had the same two guys on my wing for three years now, so they know exactly where to go and where to be, if there is a scrum and we’re tied up, where to go so if I do win it the ball will come out that way. We have a pretty good understanding with each other about what is going to go on with the faceoffs.
Is there any particular counter that seems to work better than others? A move I fall back on, if you’re trying to get in and out quick, I like the rake sometimes. If the guy is really clamping hard, I like jamming his stick head. There’s a couple guys that generally try to just run me over, or if I do clamp, they try to pin me to the ground and hold me up as much as possible and wait for their wingmen to get in so it is kind of a 50-50 situation, that’s probably what I see the most to counter what I’m doing.
Do you see a lot of cheats out there? To tell you the truth, there were a couple times last year that I saw a couple people cheating, as far as grabbing the ball with your hand, which is not my move or something that I do. It doesn’t really work that well, because I explain to the ref what’s going on and once he is watching for it he is going to call it. But as far as cheating, as far as leaning your stick, or touching the plastic, or going early occasionally and not getting a call, that happens every game, doesn’t matter who the faceoff guy is. Very seldom do I see guys blatantly cheat.
Do you have any tricks to draw the other guy offside? I have heard of guys like sniffing and all that nonsense. I tend not to do that. I tried it one time at practice and what I found was when you’re going in thinking, ‘Hey, I’m going to try to draw this guy offside,’ then you don’t really have the success as when you go in there confident with your first move. Your best bet is going out there with your best move. If you’re going to draw a guy offside with your sniffing, it’s pretty obvious. If you got caught by the ref doing that I feel like it would be an unsportsmanlike penalty, and my coach would probably kill me if I ever did something like that.
If you get beat do you approach the X with a clear head, or do you think about it and start analyzing how you can win? If I lose one, and I know I had the capability of winning it, then I say, ‘OK, it’s one; it doesn’t matter,’ but if I’m losing a series of them, I go in thinking, ‘OK, I’m clamping, that’s obviously not working. I need to change my technique,’ so I’ll go in and I’ll start using a different move. It’s only when I lose a series of faceoffs that I start to think, ‘what am I going to do now?’
Is there an intimidation factor during the faceoffs? Do you talk trash or psyche yourself up? I’m not a trash talker. I actually go out, and I like to talk to the other faceoff guys. I’m buddies with a lot of them from around the league from high school, etc. If I go out there and I find out we had a common opponent, I’ll be like, ‘Hey, what did the guy do? Is he any good? Do you think I’ll be alright against him?’ I never talk trash, I’m always good buddies with the guys I go against. As far as intimidation factor, I can remember my freshman year I went against Andy Corno…I remember being scared as hell. I think I faced off against a freshman at Wagner, and I was thinking, he is probably feeling the same way about me. It’s definitely not a good feeling, but at the same time you can take advantage of it. I think you always are intimidated by the better guys.
What stick do you use for faceoffs? I use a Warrior Blade for faceoffs. I break about ten sticks a year. It’s just the nature of my move and the cold weather. They recently discontinued the Blade, which happened in September-October, so I bought 20 myself, just to make sure I have enough for the next two seasons. It’s a great faceoff stick. It’s great for scooping, it’s great for protecting the ball. I’ve used one since 9th grade, but I go through like eight to 10 sticks a year.
Is there something about a stick that makes it particularly good for faceoffs? I really like the Blade because it’s very flexible, that’s the main thing I like about it. It is a little pinched, I don’t pinch it myself. It’s a narrow head and it’s very flexible, that’s what I like about it. Even though I do break 10 a year, for what I do with it, it’s pretty durable.
Who taught you how to faceoff? I learned from a bunch of different people. I learned the double-over style from a Canadian named Rodney Tapp. He taught me a lot. I’ve really just kind of picked up stuff from different people along the years. I’ve picked up a few things from Justin Barry. Everybody develops their own style. You go out there and you learn from a lot of people. You go to camp and see something someone does, everybody has a different stance, everybody positions their hands differently, everybody does different clamps. It’s your job to go out and find the best technique and then try to develop your own. At Delaware I have a guy who faces off with me. He’s a graduate of the ’99 team and he is trying out for the pro teams. His name is Jason Motta, and he comes out and faces off with me two hours a day. I take about 150 faceoffs live, a day, just with him. He gives me great competition.
How tiring is that, doing two hours of faceoffs every day? It tires me out a lot. My Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday I just go live the whole time. I kind of have my own practice to tell you the truth. Coach Shillinglaw and Coach Carroll have been really great about understanding that my position is the faceoff, and just to get better at faceoffs I need to be doing them. I get so many faceoffs that when I get in the game it’s just like practice; it’s just repetition. I think that is one of the reasons that has allowed me to be so successful. I don’t know what other teams do as far as their faceoff guys at practice. I know there are other guys on other teams sitting around when their team is doing half-field, or sitting around when their team is doing EMO, or sitting around at practice generally, not doing the set plays because they don’t play on a normal midfield, and the whole time I’m facing off. I don’t really understand that, but that is kind of the MO for a lot of guys around the league. They only do a couple at practice and then they expect to get out in games and expect to have success.
What do you think is most important to win a faceoff, raw power, speed, knowing good counters, or better body position on the other guy? I would definitely say it’s not about power. I’m not a particularly big guy (5’10”, 180 lbs.). The number one thing you need to have facing off is technique. Technique is everything if you want to be a successful faceoff guy. I faced off against Kyle Harrison in high school and he is 10 times the athlete I am, but it’s all about technique. If you have the technique to win every time, you can go against the best athlete in college lacrosse, and he won’t be able to beat you.
When did you first start taking faceoffs? I first started taking faceoffs in middle school. I started strictly taking faceoffs around tenth, eleventh grade.
Do you like being a FOGO? Do you ever wish you were doing more, maybe playing a little offensive middie?
I have not had any remorse about being a faceoff guy. I love it. It’s so much fun to me. To tell you the truth, as much as I’m a team with my wingmen and everything else, it’s a battle between two people, and that’s always the way I’ve liked it. I like to know that I can go up against somebody and beat him head to head. I really enjoy the one-on-one competition of it. When you think about it, I really do get a lot of playing time. I enjoy the position. I enjoy the mental aspect of the position. You have to be mentally prepared for every faceoff. It’s the move, it’s the counters, it’s the battle with the other guy. I just enjoy the whole thing about it.
If you want to read the rest of this article, check out this month's (March 2006) issue of LAX.