It's called lacrosse, but possession is the name of the game.
Without the ball, a team cannot score.
Without goals, a team cannot win.
Therefore, the team better positioned to score and win is often the team that wins when play begins.
In boys lacrosse, it's the faceoff. For girls lacrosse, it's termed the draw.
No matter the name, both are at the crux of separating the winning team from the losing one.
"The game is won in the middle of the field, with the faceoff guy, the goalie and the attackman behind the cage," said Auburn boys lacrosse coach Matt Smith. "If you want to dominate and control tempo of the game, you have to control the faceoff X."
Lacrosse is not the only sport that starts a sequence of play in this fashion. Basketball begins with a jump ball, while hockey, similarly to lacrosse, uses a faceoff. But in basketball, the team that loses the jump ball is given possession to start the next quarter. In hockey, the pace is so quick that possession constantly changes; the team that wins the faceoff often loses control of the puck within seconds.
It's a different story in lacrosse, where the team that wins the draw dictates pace of play. If the team that leads wins the faceoff, it's an opportunity to drain some clock; if the team that trails wins the faceoff, it's a chance to string together some goals.
Knowing the importance of the draw, Auburn girls lacrosse coach Bill Dean always makes time to work on the play in practice, even at the expense of other facets of the game.
"For us, I can't not do at least half an hour to 20 minutes of draw work because it's such a vital part of the game and it's why we're scoring the amount of goals that we are," Dean said. "It's carving out that time in practice, which sometimes people are reluctant to do."
The difference in name — faceoff versus draw — is not the only thing that distinguishes the boys from the girls. The starting positions are different, the technique is different, and the strategy is different.
A faceoff in boys lacrosse has opposing players in a crouching position, while centers begin from a standing position in girls lacrosse. For boys lacrosse, there are two wings that must stand stationary about 20 yards away from the X, and their job is to scoop up the ground ball if the faceoff man doesn't immediately gain control. In girls lacrosse, the wings have similar jobs, but are only restricted by the center circle and are permitted motion prior to the draw.
Without ball-hawking wings, a center likely won't be as successful.
"The wings are just as important as the draw guy because they're there to get the ground ball," said Lucas Hogan, Auburn boys' primary faceoff taker. "If I'm having a hard time pulling it out, I can put it between my legs and they'll be there to scoop up the ground ball. My wing guys are great ... they'll just come in and help out a ton. With Owen Spearing and Nick Pipher on the wings we are doing pretty well."
As not only Auburn's No. 1 option on faceoffs, but also one of the the Maroons' top scorers, Hogan's role is unique. Often when Auburn controls possession after a faceoff, Hogan casually jogs to the sideline and trades his faceoff stick for a midfielder's stick. His faceoff stick is flimsier, while a normal stick is stiffer and allows for more power on a shot.
Most faceoff takers are "FOGOs" — face off, get off. Smith coined Hogan's unique position as a "FO-STAY" for "faceoff and stay."
"He's got to stay on the field and do double duty for us," Smith said. "He's our best faceoff guy and also our best scoring midfielder."
Jillian Alberici is Auburn girls lacrosse's top center and has been for the last two seasons. Alberici credits having the proper mindset and technique for her success.
"The mentality part of it is really important. You have to win your mental game to win the draw," Alberici said. "As far as technique, you can be strong and you can be quick, but if you don't have technique down you're not going to win the draw."
Technique often comes down to wrist strength and wrist quickness, and Dean expressed that there's different methods to simulate the quick-twitch motion needed for a successful draw control.
He also notes the evolution of draws in girls lacrosse and is interested to see if that evolution continues.
"A couple years ago what you were finding is a lot of teams thought the tallest girl had to be the draw girl because a lot of draws were just going straight up. It was almost like a jump ball," Dean said. "Then once a lot of the girls from the national team and high Division I college level started figuring out there's a technique to putting the ball in certain areas. It funneled down to lower colleges like Division II and Division II and then down to high school. It doesn't have to be your tallest girl, but somebody who is going to be powerful and be able to direct the ball where they want to."
Dean recalls that when he was a boys lacrosse player in the late 1990s and early 2000s, there was a handful of different moves a player could try on a faceoff, but the play has been simplified since.
"There was a reverse clamp, a clamp, a rake, a jam, and you would practice all of them. It just got to the point where it's just clamp and get it out, whoever is quickest," Dean said. "I'm waiting to see if the girls game goes to that at some point ... but I think because of the circle, the proximity of it as opposed to the wing, it'll probably just stay this way. I think that makes it more interesting to be honest."
Even as faceoffs and draws evolve and strategy changes, importance has not. Those in attendance at any Auburn girls lacrosse game will often hear a louder cheer for a draw control than a goal.
"Possession is really important," Alberici said. "Without possession you're not going to be able to win. I think our team gets really excited about getting the ball. If we don't have it we're not going to be able to win and score."