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Facing Off with "Big Baby D"

02/04/2009, 11:36am PST
By Neil Stevens
Will Dalton’s faceoff talents have quickly made him an important player for the San Jose Stealth. After all, a team can’t score goals unless it has possession of the ball, and that battle begins at faceoffs. Stealth coach Jeff Dowling relies on Dalton for faceoffs in most game situations and early-season NLL statistics show that the big rookie already is among the best in the business. Here’s the scoop on players who have taken at least 75 faceoffs going into Feb. 6-7 games: 1. Geoff Snider, Philadelphia Wings, 71 wins on 89 faceoffs, 79.7 per cent success rate; 2. Stephen Peyser, New York Titans, 82 for 130 or 63 per cent; 3. Will Dalton, San Jose Stealth, 77 for 133 or 57.8 per cent; 4. Pat Jones, Portland Lumberjax, 74 for 137 or 54.1 per cent; 5. Stephen Hoar, Toronto Rock, 35 for 76 or 46 per cent. Dalton, 23, commutes to Stealth games from his home state of Maryland. He’s completing studies at the University of Maryland for a history degree, and he’s an assistant coach with the men’s varsity field lacrosse team on which he starred. His plan for the future is to become a high school and then a university head coach. He took his first faceoffs by chance at age 14 when he filled in for a youth club teammate who missed a practice. He kept at it and was a 72 per cent faceoff man in high school in Annapolis. His proficiency on draws helped get him recruited by Maryland. Amazingly, given the impressive start to his pro career, Dalton was overlooked in his NLL draft year. ``I wasn’t that surprised,’’ he recalls. ``I’d never played indoor lacrosse.’’ He learned of an NLL combine in Pennsylvania, attended and did well, and got a call from Stealth Assistant GM Doug Locker asking if he’d be interested in trying out with the Stealth. He made it. This summer, he’ll be back on an outdoor field playing for the MLL’s New Jersey Pride, too. At the start of a game and after each goal is scored, NLL rules require that faceoff men hold their sticks on the floor parallel to the centre line and two inches apart. An official places the ball between the two sticks without the ball touching the sticks. The players must remain still when the official says ``set’’ and readies to blow the whistle. ``We instruct the officials to blow the whistle very quickly after the set,’’ explains Brian Lemon, the NLL’s director of operations. ``We want that mechanic to be done quickly.’’ If a player flinches or moves his stick before the whistle, that is a faceoff violation and the opposing faceoff man is awarded possession of the ball. Once the whistle sounds, players can clamp the ball as they pull at it to try and gain possession. Up until two years ago, faceoff men were required to pull the ball straight back upon hearing the whistle. That was changed two years ago to allow faceoff men to clamp or trap the ball as soon as the whistle is blown. If the official feels a player is clamping the ball too long and delaying play, then possession is awarded to the other team. Teams have a maximum of 20 seconds between the time a goal is scored and the time faceoff men are required to be in the set position for the ensuing faceoff. If a team goes beyond 20 seconds, that’s a violation and possession of the ball awarded to the other team. Because the top goal scorers usually line up for faceoffs at the line on the attacking side of the neutral zone, defencemen or transition men often are chosen to be faceoff specialists. Strength can be a big factor on faceoffs, too, so big men such as Dalton, who is six-foot-four and 260 pounds, are preferred by coaches to take the draws. ``I have my fundamental moves,’’ Dalton replies when asked to explain his strategy when he squares off with an opponent for a faceoff. ``I’m a hard-clamp guy. I like to push the ball forward (into the attacking zone). It’s a little more difficult in indoor lacrosse than in field but it still has its benefits. If a team puts three defenders in front of me I’m probably going to pull the ball back.’’ He’ll usually try to direct the ball to a teammate rather than attempt to pick it up himself. That is why it is key he co-ordinates what he does with players such as Kyle Hartzell, Eric Martin and Mike Kirk who are on the floor with him on draws. ``They really come up big for me on ground balls,’’ he says. A lot about Dalton’s approach, obviously, depends on how the opposing team positions its players for faceoffs. ``Our coaches have done a great job explaining indoor lacrosse to me,’’ he says. ``The spacing is so much different than it is in outdoor lacrosse. Jeff Dowling has done a great job of communicating where we should be on the floor.’’ The coaching staff provides tapes to Dalton so he can study faceoff opponents in coming games. Dalton has been working diligently to become valuable in other ways, too. ``Will is great at faceoffs and he is spending a lot of time working on his defence,'' says Dowling. ``He knows that we don't have room for a guy who only takes faceoffs and the best part is he doesn't want to be one.'' Dalton has yet to go up against Snider in an NLL game, and he won’t this season because San Jose and Philadelphia don’t meet. He recalls what a test it was to go against Snider during a collegiate game. Snider played for the University of Denver. ``I went 60 per cent against Snider that day,’’ Dalton recalls. ``He’s a very competitive player. He anticipates the whistle. He’s one of the best I’ve ever gone against. You prepare yourself to counteract what he does best and try to use that to your advantage.’’ It certainly is an advantage for the Stealth to have Will Dalton taking faceoffs, and he intends to be around the NLL for many years to come. ``It’s a fantastic league,’’ he says. ``It’s a very professional league. Playing in front of 15,000 people some games is just incredible. It’s an exciting, fast-paced league and I’m really happy to be part of it.’’

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