Welcome to "A Lacrosse Weekend" my weekly compilation of thoughts, ideas, stories, myths, truths, about the great game of lacrosse. I hope you enjoy it!
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Over The Head Checks
A week ago I started a Twitter controversey over this tweet:
Let me explain myself. My point wasn't to disparage current players or imply they're soft. Nor was it to say lacrosse in the 80's and 90's was better than it is now. I am well aware of changes in stick technology as it relates to ball security vs stick checks. And finally, while I do understand why coaches don't like checking in general, I don't subscribe to a reductionist model of coaching, I believe in teaching and creating situational lacrosse.
My point with that Tweet is: Over The Head (OTH) checks were an important and commonly used tool by many players including the best players in the world back in those days, but have been banned by coaches for decades yet there is still significant value for players in their ability to utilize this check.
Here is the video I posted along with the original tweet. The Carolina defender seemed to have decent position early on with his Reverse V Hold, but somehow gave it up and then the dodger, who is 6'4'' 220 and has a size advantage over his man, was in the driver's seat and going to get a good shot off.
First, we would obviously rather not give up such great position to the top side in our 1v1 defense, but the fact is this happens all the time. Good dodgers get position on their man in a variety of ways: great moves, superior physicality, taking advantage of difficult approaches, 2man games etc. Secondly, some would say there should have been a slide here, but teams usually aren't sliding quickly to their poles and defensive position was lost so quickly the sliders didn't have time to get there.
The question I pose to you: once you're beat what's next? Hope for a slide? Let your guy shoot? Or go over his head? Maybe you land the check maybe you don't, but you will definitely buy time for that slide! Let's establish that If the defender goes over the head here, the dodger will not get the shot off that he actually scored on. If the defender doesn't land the check, the dodger will have have tucked his stick to avoid being stripped. When the dodger tucks his stick he can neither shoot nor feed for a second or two, which would be ample time for nearby defensive help to collapse.
Check out the OTH highlight reel from @PeterTreppa's YouTube Channel! Some great examples of OTH checks in college lacrosse from 2022.
In 2005-2008 when I was the head coach at the University of Denver, we devised a high pressure defense where we pressured the ball all over the field, pressured the adjacent in the direction of the dodge, stayed on double teams when we could such as when we could turn an attackman on an inside roll, we jumped picks, red dogged with our goalie, all while trying to be hard to beat 1v1 and help in with typical slide and recover concepts. Pressure defense vaulted our program from a top 25 team to two NCAA tourneys and two top 12 finishes in '06 and '08.
Check out this podcast with Andy Shay, Head coach at Yale where the two of us discuss this defense and the use of OTH Checks!
One of the challenges we had was matching up against some of the best attackmen in the nation like Matt Ward of UVA who won the 2006 Tewaaraton Award. He was literally impossible to stop much less trying to turn him into a slide on "The Island." What we began to experiment with was a "Rip" call where the on ball defender and slider both knew there was going to be an OTH check at the goal line and a slide from the crease. It was wildly successful. We weren't banking on landing the check. We were banking on trapping a dodger in a double team with his stick tucked and unable to shoot or feed.
The same way you can tie up a dodger with a V Hold, you can tie him up with an OTH check when he tucks his stick. The great thing is that if they come hard and tight to the crease from behind, it's easier to go over their head, but if they know you're looking to go over the head and they take you wider, then your advantage is to turn them, or set up a hammer slide / double team opportunity on the inside roll.
Common Misconceptions about OTH Checks
The biggest misconception about OTH checks is that they're all or nothing. Coupled with the fact that pocket depth and stick technology advancements make it harder to dislodge the ball, coaches think there is very little if any upside to OTH checks. Remember, we don't have to land the check to make it effective. In fact, we are fine with missing the check, which forces the dodger to react by tucking his stick, which buys time for help to arrive.
Another common misconception about OTH checks is where to execute them. Some think you should only attempt an OTH check if you're far from the net, where you would have time to catch up and recover while other coaches shout, "NEVER AT THE GOAL LINE!" I totally disagree. It is riskier to miss an OTH check when you're far out because you won't catch up and you won't have help in close proximity. Timing a slide to an over the head check at the goal line is like timing a slide to an invert at or just below goal line. You can see it coming when a dodger is coming hard, tight to the crease from behind, or turning a corner near shooting range.
Another misconception about OTH check is they can only be done right on right (left on left), when in fact there are advantages to throwing right on left (left on right). It would seem like the right on left OTH check would be harder to land and leave the checker in a worse position, but this isn't true. First, when you go over a dodger's head right on left, it's actually a very deep position, similar to the depth of a V Hold, but on the outside. Second, anytime you go over a player's head, the plan is to make them tuck it while help arrives. Therefore, it is important to follow up your OTH check with an immediate back check to maintain ball pressure. The advantage of the right on left OTH check is it puts you in position for a backhand wrap check which is a strong check. On the other hand, when you execute a right on right OTH check, it is a littler harder to follow up with a back check, which would usually be a one hand (top hand) wrap.
The final misconception is that you must be a taller player to be effective at OTH checks and this isn't true. Although being tall is an undeniable advantage for an OTH check, there have been plenty of shorter players who have been devastating with their OTH checks!
Be Hard To Beat
The bottom line is, the use of OTH checks, (like everything else) is situational. First, a defender must be hard to beat. Great position, cushion and shade are prerequisites to great defense as well as a prerequisite for executing an OTH check. It is when the dodger is working hard to beat you, leaning in, and cornering that you have a chance to get him off balance and rip him.
Sometimes these checks will bail you out of trouble like in the clip from last week's Duke - Denver game below.
Keeping Dodgers Off Balance
Due to the fact that almost no players throw (or even know how to throw) and OTH check, dodgers can slam their bodies into defenders, hang their sticks, they can even hold their stick like Rob Pannel at "Half Mast". One of the big advantages of OTH checks is that dodgers have to alter the way they attack if there is a real threat of an over the head check. When Petro, Pat McCabe, Ric Beardsley were on you, you were keenly aware of stick protection and that often times slows you down! Plus, there's nothing worse for an attackman to be stripped! Totally deflating and demoralizing! Here's a great example of Matt Dunn keeping Pannell honest with his stick protection as he carries as if nobody would ever go over his head!
This video is from the 1993 USCLA Championship with Brine LC playing Mount Washington Tavern. This game is the equivalent of pro lacrosse now. the best players in the world played on 5-6 teams. In this game you will see Joe Breschi, Dave Pietramala, Brian Voelker, Steve Byrne matched up on players such as Gray and Paul Gait, Mike Morrill, Scott Hiller and more. There were more OTH checks thrown in this game than we would see in a season! The defenders used OTH checks in a variety of ways including "Pencil" checks that forced the attackman to tuck their stick! You can see where the checks worked and where they didn't. In one case, they had Gary Gait triple teamed but nobody played his body so he still got through, but you can see how the D was able to swarm the OTH miss. We see Left on Right OTH checks as well as some checks that weren't great, but still caused the dodger to be out of rhythm for his shot.
Jack Rowlett of the PLL Chaos is a master of the OTH check and puts a fear into his opponent. Watch the way this OTH check on Grant Ament goes down.
This is a really cool video from the 1989 Championship game where Petro and Voelks are matched up against the Gaits in an epic left on left match up!
Over The Head Checks and Player Development
The final point I want to make about OTH checks is how impactful they are in developing players. Just like working on V Holds gives a defender a great feel for using their stick to disrupt, the OTH checks do the same thing! Plus, if you get good at your OTH check, it sets up the very reliable fake OTH check or the "Ding Dong" check!
Eddy Glazener is known for his off ball prowess, but he's got a pretty sick OHT and Ding Dong combo!
Finally, on the topic of player development, I truly believe the best defenders have high level skill and this skill manifest itself not only in first time ground balls and over passes, but in slick playmaking in transition as well as in the use of holds, checks, and yes, even OTH checks. If I can develop defensive playmakers who are smart and tough, I'm going to do it!
Have a great weekend!