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Feb. 4, 2018 — More than a quantum leap

Friday afternoon in Baltimore, at a little past 2 p.m., a yellow rubber ball will be placed in between the sticks of the draw specialists of Johns Hopkins University and Marquette University.

The umpire will withdraw from the circle and blow a whistle. As the leather and mesh push the ball into the Baltimore sky, a new era of women’s lacrosse will begin.

It’s going to be an era which will require even more fitness and athleticism than ever before, plus heady players who can adapt to a series of rules changes designed to speed up the game and move further away from the game’s Native American roots.

The most obvious rule change this year is the free-movement rule, which brings women’s lacrosse in line with almost every other field-invasion sport. It also brings the game back in line with men’s lacrosse, which, believe it or not, had its own “freeze-tag” rule until the 1950s.

The old rule meant that, out of a 60-minute game, you might have as many as 10 to 25 minutes of “stand” time during which the umpires administered fouls and positioned players at four-meter intervals or cleared free space towards goal.

That is no more. Instead, when a team gets possession in the midfield, it will be a game of wits. Does the player self-start off a foul? Should several defenders converge and trap the ball-carrier along the sideline? When do you pass?

I believe the removal of the “freeze-tag” rule from women’s lacrosse will have the following implications:

  1. Because players aren’t going to have a small rest in between whistles like in the old rules, they are going to be covering a lot more ground. I believe the average player will require about 30-40 percent more fitness than before.
  2. Of course, that assumes that coaches will maintain the same substitution pattern. But I’m not so sure about that; bench play is going to be crucial this year, and I think you will be seeing more and more coaches creating specialty midfield combinations like in the men’s game.
  3. The zone ride, which has been used quite effectively by teams such as Northwestern, is going to be less effective after the first defensive foul. That’s because the team with the ball isn’t limited to their spot, so they should be able to find the seam in between the defenders and pass their way into the attacking third.
  4. By the same token, I think the zone defense — classic, backer, and double-backer alike — will be adopted by even more teams, if they haven’t adopted it before.

There are also a couple of other things you should look for. The last two minutes of each half are no longer stop-time, but the clock continues to run except for goals, cards, and official timeouts. Now, I’m not sure I’m a fan of this change, because the stop-time rule extends the half and gives both offenses and defenses time to think about the critical plays needed to close out a half or game.

Another rules change will be endorsed heartily by any player who has been robbed of a goal by a shooting space call. This year, umpires are being told to award a goal if the player puts the ball into the cage even if there was shooting space, or if the defender gets hit by the ball.

But my favorite rule change this offseason is the elimination of the dangerous shot. I’ve always been of the opinion that, if a shooter hits a defender with the ball, the defender is in shooting space, and the shooting space penalty should apply, not a yellow card for the shooter.

Too, the goalies are allowed to wear copious amounts of equipment, and are well-protected from the ball, and, like in field hockey, are now being told that they need to protect themselves rather than having the officials protect them.

For that rule, it’s about time.

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