Editor’s Note: This story was written by and republished with the permission of the Big Red Sports Network, which provides excellent Cornell sports coverage throughout the year for alumni, parents, students and fans everywhere.
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Ithaca, N.Y. — FOGO. Face off get off.
In lacrosse, it’s a phrase that describes the faceoff specialist in a task that sounds simple: match up against an opposing player with the ball in between the sticks, control the ball instead of your opponent, and then get off the field so the offense can get into its set and go to the goal.
Of course, it’s not that simple. There are many tiny nuances and complexities – the act of winning a faceoff is a game within a game. Just one man versus another in a game-long battle. Faceoffs may total less than a minute of a 60-minute contest, yet it’s a crucial role in deciding the outcome.
For a FOGO, a large amount of weight rests on his shoulders because a faceoff specialist directly controls the possession time of his team. If he’s doing a good job, pressure is relieved from the defense and goalie, but this situation flips when he is having an off day. The former describes the play of Domenic Massimilian this season, as the sophomore has remained a constant weapon for the Big Red at the faceoff X. Massimilian boasts a .649 faceoff winning percentage, which ranks first in the Ivy League and seventh in all of NCAA Division I lacrosse.
Not every lacrosse player has the makeup to be a faceoff specialist, but, for Massimilian, it suits his personality. “It’s a very visible role because it’s just two guys squaring off, which is pretty unique,” described Massimilian. “I really enjoy it since it gives me a lot of control over the outcome of games.”
In the sport of lacrosse, there are similar situations where certain matchups are exploited or on which one team may focus. For example, matchups between a squad’s best attackman and a top defensemen will be emphasized, but there are still defensive slides and other factors that get involved, whereas at the X, it is truly a competition between two athletes with little or no intervention.
Massimilian is quick off the draw and mostly relies on his fast hands to get the initial clamp on the ball, which is an art that he has come to perfect over the years. “To be an elite faceoff guy, you have to drill your move all the time,” explained Massimilian. “I practice my rotation and all the little things in order to make them perfect.”
However, in order to reach the level of excellence that he has achieved, Massimilian’s game has slightly suffered in other areas. Due to the constant attention to faceoff abilities, his stick skills, ball handling, shooting, and field vision have all taken a few steps back since his rookie year.
In high school, Massimilian’s role was primarily offensive, so it was a difficult transition to relinquish some of the main parts to his overall game, but it would be nearly impossible, from a physical standpoint, for him to play midfield on the offensive or defensive end in addition to taking every faceoff. “I’m basically the only guy, so it’s kind of my deal, and I like that part of it,” said Massimilian.
Although he now works as Cornell’s primary faceoff man, Massimilian spent his entire freshman year learning from Doug Tesoriero, who finished his Big Red campaign last season with a .562 career winning percentage as one of the best faceoff specialists in the country. After taking only five faceoffs last year, Massimilian has already eclipsed Tesoriero’s single season best of .593 in 2012 with two regular season games remaining on the schedule, but he said he owes a big part of his success to his former mentor.
“Doug really guided and trained me to take over for him this year by always reminding me that it was going to be my role next year. He just pushed me in practice and really put his confidence in me from day one,” remarked Massimilian.
He was able to dial in and focus on improving his skills last season, as Massimilian improved greatly over the course of the year. Massimilian recalled that Tesoriero would beat him in practice almost every time in the beginning of the season, yet, by the conclusion, he defeated Tesoriero fairly consistently in some practices.
Another key factor in Massimilian’s outstanding play has been the wings on each faceoff, which are typically occupied by sophomore Marshall Peters, senior Chris Cook, or classmates Tim LaBeau and Brian Sullivan. “They are huge,” stated Massimilian. “It kind of goes unnoticed when you look at the stats, but, without them, I wouldn’t be close to as successful as I am.”
In particular, Cook is fourth in the country among non-FOGOs with 4.54 ground balls per game. He has a knack for swooping into scrums and scooping up a loose ball. Massimilian remembers about four specific faceoffs against Virginia in early February that he actually lost, but Cook stole victories from the Cavaliers by picking up the ground balls.
“I have probably as much confidence in Cook with the ball as I have with anyone on our team. He’s been unbelievable for me on the wing this year,” commended Massimilian.
Even after the faceoff has been won, he has tremendous trust in Cook to handle the ball, as Massimilian often looks for him after victories. Depending on the situation, Massimilian will throw the ball down to senior co-captain Matt Donovan on a fast break, shoot if he has space, or roll back to find Cook. From there, he reads the play on when to substitute off, as the team has a couple of structured pick plays, or, if Massimilian is caught on defense, he will try to sprint to the midline while a guy has his head turned in order to get off the field without giving the opposing team an advantage.
As the Big Red concludes its season in the next few weeks and looks to build a postseason run, Massimilian indicates preparation as an important factor in maintaining his personal success. Teams are starting to throw different strategies at Massimilian in order to thwart him. For example, Penn countered with obstructing his vision of the ball by getting in the way and jamming his arms.
“This definitely rattled me a little and made it more difficult, but I just try to slowly, throughout the game, focus on the next faceoff and how I can adjust from the previous one,” said Massimilian.
It is very interesting because most players prepare for entire offensive or defensive packages in addition to their matchups, yet Massimilian only trains to compete against one single guy. When asked how he does so, Massimilian responded by stating, “I do watch film on other guys, but, for the most part, I try to focus on improving my own game. There’s only so much you can do in analyzing another team’s faceoff guy.” Again, Massimilian mostly relies on his clamp, yet he will change things up if he is preparing to face a particularly difficult or unique opponent.
“I think the most important thing is just keeping a level head and me having faith in my abilities rather than trying to worry too much about what the other guy is doing,” explained Massimilian.
Ultimately, he has no fear in admitting that he wants not just to be an All-American, but the best faceoff guy in the country. Massimilian says he enters practice each day with the mentality of what he needs to accomplish in order to bring his game to the next level.
However, his largest concern is doing as much as possible to contribute to Cornell’s winning record. As Massimilian put it, “it’s no secret we want to win the national championship.”