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Players who win faceoffs are invaluable -- and they finally are getting recognized

Smithtown East's Steven Cuccurullo battles Half Hollow Hills

Smithtown East's Steven Cuccurullo battles Half Hollow Hills West's Patrick Leone on the faceoff during a Suffolk boys lacrosse game. Credit: Patrick E. McCarthy

Gerard Arceri averages six minutes of playing time in a 48-minute game.

Yet coach Jason Lambert calls Arceri "one of the most important parts" of the Smithtown East lacrosse team.

Arceri's job is to win faceoffs and get off the field. In lacrosse slang, he's aFOGO (faceoff, get off), a specialized player who takes 15-25 faceoffs per game.

The position, if you can call it that, has come about relatively recently.

"We haven't been talking about the term FOGO all that long," said Garden City coach Steve Finnell. "It has not been around for more than five or six years."

Finnell and other coaches say that good teams find an extremely athletic player to take draws. For many of these players, battling for possessions is all they work on in practice and is all they are counted upon in games.

"Teams now say, instead of 10-15 minutes a day, he's going to work on it for an hour and a half," Finnell said.


Reaping rewards

When college lacrosse teams started offering scholarships to faceoff specialists five to seven years ago, interest in the position among high school players, parents and coaches soared.

"It's night and day," said Holy Trinity coach Steve DeNapoli, who at 25, isn't too far removed from his high school playing days to notice the difference. "I remember, and this is only going back seven years ago, it was, who's the decent athlete on the team, let him learn how to take a faceoff and fight for a ground ball. It has evolved into a game within the game."

Sachem North's Michael Calvagna is headed to Stony Brook. Northport's Austin Henningsen is committed to Maryland. Tom Laupus of St. Anthony's is Providence-bound. And Arceri is committed to Penn State.

While the group comprises some of the area's best, some coaches fear the pathway sets a problematic model for players who aren't as accomplished at the faceoff X.

"All some players who just face off know is how to take a faceoff, pick up a ground ball, throw the ball to an attackman and then run off the field," said DeNapoli, a first-year coach who also plays professionally for the New York Lizards. "It's a great way for a kid to earn a scholarship, but I feel it takes away from the purity of the game."

For Laupus, though, it's simply a relatively new wrinkle to the game.

"It's a position," Laupus said. "I think it's better for a team to have a designated guy. Taking 30 draws takes a toll. You want to have energy and be at your best for every single one."


No margin for error

Football placekicker, baseball closer, lacrosse faceoff specialist. Success or failure in these lines of work is absolute: You either do the job or you don't.

In lacrosse, a faceoff guy either gains possession of the ball and the swing of momentum that accompanies it for his team, or he doesn't.

"It's a position where you either win or you lose and there's no soft side to it," Calvagna said. "You could look bad or you could look real good."

A certain mind-set is essential, according to those who excel at the trade.

"I like pressure situations," said Calvagna, a senior. "I like taking faceoffs when the score is tied or in close games. I like playing under pressure. It makes me play better. When you lose one, you just try to forget it completely, don't think about it and just focus on the next one."

At the faceoff X, amnesia is advised.

"It's hard at first," Laupus said. "But you learn to forget."


Hard work pays off

A cerebral approach, along with an ultracompetitive nature, his speed, balance, technique and power make Henningsen perhaps the best faceoff specialist on Long Island.

This season, Henningsen, a junior, has won a remarkable 80.2 percent of his faceoffs. The number good players strive for is about 70 percent. Henningsen, however, wants to be great.

"I take 100 repetitions every day if I can," he said. "I work so hard. I'm in the weight room, working on wrists and forearms. And I'm always working on my hands and technique."

Matt Schomburg, 40, an Adelphi graduate and former professional player, has been developing faceoff specialists on Long Island with his FOGO Lax Academy since 2005. When Henningsen was in the eighth grade, he became one of Schomburg's many students.

"Austin's a freak of nature," Schomburg said. "He's one of the best kids I've ever had. He has extremely quick hands and his strength in his arms from the elbow down is great. Basically, his forearms are like Popeye's."

Schomburg preaches that speed beats everything. Balance is second. He instructs kids to go down on one knee, as opposed to standing up, because it allows hands more freedom.

Similar to a golf swing or a basketball player working on free throws, committing technique to muscle memory is essential. Schomburg said one of his pupils, Steven Cuccurullo, a Smithtown East freshman and Arceri's's heir apparent, is so good, in part, because he takes 300 repetitions daily.


Important advantage

While a faceoff win could lead to a fast-break goal, its benefits are twofold. In a sport without a traditional shot clock, teams with possession can stall when a situation calls for it.

"It can't be said enough how important it can be," Garden City junior James Sullivan said.

He would know. Sullivan won 18 of 25 faceoffs to earn defensive MVP honors in the Trojans' 13-8 victory last June over Jamesville-Dewitt that brought his team a second consecutive Class B state title.

Sullivan joined the Trojans in the eighth grade and up until this season exclusively took draws. Now, he's excelling as a midfielder who also happens to take faceoffs.

"He fulfilled that role as an eighth-grader, freshman and sophomore,'' Finnell said. "Now he's an excellent two-way guy, which is unbelievable in this day of specialization.''

Said Sullivan: "I'm going to do whatever is asked of me at each level. I just want to be someone who helps the team win.''

While facing off may be in his blood, Joey Froccaro, who committed to follow in his brothers' footsteps toward Princeton, said he has no interest in being a one-dimensional player for Port Washington -- or at the college level.

"My best asset is my versatility and I wouldn't want that to change," said Froccaro, who won more than 70 percent of his draws and scored 20 goals last season. "I score goals, I play defense and I take faceoffs. And I may be good at taking faceoffs, but I love playing and I want to do it all."

St. Anthony's coach Keith Wieczorek said the next step for FOGOs is to have them more capable with the ball in their stick, or at the very least, capable enough to get past the initial defender.

"You have to be," Wieczorek said. "If you gain possession for your team and your skills are not good enough where a defender can easily take the ball away, then what good is winning a draw?"Laupus grasps that. He won 10 of 14 draws in a win against Yorktown on May 10.

Not once did he give the ball right back.

"That wouldn't be very efficient," Laupus said.

For Laupus and others, efficient is making an impact in six minutes or less.


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