Thursday, March 8, 2012

Lacrosse Alphabet Soup

Despite the name of the overall blog, this entry will actually look inside a boxscore.

With UC Davis women's lacrosse just days away from hosting Long Island in its 2012 home opener (1 p.m. at Aggie Stadium, admission is free, /plug), it's perhaps worth taking a few moments to decipher the sport's boxscore for the uninitiated fans.

For starters, women's lacrosse has shown itself to be one of the most challenging sports for which to keep stats or – more precisely – for which to keep the Automated Scorebook for Lacrosse software. To the untrained eye, it resembles soccer and field hockey due to its grass field and the cage-style goals. In reality, the game's stats more closely resemble that of basketball, only it takes place on a field larger than a football gridiron AND has 24 players on the field rather than the hardwood's ten.

As such, it catches many of my SID peers by surprise. San Diego State, which added women's lacrosse this year, wisely assigned their basketball statistician to the sport. Although the Aztec stat crew experienced a trial by fire in the opening weekend, I suspect they will become one of the better desks because of this.

Secondly, this blog entry is not intended to serve as a primer for the game's rules. I could go a thousand words on the "shooting space" and "three second" rules, and yet I fully admit I would have a hard time officiating a game. I leave that for the women and men in stripes. If you're interested on understanding some of the more esoteric rules of women's lacrosse, the US Lacrosse website has a nice HQ on the topic:

No, my aim is to provide a walkthrough of the boxscore and stats, both for fans and for media members who cover the sport. After all, that's the stuff that comes from my desk. I've boldfaced the key points, but you can sift through my verbage for more detail. The true gluttons for punishment can download the NCAA Statistician's Manual.

Here is a sample of a boxscore from one of last year's games. The new version of the software looks much more stylish but this one has some detail worth pointing out. Soak it in for a moment:

I probably don't need to get into these. Points equals goals plus assists in lacrosse (i.e. they're given equal weight). Water polo and ice hockey do the same. Compare this to soccer, goals are worth two points while assists are one.

The assist is defined fairly similarly to basketball – it is the pass that contributes directly to a goal. I would argue it is the most subjective of stats (in both lacrosse and basketball) but it is important to note that there is no limit to the amount of time or the number of steps. If the scoring player had to make any significant effort to elude a defender (other than the goalkeeper) before scoring, this will likely wipe out the assist. The move, not the pass, is what set up the goal.

This also doesn't need much explanation. A shot on goal simply means the ball went into the net or would have had it not been impeded. If you miss wide or high, or your shot hit the cage, it's not on goal. Simple as that. A team's SOG will equal its goals plus its opponent's saves.

I tend to include the SOG distinction on the boxscore but I've found it is too often confounded to be meaningful. Just as baseball/softball fans know that a pitch in the strike zone is not always better than one that missed, a shot on goal is not necessarily a "good" shot. But overall, they indicate a shooter's overall accuracy.

In recent years, the official statistical term has changed to "eight-meter shots" and I expect future versions of the stat software will catch up to the lingo. For now, these still appear on stat reports as FPS and many coaches and fans continue to refer to them as such.

In oversimplified terms, the eight-meter shot is akin to the penalty shot in soccer or water polo. Sort of. The penalty shot tends to be one-on-one, shooter vs. goalkeeper, and starts from a single spot on the field. The eight-meter shot involves other defenders and may take place at one of the five hashmarks around the cage.


Basketball games open with a jump ball or tip-off. Water polo games start with a sprint, in which a player from each team races toward the ball placed in the center of the course. (The short-lived XFL borrowed water polo's sprint to replace the traditional kickoff. How they avoided a fatality is beyond me.) Ice hockey and men's lacrosse have the faceoff. Women's lacrosse begins with a draw:

Once the official blows the whistle, the two players flip the ball into the air and it becomes a mad scramble by both teams to gain possession. Whoever wins control of the draw gets – you guessed it – a draw control. UC Davis led all of NCAA Division I while Hannah Mirza (shown above) set a school record in this very category.

In most sports with a goal, the scoring team concedes possession to the opponent. In soccer or water polo, the team that gave up the goal will be awarded the next possession at the center line. Sink a bucket or hit your free throws in basketball, and the ball automatically goes into the other team's hands. (In pickup games, you probably called this "loser's outs.")

But imagine if in basketball, the two teams returned to the center circle for a tip. A particularly tall player and/or one with some serious hops could give his or her team a substantial advantage. As former Aggie head coach Brendan Blakeley liked to say, "lacrosse is one of the few sports in which you can score a goal and get the ball back."

Did I mention before that lacrosse plays like basketball? These two categories are where the stats are the most similar. And I'll skip the ground ball for a moment, for reasons that will soon be apparent.

Most people know what a turnover is. Give up possession to the other team and you get dinged for one. Fling an errant pass out of bounds? Get the ball stripped by an opposing defender? Throw an interception? Commit an offensive foul? All turnovers.

A caused turnover is lacrosse-speak for a steal: a "positive, aggressive action" that forces your opponent to commit a turnover. Sometimes a boxscore will further break down this category into the types of caused turnovers, in order of frequency:

Stick Check (SC) - use your stick to knock the ball out of your opponent's stick such that your team gains possession, and a tally goes under the CT column for you.

Interception (INT) - slightly distinct from the definition in football, because you have to aggressively create the situation. In football, you can get an INT simply by being in the right place at the right time (see also Larry Brown, Super Bowl XXX). In lacrosse, if an opponent throws a bad pass straight at you and you catch it, you won't get a CT. But if an opponent throws a pass and you leap up or run into a passing lane to pick it off, you'll get a CT. As such, this subcategory requires the statkeeper to exercise a certain amount of judgment.

Blocked Pass (BLK) - the counterpart to the interception. Knock down a pass such that your team gains possession, and you'll get a caused turnover for it.

Drawn Charge (DCH) - I love this rule, and I wish basketball had it. If you draw a charge, you'll be awarded a CT. And chances are, you earned it.

If you've come this far, you're ready for a stat that is unique to women's lacrosse.

The ground ball has gone through both slight tweaks and outright overhauls in the past 13 years. Ultimately, it comes down to two simple tests: a ground ball is a a) change of possession that b) takes place during live-ball play.

As one would guess by the "change of possession" test, the majority of turnovers result in ground balls. Remember the stick check above? You knock the ball out of your opponent's stick. Think about the blocked pass, in which you got a piece of an opponent's pass. In either case, whichever member of your team picks up that ball – yourself included – earns a GB.

Now go back to the interception. If you pick off a pass, you'll get a ground ball. In fact, all INTs are also ground balls. But I poked fun at Super Bowl XXX MVP Larry Brown for his "right place, right time" picks against Neil O'Donnell. By lacrosse rules, he wouldn't get an INT but he would get a GB.

The "live-ball play" test adds another element to the ground ball. I mentioned earlier that the majority of turnovers result in ground balls. But not all of 'em. If your opponent throws an errant pass that sails out of bounds, the official will award possession to your team. But no player earns a GB because the ball went dead when it crossed the boundary line.

Another example of the live-ball test takes place when a foul resolves the change of possession. So your opponent loses the ball. You go after it and get fouled before you get there. The official awards you the ball. You won't get a GB because the possession was gained while the ball was dead. But if your stick was in contact with the ball at the time of the foul, you will get a GB because the rulemakers have decided that contact shall constitute possession.

The other instance of a ground ball takes place when a missed shot is recovered in live play, somewhat like basketball's rebound.

I'll pause for a minute to allow you to reach for some aspirin.

You shoot the ball. The ball misses and returns to play. Whoever wins that ball will earn a GB, assuming she picks it up while the ball is still live.

You shoot the ball. The ball misses and heads out of bounds. Whoever is nearest to the ball (and inbounds) will be handed the ball. She does not get a GB because the ball was dead when it crossed the boundary line.

You shoot the ball. The ball misses and heads out of bounds. But a player stops it before it can cross the boundary. She gets a GB.

Pop that asprin.

You shoot the ball. The goalie catches it. If the shot would have missed, give the goalie a ground ball but not a save. If the shot was on target and would have gone into the net, give the goalie a save but not a ground ball.

You shoot the ball. The ball hits the pipe and begins rolling toward the goal. If the goalie stops it, she gets a save but no GB. If another player stops it, that player gets a GB but not a save.

Drink some water with that aspirin. 

You shoot the ball. The goalie saves it but doesn't control it. Whoever picks up the loose ball gets a ground ball. If the goalie saves it, doesn't control it immediately, but picks up her own ball, give her the ground ball if she had to contest for it. If no one was around her, she only gets the save without the ground ball.

The good news for statkeepers: most missed shots will not have a ground ball. Shots that miss high or wide generally sail beyond the field's end line (negating any possibility of a GB). Shots that are saved usually stay in the goalkeeper's stick head. Shots that hit a post or are blocked cause a statkeeper's hair to stand on end.

This final category shows up on the team stats of a boxscore or season report. It measures a team's effectiveness in transitioning the ball from defense to offense.

As soon as your team gains possession behind the defensive restraining line (loosely similar to the blue line in ice hockey), a clear attempt begins. If you can get the ball across the opposite restraining line without turning the ball over, it's a good clear. If you cough it up along the way for any reason, it's a failed clear (or broken clear).

The NCAA complicated this a bit by factoring in situations when a yellow card forces a team to play short-handed. I'll spare you the gory details but suffice to say a team operating a player down gets a freeroll: they'll generally be credited for a good clear when successful, but they won't be charged with a failed one if they don't make it.

In the past two seasons, UC Davis has been successful on 347 of 443 clear attempts for a 78.3 percent success rate. The Aggies went a combined 21-11. In the two previous years, UC Davis made 370 of 517 clears for a 71.6 percentage, falling below 70 percent in 2009. The team had a 13-23 record in that span. Last year's NCAA runner-up Maryland cleared at 84.6 percent. Semifinalist Duke finished at 79.2 percent. (Champion Northwestern and semifinalst North Carolina did not report clearing numbers.) The three lowest-ranked teams cleared at 68.4, 71.0 and 55.6 percent.

During our weekly meetings, head coach Elaine Jones will often comment on how well the Aggies transitioned the ball when evaluating their performance from the previous weekend. Chances are, I already saw it in the boxscore.

* * * * *

I've kept stats for the Aggie basketball teams since the mid-1980s and used the StatCrew software since Doug Dull introduced it to our office in 1991. I was essentially a one-man volleyball stat crew for a JC championship and a Division III regional. The long, scrambling rallies of those tournaments create quite a challenge for a statistician. Yet in my experience, no sport is quite as nerve-wracking for an SID as women's lacrosse.

If you've read this far, you can see why.

-Mark Honbo, assistant athletics communications director, gives a huge nod to former Virginia and Intercollegiate Women's Lacrosse Coaches Association info guru Chip Rogers. Now an assistant field hockey coach at Miami (Ohio), Rogers codified collegiate women's lacrosse stats in the late 1990s and continued to educate his industry for the next decade, raising the profile of the game like almost no other individual.


  1. Have been keeping high school girl's lacrosse stats for the past year. Have kept stats in many other sports, basketball included, which made this be quite manageable after a thorough read of the NCAA Women's Lacrosse Stats Manual.

    The one nuance you did not mention was the errant pass or drop that was "saved" by a teammate preventing a change of possession. It is interesting that the NCAA does not record a stat for this occurrence. Arguably, the girl who made the bad pass or dropped a pass had an "unforced error" but that does not get recorded so long as either she or a teammate retains possession for the team. By the same token, the teammate who recovers a teammate's drop or errant pass is not awarded a ground ball, so she is effectively taking one for the team. It is somewhat akin to drawing a charge in basketball.

    Anyway, nice job on this blog. I relived this spring season as I read your post. BTW, it should be noted that it is not possible to both observe and record the stats in live mode, the action is too fast. We had a system where I called the stats while one of the Moms recorded them.

  2. Don, apologies for such a late reply... I just noticed this post. (I don't get a notification when someone comments -- perhaps a setting on here.)

    In fact, the situation you describe was a ground ball until 2003, when the powers that be decided to narrow the definition. The GB went to any player who picked up a ball that was contestable by each team, so long as that player was not the one who lost it in the first place. The idea, as you noted, is that such a player maintained possession for her team, which is often just as important as gaining possession for her team.

    If I were to guess, I'd say Rogers simplified the stat rules because too many SIDs struggled to compile them accurately. The ground ball column is perhaps less meaningful now, but it's probably more accurate.

    Thank you for the reply!