The yellow flag flies up into the air, and a few seconds later the play is blown dead. The ref lets the scorer’s table know that it was a slash and warrants a one-minute penalty. Extra-man opportunities are good for any team, but there is a select group of players who celebrate a little bit more – the man up specialists.
Lacrosse is a game of specialists. The face-off position is extremely specific and some of the best guys can’t throw with their offhand. There are the super-athlete defensive midfielders who are impossible to get by but seemingly always shoot the ball wide of the net. The crease attackmen who always seem to find themselves in the right spot to quick-stick the ball home. However, there is no more glamorous spot than the extra-man specialist.
These are the guys with the silky hands, the well-placed or hard shots, or the great vision. However, these guys typically cannot dodge, play defense on a practice dummy, or run for more than 50 yards. So, when there is the opportunity to play a man-up, the specialists get giddy. The hand-free shots from 12-15 yards, the inside finishes without getting their head taken off, or the behind-the-back assists just to show off. It is almost all perfect.
Lacrosse’s man-up situations are unlike any other sport. Football, you just gain or lose a few yards for a penalty. Basketball fouls award essentially free points. Hockey is the only close thing to lacrosse, yet it lacks specialists who exclusively play offense. Lacrosse is unique, it allows for a completely new set of players to enter the field. Players who have one job: putting the ball into the net.
There is so much to love about being a man-up specialist; trust me I would know, I served as a man-up specialist in college. In practice, you go through each play and tee off on your defense during scout and you never have to be the type of athlete that a two-way midfielder is.
The games are the best part; man-up still gets to partake in the glory of putting points on the board and without the hassle of slashes and hacks from the defense. Most of the game, the man-up specialists are on the sideline, anxiously waiting for the opponent’s defense to commit any type of penalty so they can get onto the field. Every time a ref calls a penalty it’s another opportunity to put one in the back of the net and celebrate with the team.
There is a distinct energy of anticipation and excitement that is emitted from the bench as the man-up unit strides onto the field. The players live for these moments. Hands are almost always free as the ball is zipped around the outside, each player waiting to pick his spot; there seems to be no pressure at all. Until the goalie makes a stop.
Once the ball is no longer in the possession of the “uppers”, it’s panic time. There’s the first initial shock that the goalie even made a save. Then there is the terrifying thought of having to ride one-on-one and get your team the ball back. Absolute worst-case scenario, the penalty expires, and the so-called “specialist” must get back on defense. This is when the player begins to wish he had gone a little harder in sprints or paid a bit more attention to the defensive rotations.
The other team’s bench starts to recognize what is going on and the chirps start flying in the direction of the hopelessly lost “upper”. The ball makes its way around the perimeter and the opposing team’s middie starts to take a few steps backward, setting up his dodge. There are a few things one can do in this situation, none of them will turn out particularly well. It’s every man-up players’ worst nightmare as the opponent eases past them and gets a shot on net. When the net snaps and the opposing team celebrates, the man-up player realizes that his job is not all glory.
There will always be times where a man-up player is getting chewed out by his coach. It is impossible to avoid. Whether it is a bad shot, errant pass, or blown assignment on the ride, man-up is a double edge sword. For every shot that gets buried in the back of the net, there will be the disappointment not even getting a shot off. There are games where the other team doesn’t get a penalty no matter how loud your whole bench yells “ouch!”. Ultimately being an extra-man specialist is not the best job in lacrosse. It may certainly be appealing, especially to younger players who just want to work on their shooting in the back yard. But take it from me, it isn’t all it is cracked up to be.
So, to every young lacrosse player who just wants to get hands free shots on ma-up opportunities, next time you dump out a bucket of balls to shoot with your dominant hand, do the same with your weak hand as well. Run 100% on every sprint coach tells you to, and then do a few more. Work on beating a defender one-on-one or even work on your defense. This way, you won’t have to suffer through the panic attacks while sprinting back on defense or trying to keep your hands warm while watching a cold game from the sidelines.
There will always be a place on man-up for the players who can pass and shoot. But if you can do it all, there will be a place for you everywhere on the field.