Photo courtesy of Nick Ierardi

Analyzing James Reilly’s debut and the future of the faceoff

By Wyatt Miller

Jun 15, 2023

On the first faceoff of his professional career, James Reilly won the clamp backwards, collected in a hurry and sprinted left past TD Irelan in transition.  

Running hard, he passed forward to Michael Sowers and then waited at the arc for his dodge. Adjusting to the wide route, Reilly set a screen and put his shoulder through Arden Cohen, allowing Sowers to blow past him and go airborne through the crease to get the Waterdogs on the board in just 16 seconds.

Reilly’s versatility was a big reason head coach Andy Copelan picked him in the fourth round of this year’s draft, and he showed it off on his very first play. 

“He’s composed for a rookie and you kind of know what you’re going to get from him,” Copelan said postgame. “He’s a great stick handler, he set a great pick for Michael… So James does more than just take faceoffs and I think he’s got a bright future here.”

Reilly won the game’s first three faceoffs, including two that resulted in goals on the new 32-second shot clock. By the end of the first, Reilly had won six-of-eight faceoffs and the Waterdogs held a 6-1 lead. But then, Irelan won seven straight from the 7:22 mark in the second through the end of the third, and the Redwoods stormed back to win it 10-9. 

Overall, it was a promising debut for the rookie. He finished 10-for-21 with three ground balls and now has the second-highest win percentage after losing the clamp this season (38.9%). Along with flashing his athleticism at the stripe and toughness in transition, Reilly succeeded in playing to the team’s strengths in his debut.

Working the Wings

Before the game, Reilly said his goal was to work the wings, and that’s exactly what he did. On his faceoff wins, wings got the ground ball 40% of the time – the league average is 28%, according to Mike Binkowski.

“I know we have some of the best wing guys in the country in Ryland Rees and Zach Currier, so I know my job is to make as many 50/50 balls as I can,” Reilly said. 

Even during the Redwoods’ comeback in the second quarter, Reilly was finding ways to win without controlling the ball. 

After a Redwoods goal made it 6-3, Irelan controled it at the stripe, but Reilly checked him trying to escape, and he fumbled the ball forward for Currier to scoop up. It may not have stopped the comeback, but interrupting Irelan’s momentum helped keep this game close.

Rees and Currier combined for eight ground balls and each scored goals on quick possessions. The wing play was vital for the Waterdogs as always, and Reilly leaned into that. 

“Having them on the wings is really comforting, so if we can just get a loose ball I know that Ryland or Zach is probably going to come up with it,” Reilly said.

Athletic after the clamp

Reilly’s athleticism was on full display in his debut. After the clamp, he was still working his stick and badgering his opponent. He’s never out of a faceoff with quick hands and the top wings in the world. 

To start his career 3-for-3, Reilly covered the ball first, but then lost the handle trying to spin out to his right. He proceeded to box out Irelan at the stripe like he was on the low post, and Currier sprinted in to clean it up.

Later in the first, Reilly won his cleanest faceoff of the game, tossing the ball forward to himself on a hop before initiating the transition offense. He quickly passed to Ethan Walker, who swung behind-the-back to Kieran McArdle on the doorstep. 

But Cohen, who had just been switched off of Sowers, dislodged it and ruined a golden opportunity for the Waterdogs at the end of the first. These faceoff wins didn’t end in goals like the first two of his career, but they featured some athletic playmaking and a high lacrosse IQ.

Rough Patch

After that ground ball from Currier in the second, Reilly didn’t win another faceoff until the fourth quarter. Two of his seven-straight losses came on violations, and Irelan got four of the five ground balls. 

During the winning streak, Irelan got his stick down and out faster than Reilly, mixing up his escape style to control the ball in different directions. He also advanced the ball with an over-the-shoulder move multiple times, which helped the Redwoods convert on the short shot clock.

Over that almost-20-minute span, the Redwoods outscored the Waterdogs 5-1 and took their first lead of the game, right before the fourth quarter. The Waterdogs won three-of-five in the final period – two were on violations – but they couldn’t get the offensive momentum to swing with the stripe this time. 

Reilly gave the Waterdogs a spark out of the gate, but the rookie struggled to make adjustments down the stretch.  

The plan going forward

Copelan said that Reilly, Zac Tucci and eventually Jake Withers will have weekly faceoff battles.  

After Tucci went 4-for-14 at the stripe in the season opener, Reilly got his shot, and he didn’t disappoint. Tucci now ranks last in the league in faceoff percentage (28.6%), and he’ll have to earn another start to change that, but that could get more difficult soon. 

Withers, who is currently on holdout doing firefighter training, is close to returning. Copelan said they “hope to have Jake back after the Worlds,” which take place next week. Neither Withers nor Tucci eclipsed the 50% threshold, but Withers’ average was slightly higher. Regardless, Copelan said the coaching staff will make their decisions based on each individual matchup. 

This week, that’ll be reigning MVP Trevor Baptiste, who is the only specialist with a higher win rate than Reilly after losing the clamp (40%). But last season, Tucci started against Atlas LC and won 36% against Baptiste to help the ‘Dogs to a 16-15 victory. So, while it might make sense to go with Reilly to counter Baptiste’s post-clamp prowess, Tucci has the experience that earned him the start in week one. 

Every week will be a fight at the stripe between young, hungry players, helping each of them sharpen their skill sets.

Share This With Friends