How Eli Gobrecht went from D-III to Waterdogs defender/faceoff specialist
Going into his senior year at Ithaca High School, Eli Gobrecht thought his lacrosse career was coming to an end. Having already signed a contract to play junior hockey out of high school, Gobrecht stepped away from lacrosse.
But after one season in the Eastern Junior Hockey League, he wasn’t sold on his path to the pros. In talking to some of his more experienced junior hockey friends that summer, Gobrecht realized how difficult it would be to reach the NHL. His future was undecided. Then, he watched his old high school teammates at Ithaca play against West Islip in the 2012 State Championship.
“Just watching that game and being around it… started to lead me toward making the decision to go back to lacrosse and fall back in love with it,” Gobrecht said.
Next fall, Gobrecht walked on at the hometown school, Ithaca College, where his mom worked. Then-head coach Jeff Long said it took just two practices for him to emerge as one of the most physically imposing defensemen in Division-III.
Gobrecht’s overwhelming agility made him a four-year starter and led him to the stripe in certain situations. This year, the faceoff has reentered Gobrecht’s repertoire, but with a different objective tied to the 32-second clock. At Ithaca, he never took more than 12 faceoffs in a season. Now, he’s taking more than 12 per game.
Brian Lasda, who won two national championships as the faceoff man for Cornell in the 1970s, was Gobrecht’s first lacrosse coach. So, from the first year he picked up a stick, Gobrecht could win the faceoff and dial up the pressure after a clamp loss.
As he grew up alongside Lasda’s two sons, playing both hockey and lacrosse, his faceoff instincts developed quickly. When he arrived at Ithaca College, they were hardwired into his game.
“He could win the faceoff and a lot of guys can’t, they could just play defense,” Long said. “He made it so difficult for the guy facing off to get something done that they wanted to do. And if he didn’t win the faceoff, he was on a mission to take it back, and he could play offense too.”
Essentially, Gobrecht did what he does now, but also won the clamp. On the Waterdogs, he concedes the clamp and hacks at opposing specialists to force the ball free, disrupt the outlet pass or simply waste time. He’s an on-ball defender at the stripe, just as he’s been down low.
As a freshman at Ithaca, Gobrecht guarded the best opposing attackman all the way through, Long said. His physical advantage combined with a nose for the ball made him one of the most successful defenseman in Division-III. Gobrecht led the team in caused turnovers in three-straight seasons, with the total rising congruently. By the end of his four-year run, he had 166 caused turnovers and 266 ground balls.
Physical dominance was his biggest advantage at Ithaca, but mental awareness has been the difference-maker in the pros. This season, he’s forced seven turnovers (11th in the league), and his constant post-clamp belligerence has caused countless empty possessions. A lifetime of faceoff experience on both ice and grass has given him the ability to wreak havoc against the best in the world.
“He’s smart, he’s a great athlete, he puts a lot of pressure on-ball, but he also has the cerebral side too, where he rarely takes unnecessary chances and puts himself in bad positions,” said head coach Andy Copelan.
With the new shot clock rules, Gobrecht has reformed his faceoff strategy in a more defensive light. The short clock gives him a specific time frame to either make a play or stop one from being made against him. And since he’s no longer attempting to win the clamp, 100% of his effort goes into disheveling the escape.
“I sort of think of [the faceoff] like you would a 10-man ride,” Gobrecht said. “We’re kind of giving up a little bit in terms of the initial clamp, but it’s an all-out ride basically once that initial faceoff takes place.”
Everyone has a job on the 10-man ride, just as they do on this faceoff strategy. The attackmen guard the backward outlets while the wings are glued to their man, and defenders press out as much as possible.
Gobrecht’s objective is to steer the opposing specialist into trouble based on those matchups. “Without those guys, it doesn’t really work,” Gobrecht said.
“We don’t look at faceoff wins, we look at ground balls and just getting first drive stops in that short shot clock scenario,” said Waterdogs Assistant Coach Robert Cross. “And then you get a full 52, that’s when you really see who we are.”
But, even with the new faceoff phenomenon, Gobrecht’s role is unique. He’s taken 97 faceoffs this season – the second-most for a non-specialist is 62, and no other defender has more than 24.
Once the faceoff is cleared, Gobrecht must sprint back on defense so the opposition can’t take advantage of numbers. It keeps him moving, but it’s also been vital to the team’s success this season, as the Waterdogs are 3-1 in games where he’s taken the faceoff.
“These guys are truly the best at what they do and I’m just trying to do whatever I can to disrupt them and it can be a little exhausting,” Gobrecht said. “It’s something I’m still trying to get better at and am willing to do whatever we need to be successful. So if coach Cope thinks this is what’s gonna work for us then nobody bats an eyelash and we all just commit to it.”
His improvement has been noticeable, but the result of his first game at the stripe will be hard to top. Against an Atlas team led by former MVP Trevor Baptiste, rookie specialist James Reilly was struggling. In the second quarter, Copelan brought the idea of using a pole to Gobrecht and Liam Byrnes.
This was a concept that Copelan and the coaching staff had discussed during the offseason, he said, but it hadn’t been implemented, even at practice. Originally, Gobrecht said the plan was for him to take “a few faceoffs” when they were down by seven in the second quarter.
Gobrecht won his first faceoff attempt, which sparked a score on the ensuing possession. Baptiste, who had not yet seen a pole consistently, failed to clear the ball in a timely manner against Gobrecht. He wasted time passing backwards or sprinting to the sidelines to round the corner, resulting in empty possessions off the faceoff.
Gobrecht manned the stripe for the rest of the game, and aided one of the craziest comebacks in PLL history. The Waterdogs were down by seven when he entered at faceoff in the second quarter. They won 19-18 on a game-winner with 10 seconds remaining, and Copelan hasn’t dressed a specialist since.