Orangeville’s Own: Dillon Ward on his arc, angles, and improving his craft

By Austin Owens | Jun 9, 2021

When it comes to new Waterdogs goaltender Dillon Ward, always expect the unexpected.

Just ask anyone around the professional lacrosse world. The Canadian is one of, if not the hardest goalies to get a read on because of the style he employs.

“It’s crazy because you’ll turn to rotate when there’s a skip pass or if you’re late in your rotation, I’ll be guarding a guy at X and he’ll be 10 yards closer to the shooter than I am,” teammate Eli Gobrecht said of Ward. “You’ll see a picture of him and the crease and the goal aren’t in the shot. Just from talking to our guys as shooters, you catch the ball and look and the goalie is 15 feet out of the net, and a guy of Dillon’s size, you have nothing to shoot at.

“You see guys put the ball in the stands or 10 feet wide cause they’re like, ‘What the heck just happened?’”

Fans got their first glimpse of Ward as a starter this past weekend in Boston, and while the Waterdogs came out on the wrong side of the final score, Ward did have some highlight saves. One, in particular, came on a stepdown from Paul Rabil where Ward stepped to the top of his crease and turned away the outside shot with his helmet.

Ward’s ascension to the elite ranks in the field game came from hard work and raw talent, but he also employs an arc that you don’t see many – if any – professional goaltenders use.

The All-World goaltender hasn’t always played this way. In fact, Ward explained that he started tinkering with this strategy while he was playing for Canada at the 2018 World Lacrosse Championships in Israel.

“We were playing on this field at night and the lighting was poor and we were using a dark orange ball, so it’s very hard to see,” Ward said. “So my box instinct kind of took over. It was like, ‘I do this in box, I take a step out and cut down angles. Let’s see if I can do this in field.' I tried it against England in our first game and it worked really well.

“I just started doing it against the Iroquois and the U.S. and Australia and it worked. And I’ve kind of implemented it into my game now.”

Standing at 6-foot-5, Ward is one of the bigger bodies you’ll find in a field goal. But apart from his size in the net, his arc is incredibly unique.

For those who aren’t familiar, an arc refers to points within the net where goalies should be set up depending on where a shooter is located on the field. A traditional arc is generally five points within the crease, with the top center, right, and left, and right and left posts being the spots for a goalie to set up.

The idea is to be able to cut down the angle and limit the amount of net a shooter can see from distance. The traditional arc has generally been used by smaller goalies. However, there’s also a flat arc, which bigger goalies tend to implement. This variation keeps the goalie close to their goal line and gives them more time to react to incoming shots as a result.

So you’d figure that being as tall as he is, Ward would stick to the flat arc, right? Well, yes and no. Because of his other goaltending backgrounds – which encourage goalies to step out and cut angles – he plays a hybrid style.

“I’m still trying to figure it out and I don’t know that I’ve mastered it by any sense of the word,” Ward said. “I definitely play a higher arc than most goalies do in the field game. When I was first learning, it was always stay back on your line and hold your ground, see the ball, react to the shot, and make the save.”

On a given possession, Ward could stick to his line and flat arc and cut down shots from the outside with ample time to react, but at times, he’ll also come out to the top and play a high arc to throw a curveball at shooters. He has done this on stepdowns especially. But it’s the unpredictability that gives him an edge.

There’s no situation that will dictate whether or not you’ll see him at the top of the crease.

Ward does enjoy looking at film to get a better idea of some tendencies, however, he added that he starts to guess if he just goes off of that. So he likes to use the flow of the game to pick his spots.

“Now when I’m playing, you can tell when a player is going to shoot the ball or make a pass or dodge. Now, it’s just more or less gauging if I have a chance to take that step out,” Ward said. “For a guy who’s taking a stepdown, I probably will take that step out to try and cut down the angle and try to make them hit a perfect shot rather than just sitting back.

“I kind of gauge it from the feel of the game and feeling like, ‘I know this guy is going to shoot, so I’m going to take that step out.”

Ward’s dominance in the cage helped him make the jump to the PLL last summer, however, he found himself behind reigning Goaltender of the Year Blaze Riorden with Chaos.

Following the 2020 season, Ward asked Towers if there was a chance that he could find him a spot where he could start during the off-season. As the season neared closer, nothing had come to fruition. But Towers gave him a call on April 30 to let him know that Chaos had accepted a deal to send him to the Waterdogs.

The move will allow the 30-year-old to have a starting role for a team that is trending up following an expansion season in 2020.

Connor Kelly, one of the Waterdogs’ brightest stars, hasn’t had the chance to face Ward in the PLL, but he did go head-to-head with him as a rookie on the Atlanta Blaze in 2018.

“I think more so than any other goalie, you have to be aware of him,” Kelly said. “I think he’s very active and it’s kind of unconventional way, but it works for him and it’s really successful. You have to scout it, and you look at a goalie and say he has these different things. But (Dillon) is different than every other goalie I’ve faced. Whenever you have to make the shooter think, that’s when you have the edge over them. And he does a great job with that.”

Kelly explained that when he’s shooting in-game, he’s not trying to think too much about what the goalie is doing. Instead, he’s trying to just react and aim for pipes and those small gaps.

But he added that Ward makes the shooter change their angles and move to create better opportunities for their shots to fall, which could also allow defenders to recover and stop them.

“Just having that confidence that, if we give up shots from a lower angle, he’s pretty much going to pick up the entire net. You’ve got to but the ball in a soup can to beat him from those lower angles, and it gives us a lot of confidence for sure,” Gobrecht said. “There’s usually a bit of banter when the ball goes to the other end like, ‘How did you save that?’ So I think he’s kind of already in a lot of these guys’ heads before the game even starts, which is a huge mental advantage."

Ward only likes to take a few shots in net during warmup ahead of games. During training camp, he and Zach Currier had a routine that originated from their Outlaws days.

Currier would leave the stretching line and take about 10 shots on Ward before practice started. Those shots would range from half speed to up to 75 percent -- Ward would also occasionally ask for Currier to go full tilt on a few. Then, he’d give Currier and nod, and he was ready to roll.

He had a similar routine with Mikie Schlosser back in Denver. He’d take alley shots on Ward to get him warmed up, and it would give him the opportunity to

“When I was running down the alley, I was like, ‘I don’t know where I’m going to put this thing. There’s nothing available.’ Which is nice. Usually that kind of helps because you really have to be precise. If I don’t put this thing on a poster, there’s no chance,” Schlosser said. “He’s going to make a lot of unbelievable saves, and I’m also very fortunate to play with him so much that it’s kind of like you get used to that and where you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s just what he does...nothing really out of the ordinary.”

Ward was arguably the crowning piece of the off-season for Andy Copelan, as he shored up one of the most important pieces on the field with the Orangeville, Ontario native.

Orangeville is one of the meccas of lacrosse in Canada, and it has become a professional lacrosse player factory, especially in net. Ward is the face of the latest wave, but before him were Chris Sanderson and Kyle Miller, who were the tandem for the Canadian team that won gold at the 2006 World Lacrosse Championships.

The pair would return home to Orangeville and run camps during the summers that taught both field and box skills. A young Ward made sure to attend every year.

“I picked (Sanderson’s) brain every chance I could,” Ward said. “Those two guys were incredibly influential in my field lacrosse development. Chris really did introduce me to the field game and how to properly play and what goes into it, rather than what I saw coming in. My intro was more or less to get in the cage, match sticks, and just stop the ball.

“(Sanderson) really showed me the positioning and how to properly play the position, communication on defence and what that looks like, how to play out of the goal if I need to and getting ground balls. So Chris Sanderson was huge and Kyle Miller worked at those camps as well. They were two guys that I really leaned on in field and they were massive parts to my development.”

Ward took those lessons in stride and was able to become one of the all-time greats in Bellarmine program history, being named the school’s Player of the Decade in October 2020. He quickly transitioned his collegiate success to the next level, being named the MVP of the 2014 World Lacrosse Championships while helping Canada capture gold in Denver.

His resume speaks for itself on the professional and international stages, and his style has continued to grow from those first lessons from the late Chris Sanderson. Goaltending can make or break a team in any given game, and Ward can be that X-factor in the cage.

Ward is going to be in the conversation for Oren Lyons Goalie of the Year award in 2021 and will be pivotal in helping the Waterdogs make a push for the playoffs and title this year.

He’s proven in the past that he can be the best goalie on the planet, and with his ability to keep shooters guessing, he’s going to be the most impactful player on the field for the Waterdogs this season.

He’s never stopped working to get better and learn, and that won’t change anytime soon.

“As I’m getting older...I think I’m at a point now where I need to find that balance between standing back and relying on my positioning and my reaction time and stepping out to cut down the angle and trying to get the shooters to take the perfect shot to beat me,” Ward said. “I think as long as I’m still playing at a high level, getting better, and still trying to get better, I think that’s going to continue to make me want to play.

“Once that time comes where I feel like I don’t have that drive anymore, that’ll probably be the time where I feel like I have to walk away from the game. So I consider myself that student of the game who’s always trying to master my craft.”