Rookie Stephen Rehfuss’ seamless transition from attack to midfield, unique bounce ignites Cannons offense

By Andrew Crane | Aug 21, 2021

Stephen Rehfuss jogged behind the cage as Lyle Thompson did the same from the opposite side, positioning himself to collect a pass while inverted, and turned around to survey the rest of the Cannons’ offense. It was early in the first quarter of their Week 8 game against Chrome, a winner-take-all for the final playoff spot, and the Premier Lacrosse League’s expansion franchise trailed 1-0. Rehfuss started to take short-stick defender Will Haus behind the cage, but then pivoted, spinning around and then curling back toward the right side of the goal-line extended.

Around the 15-yard line, Rehfuss hesitated. He planted his right foot for the next step, but then lifted his left knee a bit higher — a skip as Paul Rabil called it, a “bounce” as Rehfuss referred to it as — and forced Haus to pause. Rehfuss then took advantage of that extra momentum, brought Haus toward the middle of the arc, capitalized on the no-slide look that Chrome stayed with and whipped a shot into the net.

He added another goal and assist later in the game to increase his season totals to 14 goals and 25 points, both leading all Cannons midfielders until Rabil surpassed him last week, to help them sneak into the playoffs and secure a matchup against Atlas on Saturday. He’s transformed from a fourth-round draft pick intended for depth into one that starts and facilitates the offense, a vital piece in the free-flowing, high-tempo system that assistant coach and Virginia offensive coordinator Sean Kirwan has installed.

“He's kinda like that swiss-army knife,” Quirk said before the season.

At the forefront, along with veterans like Thompson and Rabil, is Rehfuss, and the unique bounce he has while dodging that Rabil called a “changeup” for defenders. He’s a nominee for the league’s Rookie of the Year award, sits third in the PLL with 43 assist opportunities and has carried over the success from his strong senior year at Syracuse — where he scored a career-high 26 goals and 56 points — into a role that keeps expanding with the Cannons.

“He's drawn a lot of attention initiating offense,” Rabil said after the Cannons’ win on June 6. “I didn't expect for someone to be able to flip from attack to midfield so seamlessly.”

Rehfuss’ arrival at Syracuse in 2017, after a transfer from Holy Cross, coincided with Kirwan’s arrival at UVA from Brown. Although he didn’t scout opposing offenses as much — since he played exclusively attack and didn’t need to prepare for both offense and defense like he does now as a midfielder — Rehfuss said that he liked the pace of their offense. It was fast. It flowed freely. It allowed players to take advantage of their skillsets in space, maneuvering and dodging into the opportunities that best suited them.

For Rehfuss, that included the bounce. It wasn’t something that a particular coach introduced to him, or something that the Cannons’ or Syracuse’s offense demanded, but he said that he utilized it occasionally at Syracuse. As an attack, though, it wasn’t as effective coming from behind the cage, and he didn’t use it as much while with the Orange.

That changed when he arrived at Gillette Stadium for the PLL’s training camp, though. Kirwan wasn’t there right away because of UVA’s run to the NCAA title, but Rehfuss started running at midfield right away. He sponged insight from players on a roster filled with veterans, and Quirk said those 30-second conversations — with Kirwan, Thompson, Rabil and others, where they encouraged him to try a different move or passed along a nuanced offensive insight — have helped expedite his transition and development at the professional level.

“I definitely considered myself to be like a student of the game and know a lot about it, and then coming and playing with them, I've just realized they know so much more and they see so many different things,” Rehfuss said

Before the Cannons scrimmaged the Whipsnakes during training camp, Kirwan approached Rehfuss and said that they planned to run him with the starters right away —  “throw you right into the fire, we'll see how it goes,” Rehfuss recalled. What resulted was an added comfort he added to the offense, a presence on the right side to complement Thompson on the left that’s poised and causes the other offensive players to become “relaxed,” Kirwan said. 

He assisted on the Cannons’ third goal in the first half against the Waterdogs on June 6, starting the sequence by toeing the white line by the Cannons sideline and catching a pass in stride. A short-stick defender approached him, but Rehfuss burst by him and forced a slide as he sprinted inside the 2-point arc, freeing up Andrew Kew for a wide-open goal in front of the crease.

“Using some quicker changes in speed, not necessarily always direction, but just a change in speed,” Rehfuss said. “Not staying on a flatline because then you can't really get pushed off as easily.”

His inverted role with the Cannons has allowed him more opportunities to dodge and create from up top and the wing. It gives Rehfuss more room to win his one-on-one matchup with defenders, especially if he’s dodging on a short-stick after primarily seeing poles his final year at Syracuse. He became the Orange’s top option at attack, cycling the ball to cutting midfielders or other attackmen but creating additional scoring chances for himself too as his collegiate career progressed.

The next challenge for Rehfuss, though, comes after the first season ends, Kirwan said. There aren’t any mandated workouts by college programs. There’s the risk of becoming another rookie who sputters in the sophomore season, of bursting onto the scene when the final college season transitions smoothly into the first professional one and then disappearing in future years. That's kind of all internal motivation,” Kirwan said.

But Rehfuss said the way he trains has always been simple, and that’ll help. He works out three to four times each week, and will shoot in the backyard at his parents’ house in a free-flowing way that doesn’t force certain types of shots or shot numbers. It keeps his workouts the way they always were when he grew up, through seasons at Shaker High School and then at SU, and helps him “de-stress” and stay loose. He’s also added tennis into his routine more, playing mostly at Schuyler Meadows Club and using it as a way to enhance his cardio, footwork and hands.

And the benefits stemming from that simple yet structured routine have started to emerge through the Cannons’ offensive efficiency rates. First gradually, and now more defined. After Thompson secured a rebound at the 11-minute mark of the second quarter against Chrome, Rehfuss floated at X and caught the rotation pass. He drifted back toward the Albany end zone, trying to create as much extra room as possible, and then made his move.

He bounced four times in front of his defender — switched to James Barclay — and made a move toward the goal-line extended, like he did on his earlier goal. But this time pivoted back the other way, allowing Rabil to cut down an open lane toward the crease and leaving enough of a window for Rehfuss to thread a pass from X to Rabil’s stick. He deposited Rehfuss’ latest assist, on the latest assist opportunity, into the cage.

“Being a rookie in a new league with so many great players, it can definitely be intimidating,” Rehfuss said. “But I think just getting the confidence from those people that I've idolized and I trust, that was definitely the biggest factor for me.”

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