How Does a Lacrosse Game Begin? (A Beginner’s Guide)


People that are not yet well acquainted with the sport of lacrosse are often left terribly confused right at the get-go. When lacrosse players organize into a set formation on the field and the referee blows the whistle, it’s difficult to keep track of what is actually going on.

Every lacrosse game formally begins with a face-off. It is a fair means of establishing possession at the start of a game. Two opponents vie for possession of the ball at the center of the field with four other players that run in for support. All of these players compete to pick up the loose ball.

This seems simple to understand on paper, but there are many underlying regulations in place to ensure that the start of lacrosse games run smoothly. To learn everything you need to know about the start of lacrosse games, it is necessary to take an in depth look at face-off procedure as well as the game formalities that happen just prior to the face-off.

A Brief Overview of Basic Face-Off Procedure

If you’ve ever witnessed the start of a lacrosse game before, it almost seems like a gladiator match is taking at the center of the field, otherwise known as the face-off X. As soon as the whistle blows, the two players at center collide with one another. The ball can hardly be seen amongst the clutter. Although it may seem like it’s a free for all on the field, the face-off is one of the most regulated portions of lacrosse.

The Proper Set-Up for a Face-Off

When the game is about to begin, every player on the field assumes a particular position on the field to prepare for the upcoming face-off. There is a lot more moving parts to the face-off then just the two players squaring off at the face-off X.

Each team has ten players on the field. The location of these players on the field is as follows:

  • 1 Face-Off Specialist – positioned at face-off X
  • 2 Midfielders – positioned on opposite wings that flank the face-off X
  • 3 Attackmen – positioned in the offensive zone
  • 3 Defensemen – positioned in the defensive zone
  • 1 Goalkeeper – positioned in the defensive zone

I know this can be challenging to visualize with words alone, so I provided a diagram of what this looks like below.

How the Face-Off Actually Works

Once all players are in their respective positions, the referee could then initiate the actual face-off procedure itself.

The very first thing that the referee says to the face-off players is “Down!” This signifies to the face-off players to drop down and position their lacrosse sticks at the center of the face-off X. One peculiar aspect about the face-off is that the players have the back of their lacrosse head faced toward the face-off X rather than the front.

They push the back of their pockets inward to make room for the ball to fit into the back of the lacrosse head. To see what I mean, refer to the picture below.

From here, the referee places the ball between the two opponents. Then, the referee adjusts the face-off players to ensure that no player has a distinct advantage over the other.

Once all of the necessary adjustments have been made, the referee then says “Set!” The set call alerts the face-off players to get ready because the whistle is about to be blown. In addition, this also lets players know that they can no longer move or flinch, otherwise a face-off violation will be issued. This prevents players from trying to attack the face-off too early.

Lastly, the whistle is finally blown. The face-off players can finally make their move on the ball that is centered between them and try to gain possession. The midfielders on the wings are also released once the whistle is blown and are allowed to run in to offer support.

Typically, a 3v3 ground battle ensues after each face-off player makes a play on the ball. For those of you that do not know, a ground ball is just a loose ball that is not yet possessed by any one team.

To learn more about the specifics of ground balls and their importance to winning lacrosse games, click over to my article What Does Ground Ball Mean in Lacrosse?

When a face-off player has possession of the ball in the back of their pocket, they toss out the ball toward a secure area away from the opposing team, preferably to the midfielders on the wing. This gives their team the best opportunity to scoop up the loose ball.

Some of the best face-off specialists don’t even need to use the midfielders on the wings for support. They win possession of the ball so quickly that they simply take possession for themselves, preventing any possibility for a ground ball scenario. This is how every team wants to start out the game in lacrosse.

Once a team has firmly established possession of the ball, a referee calls out “Release!” With this call, the attackmen and defensemen are permitted to venture outside of their respective zones and help contribute to the play.

One of the best face-off specialists at winning possession is Trevor Baptiste. He has a knack for coming away with the ball a split second after the referee blows the whistle. To see one of the best face-off players in the world at work, click on the clip below!

Important Face-Off Rules to Take Note of

Face-off specialists must adhere to a certain subset of rules in order to avoid drawing a penalty. A face-off violation will be issued if a face-off player performs any of the following actions (source):

  • Moving once the referee has enacted the “Set!” call.
  • Deliberately pressing down on the opposing player’s stick (with their own body or lacrosse stick).
  • Contacting the ball with the hands or fingers.
  • Kicking the opposing player’s stick.
  • Making noises to coerce the opponent into moving early.
  • Holding the ball in the back of the lacrosse head for too long.
  • Taking more than one step with the ball in the back of the lacrosse head.
  • Lacking a six inch colored tape wrap extending from the throat of the lacrosse head downward.
  • Having any tape wrapped around the throat of the lacrosse head.
  • Facing off as a goalkeeper.

Face-off players are not the only ones who can draw a violation on the face-off procedure. The other players on the field are also capable of such mishaps.

As aforementioned, four players (including the goalie) are confined to the defensive zone and three players are confined to the offensive zone. If any of these players venture outside their respective zone before the “Release!” call is made, a face-off violation will be issued. Furthermore, if the midfielders on the wing try to jump the gun and go early before the whistle is blown, the referees will issue a face-off violation.

The Penalty for Violating Face-Off Procedure

Any of the above actions result in what is known as a face-off violation. With a face-off violation, possession is immediately turned over to the other team.

However, there is a chance for more severe penalties if these face-off violations accumulate. If a team commits three face-off violations in a single half, the offending team must serve a thirty second stint in the penalty box. Since this penalty is considered a technical penalty, it is releasable (source).

To get a clear, easy to follow description about the way lacrosse penalties are handled, click over to my article How Penalties Work in Lacrosse: A Helpful, Illustrated Guide.

Any violations following this third violation will also warrant a thirty second technical penalty if they all occur within the same half. Needless to say, you want to avoid accruing multiple face-off violations as they can do some serious harm to your team’s chances of winning.

Why Face-Offs are Used at the Start of a Lacrosse Game

Every sport has a unique means of starting off games. Basketball has the tip-off, football has the kickoff, hockey has the face-off, the list can go on and on. The lacrosse face-off resembles hockey in this respect. With both hockey and lacrosse, the face-off serves as a viable method of resolving the issue of who receives possession by the fairest means possible.

Rather than leaving it up to a coin flip, lacrosse leaves it up to the players to decide who will get the first crack on offense. This is one of the premier reasons why the face-off has been around for as long as it has. Teams appreciate the fact that they control their own destiny. If they want the ball so badly, they will have to earn it for themselves.

This is also a major reason why face-offs are used at the beginning of every quarter and after every single goal. In other sports, the team that was just scored on simply receives possession. With lacrosse, teams have the opportunity to build on their momentum and fight for another consecutive possession. Not only does this add another layer of unpredictability to the game, but it also makes the game that much more exciting.

Does Anything Important Happen Before the Face-Off?

Although the face-off marks the official start to a lacrosse game, there are a few formalities that lacrosse teams must go through before the game.

Just prior to game time, the officiating crew calls on the captains from both teams to congregate at the center of the field. The players then shake hands and introduce themselves. From here, the referee performs a coin toss. The visiting team calls heads or tails in the air. Whichever team wins the coin toss is faced with two options a) first alternate possession (AP) or b) first choice of which goal to defend (source).

For those of you that do not know, AP is what the officials refer to when they do not know which team to award possession. For example, if there is a loose ball on the field and play is stopped because there is an injury on the field, referees use AP to decide which team will receive the ball when play resumes.

You can find more information on the different circumstances where AP applies by clicking over to my article What Does AP Mean in Lacrosse?

When the team that won the coin toss announces their decision to the referee, the other team is left with whatever option wasn’t selected. With these pregame formalities out of the way, the game could finally start!

The Bottom Line

The face-off always starts off lacrosse games regardless of when or where it’s played. It’s the most ideal means for impartially handing out possession at the beginning of a game. Face-offs are around to stay and I don’t see any other way that a lacrosse game could officially begin in the foreseeable future.

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Austin Carmody

I am the owner of Lacrosse Pack. I enjoy hitting the local lacrosse fields and honing in on the craft in my free time.

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