The sport of lacrosse is one of the most unconventional sports out there, given the nature of its equipment and the nature of its rules. Even trying to figure out something as simple as what happens when the ball goes out of bounds can be somewhat of a challenge.
When the ball goes out of bounds in lacrosse, possession is given to the opposite team of the player that last touched the ball. There is one exception to this. Following a shot that goes out of bounds, possession is given to the team whose player is nearest to the ball as it crosses out of bounds.
There are few reasons as to why this special out of bounds caveat was put into place. To fully grasp how the out of bounds rules after a shot work, we will analyze a real example of how this plays out during live gameplay.
Standard Out of Bounds Rules
In most cases, the out of bounds rules mirror sports like basketball or soccer. Whichever player last touches the ball loses possession for their team.
General Overview of Standard Out of Bounds Rules
Under normal circumstances, the manner in which the ball travelled out of bounds matters little. The ball can bounce, roll, or fly out of play.
How long the ball travelled before it crossed out of bounds is also a negligible factor. The only determining factor that officials take into account is who touched the ball last.
It is important to note that the opposing team is awarded the ball at the specific location where it crossed out of bounds, a couple yards towards the interior of the field. This way, the player that receives possession is not immediately pushed out of bounds again as soon as they receive the ball.
Keep in mind that possession is NOT awarded at the distinct location where the last player touched the ball, it is awarded where the ball ventured out of play.
Examples of When Standard Out of Bounds Rules Apply
For example, say that a goalkeeper is attempting to clear the ball to the offensive zone by dumping the ball off to a midfielder running downfield. If they heave the ball downfield and overshoot the midfielder, the ball may travel a long way before it finally goes out of play. The goalkeeper’s team forfeits possession to the other team and the officials hand over the ball to the other team at the exact spot where the ball crossed out of bounds.
These standard out of bounds rules generally apply to errant passes, tumultuous ground balls that scamper out play, deflected throws, defensive strip plays, and ball carriers that are forced out of play by the defense.
To see what this looks like in real time, click on the clip below. I kind of felt bad for putting this high schooler’s miscue on display, but in the end I shrugged my shoulders and figured it was worth it for learning purposes.
The Standard Procedure for Resetting Play After the Ball Goes Out of Bounds
The closest player to where the ball crossed out of bounds that is ready to assume possession of the ball must take possession. This is because play is meant to resume immediately.
Teams cannot pick and choose a player at the far end of the field to take the ball, otherwise a delay of game penalty may be issued. The only time where picking and choosing which player will assume possession of the ball is during a dead ball situation, like after a timeout for example.
Virtually all lacrosse games have balls littered all long the field boundaries, so players can pick up a ball and go. This way, teams don’t have to waste time tracking down balls that have travelled into a whole different stratosphere.
How the Boundaries of Play Shift According to Which Team Has the Ball
If you have ever played formal basketball, you know that as soon as you cross over the half court line onto your offensive side, it is illegal for you to cross back over the half court line. The other half of the court is deemed out of play.
This same phenomenon applies to lacrosse as soon the offense establishes possession at their offensive half. Players can cross over the midfield line as much as they want when they are attempting to clear the ball to the offensive zone. But, once a ball carrier touches inside the restraining box of the offensive zone, the other half of the field is now considered out of bounds.
Thus, when offensive possession has been properly established in the half field set, the possessing team must treat the midline like any another out of bounds line. The specific term for the ball crossing over the midfield line once offensive possession has been established is called an over and back.
Out of Bounds Rules Following a Shot
As aforementioned, there is one special caveat to the standard out of bounds rules described above: the out of bounds rules following a shot.
General Overview of Out of Bounds Rules Following a Shot
In the event that an errant shot crosses out of bounds, the ball is NOT awarded to the opposite team of the last player who took the shot. To reiterate, the team that receives possession is the team whose player is nearest to the ball at the moment that it crosses out of bounds.
It is worth mentioning that the closest player to the point at which the shot crossed out of bounds is measured by the player’s body, not their lacrosse stick. Technically, the act of thrusting your lacrosse stick when trying to beat out another player to the out of bounds line is pointless.
However, I must admit that it is difficult for many referees to overlook this fact. It is simply too tempting to dispel this notion, especially when players are sprinting neck and neck.
So although in the official rulebook it does not matter, I would still advise implementing this practice, particularly at the youth or high school level where referees are not as stringent about the rules.
Much like the standard out of bounds rules, play is resumed once a fresh ball is retrieved, when the new ball carrier is positioned exactly where the ball crossed out of bounds, and when the officials blow the whistle.
To get a glimpse of what this rule looks like in action, check out the short clip below of a Maryland player shooting the ball out of bounds and another player backing up his shot to maintain possession.
How the Perception of What a Shot Looks Like Impacts These Out of Bounds Rules
In order for these rules to apply, the force of the shot must be what carries the ball out of bounds. Seems obvious, right?
It is not as simple as it sounds. Sometimes, there are points where players perform something that is borderline between a shot and a pass because they were too indecisive to commit to either one. Depending on which team is closest to the ball, they’re going to promote their own agenda of whether it was a shot or pass to earn their team an extra possession.
I know there were numerous times throughout my playing career where some questionable calls were made regarding this very rule. The only reason I remember so clearly is because I found it amusing when our coach would verbally berate the officials if the call didn’t go our way.
Memory aside, what qualifies as a shot or pass is periodically not so clear cut. Generally, a solid indication of a shot is if the player appears as though they have completely wound back their stick during the shooting motion. Since there is no specific criteria to judge what is a shot versus what is a pass, it makes this decision difficult to manage at times.
Under these sort of circumstances, it is entirely up to the judgement to the officiating crew. There is little you can do to reverse their call on the field if it does not favor your team.
The Out of Bounds Rules Following a Shot Do Not Only Apply to the End Line
The majority of errant shots sail out of bounds toward the end line. This is why high IQ lacrosse players race to the end line as soon as they witness the ball carrier wind up for a shot.
However, the out of bounds rules do not apply to the end line alone. They apply to all boundaries, including the sidelines and the midfield line.
For example, there are times where a shot ricochets off of the pipe, heads directly toward the sideline, and travels out of bounds. There are even certain plays where the ball hits squarely off of the pipe and crosses over the midfield line.
Although these are somewhat rare occurrences, they are still possible and the out of bounds rules following a shot still apply. The player that is nearest to the point on the sideline or the midfield line where the ball went out of bounds will earn their team possession.
How Often Does the Ball Go Out of Bounds During Gameplay?
The ball ventures out of bounds during actual gameplay on a relatively frequent basis.
There are times where the ball may not travel bounds for several minutes. In contrast, there are play sequences where the ball may travel out of bounds multiple times within thirty seconds. It really depends on how aggressive each team is playing on either end.
Teams that thrive on a high volume of shots will likely miss the cage at a high clip, resulting in the ball flying out of play at extremely short time intervals. Moreover, teams that commit to heavy on-ball pressure are more likely to force the ball out of bounds by making ball carriers panic. They may push ball carriers out of bounds or compel them to make errant throws that sail out of play.
With lacrosse teams that rely on a much more slow-paced style of play, the ball does not go out of bounds nearly as much. Since they make calculated, deliberate decisions on both offense and defense, there is a greater likelihood for the ball to stay in play.
What Happens if the Referees Cannot Tell Which Team to Award Possession?
The referees cannot be everywhere monitoring everything at all times. There are only a few of them available on the field, so they are bound to miss some important pieces of the action.
For this reason, there are situations where the ball travels out of bounds and the referees have no clear indication of who touched it last. Whether it be because they were positioned at a strange viewing angle or because there was too much commotion to sort through, there is no viable way for them to decipher which player had the final touch with their eyesight alone.
In this case, it would be unfair for the officiating crew to select a team on a whim to award possession. To avoid this, there is a rule in place designed exclusively for this type of situation called AP, otherwise known as alternate possession.
The general premise of AP is to offer a set system to establish which team has rights to possession in the event that the officials cannot come to a clear consensus on who is entitled to the ball. AP applies to game scenarios where it cannot be determined which player touched the ball last and which player was closest to the ball following a shot.
There are also alternative game circumstances where AP applies. To learn more about how AP relates to these lacrosse anomalies, click over to my article What Does AP Mean in Lacrosse?