A ground ball, as in baseball, is slang for something easy. Maybe that’s why it’s such a misunderstood statistic in lacrosse for those outside the game.
In lacrosse, a ground ball is often the exact opposite of easy. It’s generally all-out war to get a loose ball rolling free on the ground and start or restart an offensive possession. So, what is a ground ball worth in lacrosse?
Long stick short, it’s worth at least a possession, but really much, much more, say some area college coaches.
“It’s huge,” said Maryland women’s coach Cathy Reese, who has brought home five national championship trophies. “It’s such a key stat in the women’s game and in lacrosse in general. It’s a hustle stat. Those are 50-50 balls, and every 50-50 ball is a possession and every possession is a chance to score. If you can win those, it’s an opportunity to score.”
And while the scorers get most of the ink and highlight reels, they don’t get those opportunities without the blue-collar work that goes along with ground balls. Think of offensive line play in football. (Well, sometimes it can even get that physical in men’s lacrosse.) The women rely more on technical skill, especially since they don’t have the specialty long sticks men’s defensemen use.
The rules manual definition of a ground ball in lacrosse is “any ball not in possession of either team that comes into possession of either team should result in a ground ball once a player establishes possession and is immediately able to perform the normal functions of possession (i.e., shoot, pass, cradle), provided the ball was contested by both teams before establishing possession.” In women’s play, the awarding of a ground ball has to involve team’s changing possession.
“Ground balls are vital,” said ninth-year UMBC coach Amy Slade, the 2004 Tewaaraton Award winner at Virginia as the best player in the nation. “Just as important as a draw is to get possession. You want those ground balls so you can attack.”
Reese and Slade share more than just a winning pedigree at Maryland schools, they also have two of the top practitioners in the country in the particular art of securing ground balls in Terrapins defender Lizzie Colson and Retrievers goalkeeper Lexi Roberts. In the latest NCAA statistics, Roberts ranked fifth in the nation with 3.78 groundballs per game and Colson was sixth at 3.67.
Both seniors are unquestioned team leaders and have compelling stories, too, stories that speak volumes about why they’re so good at a statistic — like rebounding in basketball — that’s a lot about hustle and want-to.
Colson, a Manchester, Md., native who played at Manchester Valley High, has long been the gold standard for scrappy, hustling play in her sport. She leads the Big Ten in not only ground balls, but also caused turnovers (3.08) and ranks third in draw controls (4.75). Need to get the ball? There aren’t many players in the country better than Colson.
“It’s a 50-50 shot and that’s my favorite part on the draw or on the defensive end,” Colson said of the mentality of being a ground ball hoarder. “It’s the fight, being willing to do whatever’s necessary to get that ball and start something on the field for your team.”
Colson’s 2021 season is an example of her fight. After Maryland’s national championship campaign in 2019, Colson was working out with Team USA when she suffered a torn ACL that sidelined her in 2020 and set her on a strenuous rehab regimen. Her tenacity, always so evident on the field, helped her come all the way back to be a key contributor for Maryland (7-5) this season.
“For me, it was much harder mentally than physically,” she said. “Growing up, I never struggled with the physical part of sports. The rehab was taxing and not much fun, but watching my teammates play and knowing I couldn’t help was really hard for me.”
Roberts, a native of Baldwin, Md., who played at Fallston High, had her career sidetracked early on, making the decision to transfer from Army to UMBC after her freshman year. It’s somewhat ironic she desired a move closer home when considering how she plays goal, fearless in roaming out of the crease and ranking as an unrivaled Retriever of ground balls.
“Lexi is aware and able to get her stick on a lot of things,” Slade said. “She’s comfortable in and out of the cage. For her to lead a category like ground balls as a goalie — notoriously those are really some of your really, really good goalies. You usually see a high save percentage when a goalie has a lot of ground balls.”
Roberts checks that box. In addition to leading the America East in ground balls, her 12.02 goals against average is fifth in the conference and her .461 save percentage is third. Roberts said the discipline she learned at Army has helped her earn her stripes at UMBC, where she backed up Carly Torlino in 2019. She started all six games a year ago, and continued that trend this year while also mentoring freshman backup Isabella Fontana.
Roberts has always wanted the challenge of being a goalkeeper. She remembers the day when she was 8 years old playing travel lacrosse and saw goalies practicing for the first time.
“They were throwing the ball around in the crease behind the goal and having so much fun I really wanted to try it,” she said.
That next travel practice, Roberts was in those goalkeeper drills and has been at it ever since.
“It’s a very demanding position, especially mentally when you’re so young because there’s not a lot of reward,” she said. “You either make a save or it goes in the goal. It’s definitely a more mental position and after a game I’m so drained.”
Meanwhile, scooping up all those ground balls helps drains offensive chances from opponents.
“To me, if you get a lot of ground balls, you’re a gritty player and probably one of the tougher kids on your team,” Slade said. “When you’re in a scrum and there are a lot of people, the only way to get that ball is to put your head down, run through it with your chest down and over the ball. The true ground-ballers aren’t afraid to get in the middle of that, put their head down, take a hit and come out with the ball on their stick. That takes a lot of determination.”
Determination is a defining element in this realm of the game. Colson got excited talking about the competitive element.
“I just love the fight and really everything about competing,” she said.
That’s the lacrosse ground ball distilled down to its essence.
Photo Credits: Courtesy of Maryland Athletics and Gail Burton