The face-offs come and the face-offs go, and Trevor Baptiste still wins most of them. Even for those who don’t know lacrosse from badminton, they should know this junior from Denver. There might not be any college athlete in any sport better at his or her specialty than he is at his.
At last check, Baptiste had won 74.3 percent of his face-offs this season, best in the nation. He has already moved up to No. 6 on the NCAA all-time list of face-offs won, after setting a national record as a freshman. That’s why they call him “The Beast,” and how often do you hear such a nickname attached to a guy who’s 5-10? Quite the journey for someone who once was a Junior Olympian . . . in swimming.
Surely, all those big numbers must mean something to him. “It means I’ve been doing it for a little too long,” he said, laughing over the phone from Providence, where the No. 2 Pioneers played for the Big East championship this week. “I’m just happy I have this opportunity, and have had great wing guys to help me out.”
He didn’t mention how opponents have tried to concoct Plans B, C, D, E and F, hoping to beat him. But first, for the uninitiated, what’s a lacrosse face-off?
That comes at the start of every quarter, and after every goal. Imagine a player from each team, kneeling at the middle of the field, helmets inches apart, leaning forward, looking as if they are about to play rock, paper and scissors. The ball is between them, the whistle blows, and they fight for it as if it was a winning Powerball ticket left on the sidewalk.
To be good at it, you have to . . . well, let Denver coach Bill Tierney explain.
“Some of them are quick, some of them are strong, some of them are built low to the ground. Some of them are just really good stick handlers when they get the ball. There’s so many things that go into it. And some of them just work really hard.
“Trevor’s all the above.”
Which has turned out to be a big, big deal for Denver.
“It’s a one-on-one battle within a real team sport,” Tierney said. “I always equate it to when there was a jump ball after a basket in basketball. If one team had an eight-foot center, and the other one had a five-foot center, the eight-foot center would win every one and that team therefore would have possession a lot. When you’ve got a really talented guy like this, he gives you a lot of comfort. If you just go by stats, seven out of 10 times he’s going to get you the ball.
“Sometimes it can get overblown a little bit. If you don’t score, the other team gets the ball back, anyway. But it is so important, I think there are people in the game who want to outlaw face-offs because of how dominant guys like Trevor can be.”
Sort of like the time basketball banned the dunk because of Lew Alcindor.
What makes the Baptiste story richer is his unusual road. Back in New Jersey, he was pretty good in football and really good in swimming. Freestyle, breaststroke, he could make the stopwatch smoke. There was a time he dreamed of the Olympics.
“But after I was 14, I never really got faster,” he said. “That happens sometimes in swimming. You just peak.”
By then, he had tried lacrosse, liked it. It wasn’t until well into his high school career that he first was used for face-offs, and turned out to be a natural. He figured Division III was his ceiling, and the big names of the sport would not be interested. “I thought I was just too late,” he said. But a Denver assistant got a look at him, and the rest is face-off history.
“Individual competitiveness,” Baptiste called it. “When you’re swimming it’s just you against usually seven other swimmers in the pool. It’s wanting to win, wanting to touch the wall first. Also swimming is a pretty big time commitment. You have to put a lot of time into getting incrementally better. I think that’s something that transfers over to lacrosse, and transfers over to life as well. Hard work pays off.”
So now he’s a junior, and at 5-10, 220 looks like the fullback he used to be. He knows what it feels like to be a national champion and first-team All-American – both of those came his freshman season. He also knows something about scrutiny, and being the target opposing face-off men want badly to beat.
“As the years go on and you establish yourself as a program and even as a player, it gets worse,” he said. “People are really watching and looking for a weakness.”
The idea is not to have any. That’s why he’s out there a half hour before practice, working on his craft. Always been that way -- like when he put a playlist of different whistle cadences on his iPhone, to sharpen his reaction time.
“He’s faced every tactic there is out there,” Tierney said. “It’s like blitzing the quarterback. If you can make him ineffective or get in his head or hurt him, then you don’t have to worry about him anymore. He’s gotten used to that. The other thing is, he’s a fitness freak. He benches 325, he runs a mile in 5 minutes and 30 seconds. He’s a guy that’s all-consumed. He’s just not a face-off guy.”
Plus, Tierney said, there’s the strong family background, and appreciation for education and work ethic. “All the good things we try to do in lacrosse, Trevor’s the poster child for all that,” he said. “This guy is as close to a perfect human being as I’ve ever met.”
But he’ll still be beaten now and again. He takes that personally.
“If Trevor has an ugly side – which I don’t think he does – but if he does it’s when he loses a faceoff, “Tierney said. “Or God forbid, two in a row. That’s when you see the alter ego pop out.”
Sounds like a fun guy to coach, except for one thing.
“We’ve got to keep our eye on him all the time,” Tierney said. “The way I would equate it, if you had a placekicker in football and all of a sudden you saw him doing linebacker drills. Every time we turn around, this guy’s jumping into our scout team offense, or our defensive reps and going at it.
“Anybody who knows us knows we ask our kids to work pretty hard, but often times we’ve got to tell Trevor to go sit down. It’s not that he’s fragile, he’s certainly not. We just don’t want him to get hurt.”
Because there are so many more face-offs to come, and Denver plans on getting most of them.