In lower levels of lacrosse, a face-off specialist is often a luxury. In Major League Lacrosse, it’s an absolute necessity.
Over the past eight years, few have thrived in the role any better than Peter Vlahakis, a 2000 Shoreham-Wading River graduate who plays for the Long Island Lizards.
In a loss to Boston June 11, Vlahakis became the all-time leader in face-off wins in MLL history with a total of 1,023. He quickly added to that Thursday when the Lizards defeated Chesapeake at Hofstra University.
“I always figured hopefully I could play until my 30s,” Vlahakis said. “The last two years I was getting closer so I thought this is something I wanted to get. More importantly just to keep playing and just being good enough to make a team.”
A face-off specialist may not be the most glamorous role in lacrosse, but the grueling dirty work is essential for any team to succeed. As the old adage goes, you can’t score if you don’t have the ball.
As a high school player at Shoreham, Vlahakis, 29, knew what it was like to be the big-time scorer. He finished his career with 142 points, which at the time was the second most in school history only behind his brother Jimmy. In college at Fairfield University, he quickly began to excel in face-offs and started focusing his efforts squarely there.
“Just in games alone since high school I’ve taken 4,000 face-offs,” said Vlahakis, who’s 5-foot-10, 190 pounds. “For me it’s all about conditioning now. The weight room is a big part of my game, keeping the strength up.”
One thing he hopes to get back into is yoga.
“That really helped with flexibility,” he said.
Each team in the league may only carry one or two face-off specialists, so the competition is always breathing down his neck for those limited jobs.
“Every year there’s the top face-off guys trying to make the league,” he said. “There’s about five or six of us that have been in the league for five, six, seven years. New guys come out and we still hold our ground.”
For those players who have faced off against each other so many times over the years, they’ve developed a strong respect for each other. And there’s a bond among them that doesn’t always form among players on different teams.
One player in particular that Vlahakis has had long battles with is Anthony Kelly, nicknamed the A-Train. Kelly played at Ohio State in College where he faced off against Vlahakis and they met plenty more in MLL where Kelly plays for the Chicago Machine.
“I’ve been playing him for over a decade,” Vlahakis said.
Kelly is sixth all-time in face-off wins with 773.
The pro game features higher scoring games than high school and college, which means a lot more chances for face-offs. It makes the position that much harder and nearly impossible for a player to run the midfield in addition to the face-offs.
A few years ago Vlahakis took 48 face-offs in one game. He won 35, setting the single game MLL record.
When Vlahakis set the all-time record in Boston, it came with little fanfare.
“They didn’t even announce it and my team lost by 10 that game so it was not a very good day,” he said. “But [Thursday] I had a good day and we won. It’s a good honor. The other face-off guys congratulated me.”
In college Vlahakis was ranked in the top-10 in the country in face-off win percentage all four years. As a senior his .654 win percentage was fourth in the country. He started his MLL career with the New Jersey Pride for two seasons before joining the Lizards in 2006, where he currently plays with another former Shoreham player in Mike Unterstein. In 2008 Vlahakis led MLL in ground balls.
Vlahakis, who is a teacher by day, is organzing his first lacrosse clinic in August where local kids will have a chance to learn the game from a variety of professional players. The camp is called Braveheart Elite Lacrosse and is Aug. 7 in Calverton.
“I got some of my teammates are going to come down,” Vlahakis said. “Some of the top players out of schools like Notre Dame, Princeton, Syracuse.”
Vlahakis said the camp is open to kids of all ages from around 8 up to high school.
“There’s also going to be a Braveheart Tournament, which is a one-on-one tournmanet at the end,” he said. “So it’s basically a face-off tournament, but you don’t have to be a face-off guy because you have to score a goal, too.”
Lizards goalie Drew Adams, who played at Syracuse, will be at the camp as well.