Rope unit excels on both sides of field for Rutgers
At the beginning of every game, they're standing on the sidelines rather than on the field in the starting lineup. They've also played an integral role in the No. 18 Rutgers men's lacrosse team (9-2, 2-0) breakout 2016 season.
Meet the Scarlet Knights' rope unit.
It's comprised of two long-stick midfielders — senior Zack Sikora and freshman Kyle Pless — and four short-stick midfielders — sophomores Christian Mazzone, Christian Scarpello and Austin Divitcos, along with freshman Zachary Franckowiak.
These six players are subbed into the game situationally, with their first job being to roam the defensive area to try and force turnovers and scoop ground balls. Once they regain possession of the ball for the Knights, it is then their job to push the ball in transition, clearing it from the defensive side of the field and delivering it to the offense.
They essentially act as the bridge between the defense and offense, and the rope unit has had its fingerprints all over that success on both ends of the field in a season where Rutgers' has averaged 13.09 goals for and just 8.64 goals against.
Head coach Brian Brecht consistently complimented the Knights rope unit's performance in both zones this season, even naming all six players as gameday captains for Rutgers' game against Monmouth March 5.
"Players make plays, we've got some dynamic players that have bought into the system, that have done a great job defensively digging in," Brecht said of the rope unit's success. "(I) give them a lot of credit for pushing the tempo, but doing their job first defensively and then being able to create offense in the transition game."
The rope unit's No. 1 task is to be a swarming presence when the opponent has the ball in the Knights' defensive end. And this season, their defense has been noticeably aggressive in their own zone, leading the Big Ten and No. 16 in the NCAA with 8.09 caused turnovers per game.
The rope unit forced 42.7 percent of those caused turnovers.
Once another team puts the ball on the ground, Rutgers is most likely going to capitalize on it.
The Knights are No. 4 in the nation in ground balls per game at 34.55. They won that battle in 9 of their 11 games, only finishing on the short side in a loss to then-No. 18 Stony Brook on March 11 and a win over Michigan April 10. On the season Rutgers holds a plus-91 advantage over its opponents in the 50-50 ball department.
Of the 380 total groundballs the Knights have collected, their six-man rope unit has accounted for over 37 percent of them, with Sikora's 37 ground balls leading the team and Mazzone right behind him with 31.
"We have high-intensity practices, we're always going up and down the field," Pless said. "We just bring that into the games and it's just really transitioned well."
When Rutgers is able to regain possession of the ball in its own end, it is then usually up to the rope unit to push the ball and run in transition as fast as possible to set up an odd-man opportunity.
On the path to the offensive zone, they are hounded by the opposing team trying to get the ball back, but the Knights have been very efficient in protecting the ball when changing fields.
Rutgers ranks second in the Big Ten and the country in clearing percentage, getting the ball from its defensive to offensive zone without a turnover in 92.4 percent of their attempts.
And the Knights' rope unit hasn't just delivered the ball to the attackers and subbed out of the game, but they joined the attack and contributed secondary scoring to a lethal offense.
The six players have combined for 17 goals and 17 assists, with Mazzone netting 6 goals and Sikora with five. In addition, Sikora, Mazzone, Scarpello and Divitcos have each tied or set new career-highs in points this season with three games still remaining.
For Zack Sikora, who is the lone upperclassman on the rope unit, the offensive skill set of each player has separated and elevated this year's unit from the ones he's been apart of in past seasons.
"I think we just have a different attitude towards it," Sikora said. "We were all converted offensive players and we excel at both on the defensive end, like we have in the past, but our offensive game this year has been a little more advanced than it has in the past just because we were all offensive players before. So we're focused on transition a lot."