'It happens in a split second': Duke's Jake Naso takes a lacrosse niche to its highest level

Jake Naso faces off in Duke's home matchup against Princeton.
Jake Naso faces off in Duke's home matchup against Princeton.

Saturday, the Blue Devils will take a bus to Chapel Hill for their final — and most tense — regular-season game. To commence the rivalry showdown against North Carolina, an official will place the ball dead center of the field; a player from each team will crouch down, stick on his side of the dot, waiting for the whistle. At the referee’s chime, the players will dig their cleats into the dirt and their shoulders into one another to attempt to gain possession of the ball. This is the faceoff. It starts each quarter and follows every goal.

Since lacrosse became an NCAA sport in 1971, the faceoff has developed from a simple element to a skill that warrants its own specialty position. The faceoff is a niche, but vital, part of the game — and a controversial one. While some coaches swear by their faceoff specialists, others argue that they have too much power over the game.

After every goal, the two teams theoretically have an equal opportunity to get the ball back. So with a dominant faceoff unit, teams can essentially play make-it-take-it style lacrosse where they score a goal and still get the next possession. 

“[Some teams] don't have as good a faceoff guy as their opponents, so they don't get the ball back,” Blue Devil head coach John Danowski told The Chronicle. This imbalance is at the heart of the faceoff controversy; Duke, however, is not one of the teams on the wrong side of the scale.


At this point in his collegiate career, Duke’s primary faceoff specialist, Jake Naso, has repeated the process for the men’s lacrosse faceoff more than 1600 times, winning over 60% of his attempts. Widely regarded as one of the best specialists in the country, the senior captain has added impressive accolades to his resumé, including USILA All-American First Team, USA Lacrosse Magazine All-American First Team and Inside Lacrosse All-American First Team.

Naso’s position is colloquially referred to as the “FOGO” — that’s ”face off get off.” With on-the-fly substitution, a team’s faceoff guy can win his team possession of the ball and then sprint off the field, so a more offensively skilled teammate can join the attack. 

But lacrosse’s faceoff position is unique in the sense that teams aren’t required to have one. Unlike the kicker in football or soccer’s goalkeeper, there doesn’t need to be a player designated as a team’s “FOGO.” Developing a player to face off and get off was simply a strategy that college coaches developed because of the advantage it gave their team. The faceoff specialist is a real position, but “FOGO” is just a nickname.

Until recently, FOGOs didn’t even exist as an intentional style of play. It even used to be a derogatory epithet, according to an article from the Premier Lacrosse League.

“There wasn’t such an emphasis,” Danowski said on the faceoff role.

But ever since the sport started to place elevated importance on the specialist position — which happened in the early 2000s — there was a place for it in recruiting.

“I was always midfield up until high school,” Naso said. “Then it sort of switched because I really loved doing faceoffs and it was known that people got recruited for faceoffs.”

Naso became a master at the faceoff by complete accident. “Our guy that did most of the faceoffs didn't show up to the tournament. I just took most of the face-offs for our team because they needed a guy, and I just kind of liked it.” Now, Naso has the 12th-best faceoff win percentage in the nation.

An ever-changing art

“It happens in a split second,” Naso said. “Every ref has a different cadence, so you're trying to react to that whistle as soon as it blows.”

After years of trying to become the best faceoff specialist he can be, Naso has developed a unique style. 

“Your main object is to control what's called the clamp — getting your stick over the ball before the other guy does,” Naso said. “And sometimes you have to turn around the ball, so it’s sort of like a little wrestling match.”

But in Naso’s career, rule changes have forced faceoffs to change their techniques. “[The NCAA] keeps on trying to make rule changes, so just trying to adapt and overcome while I've been here has been the goal,” he said.

In 2020, a significant rule change regarding how a player is allowed to stand and grip his stick during faceoffs forced FOGOs everywhere to rethink their technique. The ban on “motorcycle grip” and kneeling during faceoffs was made in an effort to make the faceoff more up to chance.

“I don't particularly like the face-off the way it is now. There's too much emphasis placed on the position,” Danowski said. “But I don’t have a great alternative.”

The NCAA decided to ban the faceoff following the 1979 lacrosse season. With the new system, the team that had given up a goal got to take the ball back into play from the sideline, like in basketball. 

“That only lasted for one year,” Danowski said. 

A disaster of a season convinced lacrosse teams across the country that the controversial faceoff was an essential flow of the game. Smaller programs with less dominant faceoff specialists may feel that they are put at a significant disadvantage, but according to Danowski, that’s not necessarily the case. 

“Even when you dominate faceoffs — and you might win 60-70% — it just seems that there are still the same number of possessions,” he said. 

In the small, but expanding, Premier Lacrosse League, the sentiment is largely against the FOGO role. In June 2023, the league ruled to limit the shot clock from 52 to 32 seconds in possessions directly following faceoffs, essentially meaning there is no time for a FOGO to be subbed out. So former FOGOs have to expand their talents.

More than a faceoff

Naso isn’t really a FOGO. He’s a specialist, certainly, but his talents are not limited. A week ago, in his last game in Koskinen, Naso hobbled off the field after an awkward fall. He came back for the second half and played through ab ankle injury and ended up tying his season high of two goals.

More than anything, Naso's position at faceoff is symbolic of his role as one of his team’s senior captains. He opens every battle and plays through injuries for his teammates. Naso’s dedication to his craft pushes his team to advantage.

“I really don't want to see [the faceoff] taken away because it's something I love to do and it's something that got me here,” Naso said said. “I'm grateful for it.”

Maybe the faceoff position carrying so much weight is unfair, or imbalanced. Or maybe the NCAA’s emphasis on the faceoff represents the years of work that guys like Jake Naso put in to master it.


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