By Steven Gross | 6/7/12 10:00 AM
Greg Gurenlian of the Long Island Lizards was named MLL Defensive Player of the Week for Week 5. Gurenlian was 22 for 33 at the face-off X and scooped up 12 ground balls in a 20-10 win over the Ohio Machine. MLL’s Steven Gross had an opportunity to speak with Gurenlian about the award, facing off at the highest level and his experiences in Major League Lacrosse.
Can you tell us your reaction when you heard about the award?
I was pretty surprised, to be honest. It is kind of odd to get the Defensive Player of the Week award, especially being a face-off guy, and with all the great defensive players and goal keepers in the league. Personally I think Drew Adams should win defensive player of the week every week, but I’m biased. But of course I’m honored; it’s great to be recognized for your hard work. So it was pretty cool.
Can you walk us through last week’s game, specifically facing off against Anthony Kelly and Eric O’Brien?
I love to face-off against [Kelly] because we have had great battles since I came in the league in ‘06. It’s never an easy face-off with him; it’s always a little fight. I love battling with him, plus he is a really good guy. Generally, we have good camaraderie among the FOGOs in this league because we have been going at it for a few years. I was injured when I was playing in Charlotte; I had to gut it out so getting that bye week really helped me. Then we hadJim Brown come into our locker room and give us the best pregame speech ever. I kind of felt bad for Ohio; man, what do they do before the game, when we just had Jim Brown talk to us. We were kicking the doors down out of the locker room. It felt great. To come home and have a great crowd in front of you on a Friday night was just perfect. The warm up felt good and I felt great. Having Tim Henderson on my wing was phenomenal. He was just as advertised, if not better. Mike Ward and Dan Cocchi too, we have great chemistry at this point so it was great. We were on the same page. They threw a little curve ball at me, throwing Ray MeGill out there and he did a good job. Right off the whistle, he would chop me up a bit. We came out for a draw and I said we should put both wings on one side, and hopefully their coach would put both wings on the same side. He did that and that was great because it cleared out the other side of the field for me so then it was just smooth sailing for me.
In the game, you were able to win 22 out of 33 face-offs. Can you describe what you were able to do this week to be so successful at the X?
In my career and when I’ve felt healthy and ready to go, I’ve generally done well. Coming back to the east coast and playing with referees that let you play the game and don’t want to be part of the game and call false starts is always great. They’re good refs on the east coast and they just want to put the ball down and go. It was a good game and there were not a lot of penalties and false starts, the refs were consistent and let us define who was going to win that game. Going against Anthony, I go on one knee and go motor grip, and I try to grind it out with him. Against MeGill, I know he’s going to be chopping at me, so I stay up on my feet and I go back to an older type of face-off that I did in college. I stay up, don’t go motor grip, just try to plunk the ball and get it out of there. I know he’s just waiting there to kill me. Those were the different types of strategies I had during the game.
As a face-off specialist, you know firsthand how important your role is to your team. Can you shed some light on your position and explain why it’s such an important role?
A faceoff is a 50-50 possession opportunity, so if you can win two-thirds of those you get a lot more possessions. Face-off guy and a goalie are, I think, the most high pressure positions. For a goalie, every guy in this league shoots like 100 miles per hour so his job is tough. And every face-off guy in the MLL has been All-American or All-Conference and they’re all used to winning the majority of their face-offs in college. You see a lot of great college face-off guys come in and struggle in this league. The competition is fierce. And on top of that, we have been battling with each other two or three times a year for years and years now. We know each other inside out and backwards, and the slightest little fraction of an inch makes a difference. Being a face-off man is important, but I’ve always tried to be an athlete who faces off. When I’m stuck out there on defense, I don’t want to be a liability to my team. Connor Martin took me to the rack last week, so I’m going to have to watch that all week on film now. I’ve always tried to be a good defensive player, and I’ve always tried to create offense off the face-offs as well. This year I feel like I’ve been missing a little of my burst that I had before my injury, so I’m not focusing as much on creating offense. Instead I’m just trying to get the ground balls and get the ball to my offense this year; hopefully next year I can get back to where I’ve been the past and create more fast breaks.
What does it take to be one of the great face-off men in this league? You were talking about the great face-off men who come out of college but can’t translate it to the MLL game. What does it take to be successful at this level?
It is a combination of things. First, the hand speed has to be there. All the things that make you a great college face-off guy have to be there; but of course you also have to have some luck. You need a good coaching staff and an environment in which they’re willing to let you do your thing. I have seen a lot of guys who I would think could have lasted longer [in the league] but they were in an organization where they had a very short leash and they never got a chance to adapt to the pro game. I’ve been lucky with the teams that I’ve been on, in that they’ve given me an opportunity. When I have a bad game, they let me go back out there the next week and prove myself again. For instance this year, I am not supposed to be here right now and the fact is that [the Lizards] put all the eggs in my basket, and I could never thank them enough [for that]. You need a lot of luck and you just need time. That’s the biggest thing. You need time to adapt, because taking 40 face-offs in a game where you’re used to taking 20 [in college] is crazy, but there are a lot more face-offs in the MLL because of the shot clock. Goals happen so fast; you could go out there four times within 10 minutes, easily. It takes a serious toll on your body, so you have to stay in shape throughout the year. I think a lot of guys take being in shape for granted. They were used to training three hours a day for four years in college and they get out in the real world and start going to a real job and they realize how quickly it goes away if you don’t keep it up.
You had mentioned that beating the Machine was critical for you guys. Could you elaborate on that and explain why this could be a momentum changer for your team?
I kind of feel bad for whoever had to play us last Friday because we felt such a strong wave after the win against Charlotte. We gained all this confidence and the new guys were able to come in and show how good they are. I think Coach Spallina has done a phenomenal job in putting people where they are supposed to be and learning our strength and weaknesses. We have come together as a team and we trust each other. Our ownership has come in and provided a spark for us. Having that solid base, when it has been so unsettled for the past year now, makes us feel like we have a home. You don’t lose in front of Jim Brown. If he comes into the stands after giving you a pregame speech, you better win. I think about 10% of our excitement was from fear; we didn’t want to let him down. We feel like this is a good turning point for us because now we have all the people that will be with us on this team. Now we can come together and build off each week. We feel like we will just keep getting better.
As everyone knows, the Long Island Lizards were just sold to an investor group which includes Medallion Financial Corp. and National Football League Hall of Famer Jim Brown. Can you talk about the team’s reaction when you heard about the sale? Did you guys prepare for the game against the Machine differently knowing Jim Brown would be in the crowd?
There was excitement because we wanted to get a win in front of our home fans. But also once Jim Brown came in and gave us our pregame speech, obviously everybody had chills. The night before that, our owners took us out for a meet and greet. Meeting those guys face-to-face means so much to a player, knowing that they care about our success on the field. These guys are investing in us because they want to make money and make us a winner. Seeing them face-to-face and hearing their ideas for the future means a lot to a player. These guys are great; we met them all. We were excited to have them down on the sideline during the game. They were bringing their kids, and their kids were excited. It just fed into all the emotions we had. It was a rollercoaster all night but it was a fantastic time. We are looking forward to a lot more of those types of games.
This is your third year with the Lizards organization. Can you describe the team’s philosophy and how it differs from other MLL teams you’ve played for, especially since the Lizards seem to be going through a re-branding year?
Our year this year is nothing like anything I have experienced. We have had serious turnover and I give our front office – Casey Hilpert and Coach Spallina specifically – a lot of credit because those choices were criticized very heavily. I would to still love to play with Matt Danowski, and Stephen Berger. Brian Spallina was someone I really connected with on a personal level when he was here; I loved playing with him as well as with Nicky Polanco. But in this league, you’re going to lose friends and you can’t take it personally. If we took things personally, with everything that happens, there won’t be any teams to play for. Bad things are going to happen and I learned that over the years. I used to be a lot more hot-headed and get emotional about things. I had to learn that things happen and all you can do is go out there between the lines to do your job. I trust our organization to get the job done and people slowly but surely start to see that this is what they are trying to do. Obviously the trade with Berger and Danowski looks bad right now, but that’s easy to say in retrospect. Max Quinzani didn’t play, and kind of hung us out to dry. Hopefully Rob Pannell will be healthy and help us out next year; we are excited for him to join us. They have been able to find guys who can get the job done. Matt Gibson was a huge pick up; he has been doing a great job. I think the front office has done a phenomenal job. We’ve had some player turnover, but we have youth, athleticism and cohesion. I think if you have those things, you can be very dangerous in this league.
With the Lizards being on a two-game winning streak and heading to Boston to play the 4-1 Cannons, what role do you have to play to keep the team’s momentum up in Week 6?
I have to get the ball first; it’s that plain and simple. Chris Eck [of the Boston Cannons] is one of the best in the world. I have a ridiculous amount of respect for Chris. It is always a good battle when we go against each other. But we have to be level-headed, things happen in Boston, random things. We have to take it with a cool head and when things don’t go our way, we can’t let the whole thing topple. The calls won’t always go our way, that’s sports, but you have to keep it cool. It is up to me and all the veterans who have been here to keep the guys calm. I get excited and play with a lot of emotion but I have to stay relaxed and tell them that we have four quarters to get this done. We are good enough to do it, and we know that. We’ve played against these guys; they’ve got pretty much the same team as last year, so it is not a big difference. We know who we’re preparing for and we just need to get the job done. As long as we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot, I can get us the ball and Drew can make some saves. I have tremendous faith in the rest of our team.
Eck is regarded as one of the best face-off men in the MLL. Can you tell us about what you’re going to do to beat him this week in Boston?
I’m going to do the same thing that I have done in the past. I’m going to go out there, line up against him and have my wings go one-on-one with their wings. It is going to be a one-on-one battle. He likes to pop it forward and the fact that I like to go motor grip these days gives him a little bit of an advantage. I’m planning on switching it back and forth and see what works best in the first quarter. I’m very excited about our wings in this game. If I can just do my part, I think we are going to be ok.
We know you’re the owner and head strength coach of Brawlic Strength LLC. Can you tell us more about educated strength training and how important it is to do it the right way?
I think it has evolved. Lacrosse players used to be very bro, and didn’t think training did much for them. But I think we have come a long way, and I’m seeing younger and younger guys come in now and get a good start. It’s important because there is so much external information that can come into a kid’s life that can hurt him in the beginning. If a younger guy can start with the right person, with an educated strength guy, it helps prevent injury. Some injuries are going to happen anyway – like my knee – but as far as guys training their bodies right, so that they’re flexible and can prevent injury, it is very important. I know every kid wants 52 inch arms, but as a lacrosse player that doesn’t do much for you. It looks cool but it doesn’t do much for you. It’s very important to work from a flexibility standpoint and an injury prevention standpoint, which is always what we teach our athletes. We grow from the ground up. Movement patterns from the very beginning, calisthenics, getting a good base; then you can add the weights after that. It’s so vital for kids to find the right person to teach them. You have to shop around before you find someone that knows what they’re doing.
Let’s start the lightning round. Do you have any pregame rituals or superstitions?
No superstitions. I just assume that I will always have bad luck.
Favorite part of lacrosse?
Favorite TV show?
Game of Thrones, I’m a closet nerd.
“My Girl” by the Temptations.
If you could have dinner with any celebrity, who would it be?
Sylvester Stallone in a heartbeat.
The Long Island Lizards will head up to Boston on Saturday, June 9thto face the Boston Cannons at 7:00 PM ET at Harvard Stadium. Watch it live on CBS Sports Network.