Inside the Hawg Pen: Maryland's Faceoff Unit Could be Key to an NCAA Title

COURTESY OF NCAA PHOTOS


Justin Shockey won the clamp, spun, then navigated to open space and collected the ground ball. He raced into the Duke defensive zone untouched. The Blue Devils were slow to slide. Shockey made them pay and fired an overhand shot low past Mike Adler to extend Maryland’s lead to 7-3 late in the second quarter of yesterday's NCAA Semifinal. 

Shockey’s fourth goal of his career and first since his junior year in 2019 almost didn’t happen. 

“Coach Tillman is always so scared when the faceoff guys shoot sometimes that he tends to call timeout,” Maryland volunteer assistant Tyler Barbarich, who works with the faceoff specialists said earlier today. “We were able to have a good laugh between me, Coach Tills, and Justin right after he scored.” 

There was a lot to feel good about as the No. 3 Terrapins played the “best 60 minutes” they had all year to prevail 12-4 in dominating fashion and remain undefeated. Shockey’s goal came amidst a four-goal run, which he fueled by winning four straight faceoffs. He won 9-of-13 faceoffs in the first half and neutralized Duke freshman Jake Naso, who was replaced by fifth-year Holy Cross graduate transfer Dan O’Connell. Shockey finished 11-of-21 and along with sophomore Luke Wierman (1-of-1) came out on top with a 12-to-10 advantage. 

The result was a testament to their preparation, a sign of the coaching staff’s trust and in many ways reflects the story of Maryland’s season at the faceoff stripe. 

“We’ve been good at times, but not necessarily maybe at the standard we’d love to be,” Tillman said after the game. “In big moments we’ve actually had some guys come through. I thought Justin Shockey gave us great minutes today. Gets a goal, but more importantly we got possessions in that second quarter and that was huge for us.”  

“If he gets hot, it’s really tough to stop him,” Barbarich said.

Those cheering loudest for Shockey after he scored were the Terrapins other faceoff specialists, aka the “Hawg Pen.” Former Maryland faceoff coach Chris Mattes, who also trained Shockey when he was in high school, coined the nickname. When Mattes accepted a position with the New England Patriots in player operations and engagement after Maryland’s 2017 National Championship run, the moniker remained in College Park. 

“The whole point of it is whether you’re doing really well or you’re doing really bad, the Hawg Pen is going to fight and be in it,” Barbarich said. 

This year’s group that Barbarich called the closest he’s ever coached runs five deep. Besides Shockey and Wierman there’s Conor Calderone, Joe Trusess and Michael Roche IV, who Barbarich described as a “Swiss Army knife” and emerged as the team’s unofficial barber last March. All their styles at the stripe vary. Each brings something different to the table even if most of their work might only be seen in practice. The camaraderie proved especially vital adapting to a Standing Neutral Grip for 2021. Calderone trained with Naso in the offseason and gave Shockey and Weirman the closest approximation they could get to their future opponent this past week. 







Barbarich likened the group’s approach to the Terrapins last Championship team. 

“If you look at the 2017 run, I don’t think the Hawg Pen had their best year, but when it mattered most they played great,” he said.

Shockey and Weirman have stepped up in big moments this spring. Shockey won 19-of-28 faceoffs in the NCAA first round against Vermont’s Tommy Burke, who made many All-American lists this postseason. After Shockey and Weirman each went 5-of-15 against Notre Dame’s Kyle Gallagher, Wierman won the opening overtime draw in overtime against Gallagher that led to Anthony DeMaio’s game winner. 

The mentality with which Shockey approaches his position sprang from his other passion: white water kayaking. A left handed attackman until high school, he almost gave up lacrosse in middle school in favor of kayaking before he found facing off his freshman year at the Landon School. He won over 79 percent of his draws his senior year during Landon’s 21-0 campaign. 

“There’s similar push-pull and punch motions that are similar to faceoffs, and faceoffs, for me, are a real mental game,” Shockey told laxrecords.com in 2017. “Running Class 5 rapids you must have mental composure and when you get into a close game in the fourth quarter that similar mental composure is required to stay calm and do what you know.”

“I get scared just watching,” Landon coach JR Bordley told Inside Lacrosse in 2017. 

Back in Tillman’s years at the Naval Academy, he assisted with kayaking PE classes in Annapolis. “I don’t want to say I taught it,” Tillman told the Baltimore Sun’s Edward Lee during Tuesday’s press conference with all Final Four head coaches. “It’s a little bit harder than people realize.”

The same thing could be said of facing off at the collegiate level, specifically in the Big Ten. Shockey was thrust into a starting role his freshman year after leaving Navy Prep in the fall of 2017. He went 0-for-3 against Navy in his first career game but soon rebounded before encountering a rough patch when he entered Big Ten Play. Again, he recovered and finished the season, which ended in the semifinals against Duke, at 55 percent. After winning just over 50 percent of his draws in 2019, Shockey improved markedly to 62.3 percent through five games in 2020.

This season provided an even more daunting task. Not only did Shockey have to learn a new technique, but he had to battle against an all Big 10 schedule. While seeding of the NCAA Tournament suggested the Terrapins were docked for a conference-only slate that was out of their control, their showing over the past three weeks combined with Rutgers quarterfinal run then ended in overtime to No. 1 North Carolina should debunk that narrative. That extends to the stripe where every team in the conference outside of Rutgers finished in the 50 percentile. 

The Hawg Pen navigated the challenge together. “They’re really good friends and really close teammates,” Barabarich said of Shockey and Wierman, who he called the “Step Brothers” of the group. “They feed off each other. There’s always joking around and even if one of them is having a bad day they’re messing around instead of getting mad and upset.” 

When pressed, Barbarich revealed that Shockey was most like Brennan, played by Will Ferrell, while Weirman hued more closely John C. Reilly’s Dale. They most resemble the fictional characters when Shockey, who’s a “very good” Call of Duty player according to Barbarich, will often leave Weirman in the waiting room of the video game and never pick him up. 

Any virtual squabbles, though, disappear once they take the field.

“We just have a really loose group right now,” Barbarich said. That's, you know, we're playing for the national championship. They want to win, but they’re not like ‘Oh my God we’re going up against one of the best guys in the country. It’s another game for them. If Shockey starts or Wierman goes in, we’re ready to go. 

“That’s the mindset we’ve had all year and no one’s batted an eye at it. Our guys are ready to go and they’ve been great teammates to each other. Hopefully they’re able to celebrate one more time.”

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