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PHOTO COURTESY OF LEHIGH ATHLETICS

Mike Sisselberger (left) and Conor Gaffney are one of the top faceoff duos in the country.

Mike Sisselberger and Conor Gaffney Share a Competitive Drive


This story originally appeared on LehighSports.com and is being republished with permission.

Heading into Saturday’s first round of the NCAA tournament against Rutgers, Mike Sisselberger has won 79.5 of his faceoffs, which is better than the current NCAA Division I record for a season.
 
But it was never a sure thing Sisselberger would even see this much playing time. His teammate, Conor Gaffney, is an All-American himself.
 
“If you have two of the top guys in the country going at each other every day, there’s really no one who’s going to challenge you more than in practice,” Sisselberger said. “Every day is a competition. It’s a gift and a curse. It’s a gift because we sharpen each other’s skills, but you can only send one guy out there.
 
“Conor recently being drafted [by Archers LC of the Premier Lacrosse League] shows how much talent he has and shows how good we are for each other.”
 
When Sisselberger arrived at Lehigh in 2019, he was the nation’s top-ranked incoming faceoff specialist according to Inside Lacrosse. He joined a faceoff unit including Gaffney, who won 61 percent of his faceoffs as a freshman and 59.4 percent as a sophomore. Gaffney continued to be “the guy” in 2019, earning Patriot League Faceoff Specialist of the Year honors after winning a cool 69.7 percent.
 
However, things changed at the start of this season, due to circumstances out of Gaffney’s control.
 
“I was in quarantine for 34 straight days, and for most of those days, there were two feet of snow on the ground, so I couldn’t even go on a jog around the block,” he said. “It was tough, physically and mentally. Mentally, not being able to see the guys at all and physically, not being able to work out or train when it was preseason and everyone else in the country was training, getting ready for the season and getting into midseason form.”


“Every day is a competition. It’s a gift and a curse. It’s a gift because we sharpen each other’s skills, but you can only send one guy out there.”


More than a month straight of quarantine would take a toll on anyone, and it certainly did for Gaffney.
 
“I’m not going to lie … I thought about going home to my parents in Denver,” he said. “I was almost ready to call it [quits]. It seemed like I was never going to get to play this semester. But I stuck with it, and it worked out because now we’re moving onto the tournament.”
 
When all is said and done, Sisselberger and Gaffney could very well end up being the top two faceoff specialists in Patriot League history, and that’s saying something considering the number of quality faceoff specialists who have come through the league.
 
Gaffney is the Patriot League’s record holder for ground balls in a career and faceoff wins and ground balls in a season. He’s within striking distance of the league’s career faceoff wins record, too. Meanwhile, through his first full season, Sisselberger is challenging NCAA records.
 
What makes them so successful?
 
Each other.
 
Prior to this season, the change in rules to standup faceoffs led to Gaffney and Sisselberger helping each other as they adapted. Gaffney was used to it from his high school days, while Sisselberger had only ever faced off with a knee down.
 
“There’s a lot of film on it, but until you really get in there and do it, there’s nothing you can watch that’s going to make you that much better,” Sisselberger said. “John Bodnar with Philly Faceoff League produces a lot of good players, and I started going to him a lot more in the summer when he was hosting standup clinics.”








The new style has certainly worked for Sisselberger, playing to his style and strengths.
 
“I was a big wrestler in high school, so it’s similar,” he said. “You’re really low to the ground. You’re in a crouched position and driving with your quads. Your arms are just driving into the ball more than you would on a knee because it’s more of a full-body movement. You’re really susceptible to counters. If you don’t win the ball outright, you can do a couple moves to get it out of the other guy’s stick.”
 
Ever since he started facing off in the eighth grade, Sisselberger has consistently won clamps. That hasn’t changed in 2021, but something else did.
 
“If you win 100 percent of the clamps, it’s still a battle to actually win the faceoff,” Gaffney said. “The fact that Mike is doing that at 80 percent, his exits have taken a huge step up and he’s developed different ways to exit so the other guy can’t just play him one way.”
 
Sisselberger likes to credit much of his improvement to Gaffney.
 
“Without going against a superstar in practice, I wouldn’t be that good,” he said. “My reaction time and strength gets challenged every day. It either has to increase, or I’m going to lose.”
 
Gaffney and Sisselberger are used to winning, but they win faceoffs in different ways.
 
“My style is, I’m a grinder … I like to get the entire ball,” Gaffney said. “I like to get my top rail all the way down, all the way on the other side of the ball, have the entire thing and then exit to where I want to go.
 
“Siss doesn’t necessarily always take the full ball. He has developed a really good rip. He only needs around 70 percent of the ball and can be out quicker than his opponent can react.”
 
No matter one’s style, Gaffney believes technique is the most important contributing factor for faceoff success.
 
“Not everyone who faces off is a bodybuilder or power lifter,” Gaffney said. “You can make your movements stronger, faster, quicker and more effective by being technically sound. Going against each other helps us dial in our techniques.”
 
The duo battles in what they call the “sandbox.”
 
“We’re in our little square of the field,” Gaffney said. “Everyone I’ve been on a faceoff team with is super close. We’re with each other all day at practice banging heads, but also talking about the other team’s sandbox and what we have to do to beat them. The sandbox is definitely a brotherhood.”




PHOTO COURTESY OF LEHIGH ATHLETICS

Conor Gaffney holds Patriot League records, but Mike Sisselberger has established himself as Lehigh's go-to guy this season.


The Mountain Hawks have a bit of a pipeline coming into their sandbox, which also features current freshman Matt Brock, who has played an important role in Gaffney and Sisselberger’s success as well.
 
“Matt’s the man. We love Matt,” Gaffney said. “He’s only gotten better and better each week to the point where now, I think if he faced off against himself from three months ago, he would cook his old self. He’s also a great team player, giving scout looks.”
 
“I know he doesn’t get the press, but Matt pushes both of us in ways you wouldn’t think,” Sisselberger said. “He is really good at realizing he may not get the clamp every time because he’s going against two really good guys but can counter well now, as opposed to when he first started in the fall. He’s adapted superbly, and I believe he could very well start on a lot of other teams in Division I lacrosse.”
 
Gaffney admitted the Philly Faceoff League has helped all three members of the Mountain Hawks’ sandbox get to this point.
 
“In my opinion, the Philly Faceoff League features the highest concentration of faceoff talent in the country — run by John Bodnar and Mike Dolente in Philly,” he said. “The pipeline that the [Lehigh] coaches set up, and the training we get down in Philly, really prepared us to compete the way we do and have the success we’ve had.”
 
Sisselberger and Gaffney define their success by team wins and losses, not statistics or awards. That mindset and approach has allowed them to thrive as each other’s biggest fans.
 
“In terms of awards, getting drafted and recognition, all that stuff’s great and I appreciate all of it, but if I was playing lacrosse to win awards, then I wouldn’t be good,” Gaffney said. “The outside recognition isn’t what internally drives me. It’s much more about competing and wanting to win.
 
“The validation will take care of itself.”