All the attention – from both the media and the Furman defense – was on Ian MacKay last night. Everyone was anticipating the return of Vermont’s senior midfielder, who missed all of 2017 after posting 70 points (42G, 28A) in 2016. MacKay has recorded a point in every game of his collegiate career; he continued that streak with four goals, but his biggest impact on the game may have been as a passer.
The Catamounts’ offense is full of Canadian talent. There’s no shortage of finishers on the field, but finding a feeder to replace Cam Milligan (22G, 22A in 2017) will be the key to a successful 2018. They have some downhill dodging punch in Dawes Milchling (10 unassisted, even-strength goals in 2017 per analyticslacrosse.com) and Rob Hudson, who showed some serious shake on Thursday. But nobody returning on this roster had 10 or more even-strength assists – something 152 players across the country did last season, per analyticslacrosse.com.
MacKay may be among the 10 best even-strength passers in the country. Vermont’s offensive actions always force defenses to slide to MacKay. They’ll get him the ball off shallow, two-man exchanges and have him sweep immediately into a pick with his strong left hand. There’s no time to communicate the pick; a switch is the only option. The switch is okay until MacKay puts his head down and steamrolls his new defender, drawing even more help defense. MacKay waits and baits until the slide’s man (Liam Limoges) sneaks from X for an easy dunk.
That wasn’t the only time a pick forced an off-guard Furman defense into an emergency switch. Later in the game, MacKay drew a short-stick thanks to a pick from Charlie Cobb. The difference here: the help defense comes from the crease rather than X. MacKay recognizes it instantly and sends a behind-the-back pass to the open man inside. Milchling manages to win the groundball and bury the shot – and while this one is actually correct to be scored an unassisted goal since the pass failed to connect, that shot never even happens without MacKay.
These aren’t cross-field skip passes requiring complicated reads; MacKay just manages to make the right read every damn time. If the defense accidentally doubles off a pick, he’ll throw a pull pass across his face to the open teammate, and let him do the rest. This was scored an unassisted goal for Braiden Davis, but it is MacKay’s unselfishness that allows him to trip up the scrambling defender with a sick hesitation move.
MacKay’s ability to create his own shot will manipulate a defense. What he does next – dissecting that scrambling defense and finding the open man – requires another level of skill that only a handful of players across the country have. He sees passes that most don’t see; he attempts passes that most would never consider.
Remember when #LaxTwitter used to relentlessly debate the value of an off-hand? Creative shovel passers like Lyle Thompson have proven that one-handed players are just as capable of beating you with their off-hand; their “off-hand” may look unconventional, though. MacKay doesn’t connect with Hudson on this, but I’d bet on him completing a few of these passes before the season ends.
Maybe MacKay will get an assist on those first two goals after stat corrections. Even if he doesn’t, it won’t be long until he records his first assist of the season – the Catamounts continue their southern road trip tomorrow at Mercer.