New Life for an Old Game

Interest in lacrosse is booming at schools across the country

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When Los Altos (Calif.) High’s Rorke Denver scored his first of two goals in the North/South High School All-Star Game last June in Baltimore, he was immediately interviewed by cable TV’s Prime Network. Later in the same game, Scott Adams, from Bellaire High in Texas, also soaked up some national air time.

This kind of media attention is usually reserved for the mainstream high school sports—football, baseball, basketball, and the like. Denver and Adams, however, are two of the newest ambassadors for one of the nation’s oldest but most obscure sports: lacrosse. Although it has been played in schools and colleges for more than a century, lacrosse only recently has begun to grab hold of the nation’s sporting consciousness.

Nearly half of the country’s commonwealths—from Washington state to Washington, D.C.— were represented at the boys’ high school all-star game. It was just one of a dozen season-culminating games at the three-day Lacrosse Classic, the nation’s largest full-scale festival of a single sport. Nearly 1,000 players, ages 6 to 67, took part. And an estimated 15 million Americans tuned in on cable affiliates.

Such unbridled enthusiasm for the sport is relatively new. In 1958, only 84 high schools and 40 colleges fielded men’s lacrosse teams, according to the Lacrosse Foundation, a national advocacy organization. But by 1988, the number had grown to 669 high schools and 201 colleges. Steve Stenersen, the foundation’s executive director, estimates that today more than 1,000 high schools and 350 colleges are competing in men’s lacrosse. “It’s nobody’s secret possession anymore,” he says.

Lacrosse is also catching on among women. Currently, an estimated 375 high schools and 180 colleges offer programs for women, up from 239 and 98, respectively, only four years ago. “They’re springing up all over,” says Sue McVaugh of the U.S. Women’s Lacrosse Association (USWLA), which is based in Hamilton, N.Y. “We have an overflow of kids who want to play.”

The sport originated with North American Indian tribes. The Iroquois called the game guhchigwaha, literally “bump hips,” and considered it a heavenly gift. The Indians looked upon the game as a religious rite, sport, and means of conditioning warriors. Matches lasted for days, with hundreds on a side running between villages. The goals were usually appropriately spaced trees. French Jesuits named the sport “lacrosse” in the 17th century because the wooden sticks the Indians used resembled a bishop’s crosier.

Modern lacrosse is a loose combination of hockey and soccer, played on a grassy area slightly larger than a football field. Each lacrosse team fields 10 players: three attackers, three midfielders, three defenders, and a goalie. Like basketball, the game is divided into four quarters. A goal is worth one point, and a typical score might be 10-8.

Girls wear kilts. Boys wear shorts, pads, and plastic helmets with masks. Each player carries a long-handled, fiberglass or wooden stick that has a triangular meshed pouch at one end used to catch, carry, and shoot a ball, which is bigger than a billiard ball but smaller than a baseball. Goalies wear more equipment than the other players, and their sticks have larger heads.

Size isn’t usually a factor as long as the player is quick and strong enough to withstand the ice hockey-like hitting common to the boys’ game. Girls’ lacrosse is less physical.

There’s a rugged charm and tranquility to the game, especially among the schools with the longest lacrosse legacies, such as New Hampshire’s elite Phillips Exeter Academy. But it’s a misconception that lacrosse is an Eastern sport, trapped in genteel country-club settings.

In fact, lacrosse today has a strong following in public schools. In New York state, which has three times as many teams as any other state, almost all the 300-plus squads are in public schools. And of Maryland’s nearly 100 scholastic varsity programs, 80 percent are public. “It’s not a sport only for prep schools,” says Cathy Samaras, who coordinates and coaches girls’ and boys’ teams in Anne Arundel County, Md. “It’s a sport for everyone.”

Lacrosse does have its pockets of tradition and enthusiasm. The game’s scholastic strongholds are concentrated in and around Baltimore, home of the Lacrosse Foundation and the sport’s hall of fame and museum, and throughout Long Island, N.Y. Although programs for young children and middle school students are expanding everywhere, they are particularly strong in the Washington, D.C., area.

Lacrosse enthusiasts offer a number of reasons for the sport’s new-found popularity. A few years ago, Stx Co. introduced “Stxball,” a safe line of plastic sticks and balls that proved popular among 5- to 7-year-olds. And in a number of areas, the sport has been introduced to children through park-district and inner-city programs. Local lacrosse clinics, advertising and media coverage on cable stations, corporate sponsorships by companies such as Westinghouse, and the creation of coaching certification programs also have helped.

The sport’s quasi-governing bodies have played a major role, as well. The USWLA, for example, lends start-up equipment to schools that are interested in initiating lacrosse programs. The association dispensed 35 kits three years ago, 40 two years ago, and 50 last year. Kits include 24 sticks, 24 balls, and goalie equipment. The Lacrosse Foundation’s New Start Program, which to date has spent more than $2 million on equipment and other resources, has been the first step for more than 600 teams since its inception in 1983.

In many places where the sport has been introduced, the response from students has been overwhelming. “I thought I’d get 25 of my own kids for my first summer league team, but 95 signed up,” says John Baer, a Nashville coach who helped eight Tennessee high school teams get started. “We had 160 the year after that and 250 this past summer.”

Still, there are a number of obstacles that must be addressed if lacrosse is to find a home in the majority of school athletic programs. For one, most state athletic authorities do not recognize the sport. In fact, only 13 state high school associations sanction lacrosse, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. In states where lacrosse is not a sanctioned interscholastic sport, teams are sponsored as an after-school activity or club and don’t get the same kind of support the recognized sports receive. Then, there are the problems associated with introducing any new sport to an area, namely the lack of knowledgeable and trained coaches and officials.

Enthusiasts are hopeful, though, that the momentum of the 1980s will continue to build through the ‘90s. “The sport has grown against all odds,” says Stenersen of the Lacrosse Foundation. “The 1980s were a time of economic withdrawal at secondary schools; athletics were getting slashed. But from what we’re hearing from the manufacturers, we’re predicting that the growth in the 1990s is going to blow the ‘80s away. We’re popping at the seams.”

Vol. 04, Issue 06, Pages 16-17

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