Purists want to hold onto the GENTEEL ways of women's lacrosse. Reformers want to play the way the big boys do. The collision of these forces raises the question: Is the old game worth saving?


June 14, 1992|By Maryalice Yakutchik Staff reporters Steven Kivinski, Eric Kubato, Gary Lambrecht and Lem Satterfield contributed to this story.

From the opening whistle, understand this about the evolution of women's lacrosse.

It just went bang.

Up and down this lacrosse-mad state this spring, coaches and players pushed the rules of the old Indian game to the limit, running the genteel traditions and style that once defined the women's game right off the field. Whether the new sport emerging is more challenging, more dangerous or even more fun is at the heart of disagreement between traditionalists and reformers. It is in many ways a battle of the sexes, and both sides insist they have the best interests of the increasingly popular game -- and the girls who play it -- at heart.

Defenders of Original Recipe women's lacrosse characterize it as a smooth, high-scoring, keep-your-options-open finesse game played non-stop by a dozen free-spirited souls who sprint seemingly on whim, unencumbered by helmets or heavy equipment, time-outs or boundaries. Their only protection is an imaginary bubble into which an opponent would never penetrate deliberately, even though she mirrors her opponent stick to stick at top speed.

"I never even wore a mouth guard," says referee Sue Dieffenderffer, 45, who played from fifth grade at Friends School until she retired from the Baltimore Women's Lacrosse Association seven years ago. "I never once got hit until the last year I played. People just didn't swing at one another."

Now, they're not only swinging at each other, but as Annapolis High School defender Kirstin Chiari recalls, the results can be devastating.

This spring she took a deliberate hit with a lacrosse stick full in the face. "I had a broken nose, three stitches, a busted lip and a swollen jaw," Ms. Chiari says of injuries suffered during a game played against Southern High of Anne Arundel County.

No one of either side of the issue wants to see that kind of injury or dangerous play. Yet there are defenders and proponents of an emerging, aggressive, Extra Crispy version of women's lacrosse. The girls' game is still all about finesse," says Annapolis High's high-scoring sophomore Cristi Samaras. "Unfortunately, I do think we'll end up wearing helmets as more girls get hurt. There are a lot of girls out there who want it to be more like the guys' game -- rougher."

Advocates for change say the game needs to be overhauled, just as the antiquated and restrictive version of women's basketball gave way to a more modern, wide-open version.

Thus, a 1990s vision of women's lacrosse would have young women wearing shorts instead of skirts and cradling plastic sticks instead of the traditional wood. There would be helmets, pads, aggressive defenses and cut-and-dodge offenses. It would men's lacrosse played by women.

And it's about time says Cindy Timchal, head coach of the 1992 NCAA champion University of Maryland women's lacrosse team.

"I think it's very healthy, the change," she says. "I don't think sport has a gender. Obviously, being strong and aggressive and fast is somehow equated with being dangerous or out of control. But in terms of inherent dangers or risk, I don't see the connection.

L "Women's lacrosse is a far more exciting sport than it was."

Lacrosse has American Indian roots and was first documented by a Jesuit missionary in the 1600s. Women didn't play until the late 1800s in England. In the 1930s, British educator Isabel Sinclair introduced the women's sport to Americans here in Maryland at the Bryn Mawr School.

British terminology still abounds. And the purist, low-contact style of women's play, which is more similar to the Indian sport than today's men's game, is still in evidence.

When Micul Ann Morse, a no-nonsense fixture on the local lacrosse scene for a quarter century, first took her rules test in 1965, she had to study only a handful of pages, she remembers. For the most part, the elitist sport was governed by courtesy and protocol.

"Basically, it said don't check [defend closely with the stick or body] dangerously while running at top speed," says the Garrison Forest School junior varsity coach. "Now, the interpretations do go on. It's just a completely different game.

"This sounds kind of British, but there was a civilized quality. You just didn't do certain things. There's a nose-up-in-the-air quality about it, but the assumption was that both me and my opponent were going to be fair about the way we did things."

"I'm pessimistic," says Ms. Morse, who played in the Metro Summer Lacrosse League until just two years ago, when she was 44. "I don't want to get into a gender issue, but I think that because of the influence of the men's game, there's a whole cycle we can't get out of. It's hard not to sound like an old fogy, but I feel like there's a beauty that's not there as often anymore."

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