Introducing lacrosse lite Athletics: A powerhouse of the sport more than 60 years, St. John's College in Annapolis has reintroduced lacrosse -- but without the violence.

July 12, 1996|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

It is lacrosse even Plato could love.

The St. John's College athletic department has reinstituted a one-time national championship lacrosse program. But this time there are some new, peaceable rules practiced by no other college in the country.

No hitting. No smashing. No body crushing. No blood.

This is quite a turnaround for a game that is revered in the Maryland region -- in large part for its tooth-spitting, limb-twisting, blood-spilling qualities. But at St. John's, where students read the seminal works of great philosophers, folks believe even a sporting event should follow a more noble ethic.

"All of our activity on the playing fields mirrors our philosophy in the classroom," says Leo Pickens, the school's athletic director, who started the lacrosse program in the spring. "We play because we love to play. That's the ideal -- to increase joyful participation for the students."

St. John's used to rule the lacrosse realm in the 1930s -- with a team that mangled powerhouses such as the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland. But the school disbanded its competitive sports program in 1937, when it instituted the Great Books curriculum and deemed high-powered athletics a distraction from serious study.

Now the game is back -- in mutant form.

Call it Lacrosse for Lovers. Players cannot touch each other at all, their sticks can strike only below the knee, and they cannot shoot at the goal -- balls zip by too fast and could hurt someone. To score, players must run the ball through two posts.

"It's a huge amount of fun," said Eve Gibson, 19, a St. John's sophomore. She plays offense, so to speak.

Critics say the St. John's players need to take a few lessons from Machiavelli. Lacrosse without violence? This just can't catch on.

"Why do I find this hard to believe?" blustered Hopkins coach Tony Seaman, who's not afraid of a well-earned contusion. "There's no such game."

"Players enjoy bumping into each other, and fans enjoy it, too," said Steve Stenersen, executive director of the Lacrosse Foundation in Baltimore.

"They ought to come up with another name because it sure is not lacrosse," huffed Baltimore business executive Buzzy Krongard, a one-time champion center midfielder.

"What? I don't know, it's not the, I just, I don't, I don't really know," ventured Phil Buttafuoco, the National Collegiate Athletic Association's assistant director of championships. "I just don't know any other schools that play that type of lacrosse."

That's because there aren't any. The St. John's version is something altogether new. There are no referees, no boundaries, no benches and no time-outs. Anyone can play -- man, woman, jock, nerd. The teams can be any size. Players choose sides by throwing their lacrosse sticks into the air and dividing up where ,, they land. Instead of uniforms, students paint their bodies black or orange (the school's colors). At the end of the two-hour game, the victors toss the captain of the defeated team into College Creek.

St. Johnnies are calling it "Indian Lacrosse." Graduate student Michael Barth, who is skilled at the rough-and-tumble game, helped draft St. John's rules after studying a version of lacrosse once played by the region's Muskohegan tribe. The way the tribe played it, however, the braves sometimes killed each other.

This is not the aim at St. John's. Helmets and pads were even too expensive; the school could buy only two dozen sticks with a $500 donation. The game is casual so that players don't feel bad if school work keeps them from practice -- or even the weekly Sunday matchup.

So far, St. John's can only play itself. But Barth wouldn't mind changing that. "It would kind of be neat to play 100 people from Hopkins," he said.

Barth is taking an intellectual approach, researching the game's roots at the college. As it turns out, St. John's is a bastion of lacrosse lore.

The school won the 1929, 1930 and 1931 national championships. It even sent its entire team to several international competitions. It produced scores of all-Americans and one legend -- coach William "Dinty" Moore.

In the mid-1920s, Moore (no relation to the stew) couldn't find lacrosse players so he drafted the entire baseball team instead. He gave them sticks. The baseball diamond emptied. And St. John's lacrosse was born.

Moore's rag-tag team caught fire. John Boucher, a farm boy who grew up with a pitchfork in his hands, was a defensive bulldog, picking up opposing players and tossing them over the goal like bales of hay. Okie O'Connor, Ed Lotz, Ernie Cornbrooks and Ferris Thomsen attacked like hornets. Robert MacCartee, who previously had never picked up a lacrosse stick, became a Hall of Famer.

The old-timers might not understand the new game at their alma mater today, but some say they recognize the spirit behind it.

"The point of going to school is to study," said MacCartee, 91, who now lives in California. College athletics should get back to its roots -- instead of remaining the money-hungry industry it has become, he said.

"The fun of the game," he said. "That's the whole point."

Pub Date: 7/12/96

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