Breaking open the game

Equipment: Has the evolution of sticks changed girls lacrosse? Or has it been the players who wield them?

Girls Lacrosse

March 20, 2002|By Katherine Dunn | Katherine Dunn,SUN STAFF

When Mount Hebron's Melissa McCarthy began playing with a new lacrosse stick last season, she noticed the difference right away.

"The ability to hold the ball in the top of the stick has helped me the most," said McCarthy, an All-Metro midfielder headed for the University of North Carolina this fall.

"It has a different type of stringing. It has a U-string at the top, which allows me to hold the ball more toward the top of the stick as it rolls out. I know it's added 10 to 12 miles an hour to my shot."

The U-shaped string, which distinguishes McCarthy's Debeer Apex stick, as well as the Brine Synergy and the STX JA7 models, is just the latest technology in what has become a manufacturers' stick war.

New models pop up annually as manufacturers push the envelope on the US Lacrosse equipment guidelines that govern the women's game from the youth to the international level.

Erin Brown, US Lacrosse women's division director and a 1997 and 2001 World Cup player, said the stick war is driven by the increasing attention given the women's game through the media and through promotion.

A high-profile player such as former Maryland star Jen Adams also draws more attention to the women's market, because girls want to emulate her slick stick skills, so they'll look for the stick she uses.

Thus, the advances beg the chicken-or-the-egg question: Which changed first - the game or the stick?

"In my personal opinion, the stick changed because the game changed," Brown said. "There's sort of been an evolution as the women's game has gotten more visual to more people."

Others, such as longtime Glenelg coach Ginger Kincaid, believe the opposite.

"The stick is responsible for most of the change," Kincaid said. "Going one-on-one is easier. The defense has got to play a lot more team defense if they're ever going to have a chance. You can forget that one-big-check-in-the-middle-of-the-field stuff."

The first plastic stick for women appeared in 1973, but changes in offset heads and string design have accelerated rapidly in the past few years. Some players are not so quick to change, but many players and coaches say the newer models are easier to handle.

"It's easier to keep the ball in stick and that's given girls a lot of confidence with the stick. They feel they have a big advantage, and that confidence translates to their game," said Bryn Mawr coach Wendy Kridel, who also coaches the U.S. under-19 team.

There's no doubt that the newest high-tech sticks facilitate a faster, slicker game.

Shots and passes have more zip. Ground balls are scooped up on the dead run. Players carry sticks horizontally, no longer needing the ear-to-ear cradle to hold the ball in the crosse. Stickwork can be incredibly intricate. Shooters can be more creative and deceptive around the crease.

The newest stick "does hide the ball a little bit," said Megan Huether, Maryvale's All-Metro goalie who has signed with Duke. "Being a goalie, one thing you look for is when the ball moves up the stick. The U-shooter cradles the ball right in the middle to the top of the stick and it sits in the top of the stick. That takes away that signal."

Still, the debate continues as to whether the latest stick technology is improving the game or not - especially at the high school and youth levels.

Sue Diffenderffer, a longtime official and the rules interpreter for the state girls tournament, said she believes the stick design is getting ahead of the capabilities of many younger players.

"The only thing that concerns me about the sticks is that they can take a mediocre player and give her the ability to throw the same as a good player. She might not have the physical and mental ability to control that. Even though shooting space is a rule and it's called, it's still the responsibility of the player to know when it's safe to shoot and when it's not."

At St. Stephen's/St. Agnes, in Alexandria, Va., coach Kathy Jenkins requires her players to use wooden sticks until their senior year.

Still, her team finished third in the nation last year behind Moorestown, N.J., and Mount Hebron. Jenkins said she believes wooden sticks promote better fundamental skills.

"Good, solid skills win games. We're not holding sticks out to the side or making behind-the-back passes; we're all about good solid basics. It's great if they can do all that fancy stickwork, but I haven't seen that win a game on the high school level," said Jenkins, who admits she's feeling pressure from parents and college coaches to go plastic.

The latest models are going to be the sticks of choice for most young players, but how high-tech is too high-tech?

"This is probably as far as they'll go," Brown said. "That's not any kind of top secret information. The way the [US Lacrosse] rules committee is - their relationships with manufacturers and developing specifications - they are always focussing on the safety of the game. They will not be taking on any greater extreme."

Even athletes such as McCarthy and Huether said that in the long run, it's not the stick that makes the player. After all, Cherie Greer, the U.S. player named Most Valuable Player of the past two World Cups, has never used a plastic stick.

"She's the best in the world and she's unbelievable with a wooden stick," said Notre Dame Prep junior Coco Stanwick. "That shows you that no matter what you play with, you can be the best."

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