Lacrosse's borders growing ever wider

Lacrosse: Once the domain of Baltimore and New York, now the game's college talent is coming from such non-traditional powers as Columbus, Ohio.

College Lacrosse

May 19, 2002|By Paul McMullen and Jeff Zrebiec | Paul McMullen and Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

Before a knee injury ended his season, Virginia defenseman Mark Koontz put together a campaign that made him the Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year in men's lacrosse.

Georgetown attackman Steve Dusseau, a high school teammate of Koontz's, is one of the top candidates for this year's Tewaaraton Trophy, given for the first time last year by Washington's University Club to the nation's best player.

Loyola captain Bryan England, Maryland defender Brett Harper, former Johns Hopkins defenseman Brendan Shook and current Blue Jays midfielder Lou Braun came out of that same program.

Where is this established feeder? Is it one of the Long Island powers, such as Massapequa? Is it St. Paul's, or Boys' Latin? Maybe Landon, the Bethesda prep school that produces as much talent as anyone in Baltimore?

Try Upper Arlington, a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. About a mile from Ohio State University, the public high school with an enrollment of 1,500 is as good a place as any to illustrate the growth of lacrosse, and how it has cut into opportunities that once were taken for granted by Baltimore's best.

The NCAA tournament moved into high gear this weekend, with quarterfinals in Division I and semifinals in divisions II and III. That's 16 teams, and only one, Johns Hopkins, which is host to a Division I doubleheader today, is from Maryland. The days when the state's colleges could restrict recruiting to their back yard and remain a contender are long gone.

"In the old days, if you couldn't get Baltimore players, you were in big trouble," Princeton coach Bill Tierney said. "Now, you just move on to other places."

According to a US Lacrosse study, 76.4 percent of the players in the 1980 Division I tournament hailed from Maryland and New York. By 2000, that percentage had dropped to 64.0 percent. In 1990, eight of the 26 players on the U.S. team that went to the world championships hailed from the Baltimore area. This year, four of the 24 men on the U.S. world team are locals.

The current U.S. team includes Michael Law, who grew up in and played for Denver, and Todd Rassas, who came out of Chicago and starred for Notre Dame. Maybe they wouldn't have made the cut if the pool had included professionals, but the first U.S. team players west of Pittsburgh are another indication that college coaches can no longer blow their recruiting budgets on Long Island and the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association.

"Everybody is still looking for that surprise player, who came out of nowhere," Mount St. Mary's coach Tom Gravante said. "Sometimes you'll get a guy who isn't so pretty on the lacrosse field, but he is a great athlete, and he is willing to work hard. Athletes can beat experience if experience doesn't work hard."

Loyola High coach John Tucker has an interesting perspective on the issue, which includes two widely accepted observations: The MIAA is renowned for its sophisticated stickwork, and college coaches are intrigued by the upside of raw athletic talent. When Hopkins recruited Braun, for instance, it got a young man who played football for a state championship team in Ohio, in cutthroat conditions not found here.

"I believe Baltimore is as important as it's ever been, but the net is being cast wider," Tucker said. "The kids who pick up the game in their later years seem more athletic. They're bigger, faster, stronger. That teaches us that we have to do more to get our kids in the weight room and become better athletes. Kids you don't know about go to camps and test themselves. In some cases, they run by [MIAA players] and push them over."

Tucker played for the U.S. team in the 1986 and 1990 world championships, and in 1984, he helped Hopkins to an NCAA title. Growing up in Belair-Edison, a northeast Baltimore neighborhood, he didn't hold a stick until he was a freshman at Archbishop Curley High School, and Tucker feels the burnout factor must be acknowledged.

"That's a logical concern if you play from age 6 to 18 - 12 years of lacrosse at a pretty high level," Tucker said. "The lacrosse community in Baltimore makes it so intense, especially for kids with older brothers. The ones from almost virgin territories, there's no pressure on them. People aren't expecting them to be the next Conor Gill or Ryan Boyle."

For the same reason Florida turns out major-league baseball players by the dozen, the climate in Maryland gives it a lacrosse edge over some regions.

"There are reasons the skill level in Baltimore is dramatically different," Loyola coach Bill Dirrigl said. "Here, you can almost play year-round. Kids in Rochester can't pull out their sticks until April. Their season only lasts about six weeks."

Landon is ranked No. 1 in Inside Lacrosse's national high school Top 25, but with six teams in the Top 25, the MIAA, which sent Gill from St. Paul's to Virginia and Boyle from Gilman to Princeton, is still considered the nation's best league.

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