Game's growth is sticky situation

Lacrosse: A regional pursuit has turned into a big-time rat race, with kids eschewing other sports for offseason camps, chasing the few scholarships available.

Lacrosse

January 10, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

A big year for lacrosse in Baltimore begins to snowball this weekend, as more than 3,000 coaches are in town for the US Lacrosse National Convention.

The men's college season will conclude Memorial Day weekend at Ravens Stadium, where crowds approaching 40,000 will highlight the game's expanding popularity. Its growth has been accompanied by some of the same excesses that led the NCAA to clamp down on major sports, however, and the lacrosse rat race is becoming just as frantic as football and basketball.

With the necessary energy and expenses, coaches can recruit on the road 10 months a year. The work is redundant, leading to the scouting of younger and younger players.

As specialization is sold as the path to scholarships - which number a precious few on the men's side - players and parents reorder lives and discard other activities.

Just as it has done to soccer, there are signs that club lacrosse could trivialize the high school game, as entrepreneurial forces drive what is allegedly done in the name of education.

"Do we really want kids to dedicate their childhood to lacrosse?" said UMBC coach Don Zimmerman. "I'm concerned that lacrosse is going the direction of soccer. America was told that the only way to catch up to Brazil and Germany is to put all of your eggs in the soccer basket, but in lacrosse, we're already at the top of the totem pole. Why? Because our kids play other sports, which makes them better athletes.

"A lot of people are doing this just to keep up with the Joneses. A lot of people are making a lot of money."

Many wouldn't mind cutting back, but not if they have to put their own genie back in the bottle. Last summer, a "recruiting" camp in Baltimore and another in College Park combined to gross more than $1 million in registration fees. Approximately 4,000 boys and girls paid $100 apiece to participate in a local indoor league. Pay-for-play clubs are proliferating, with scholarships the implicit payoff.

There's gold in what used to be a quaint regional game, but it comes at a cost.

On the road ... again

The NCAA allows recruiting coordinator Mike Locksley and other members of the University of Maryland's football staff to recruit off campus 108 days a year, compared to 175 allowed a basketball assistant like the Terps' Dave Dickerson.

Even that restriction pales to the 298 days a year that longtime lacrosse assistant Dave Slafkosky can leave College Park to recruit. That's actually down. Before this school year, lacrosse coaches could be out recruiting all but a handful of "dead" days.

"It's become a quality of life issue," Maryland coach Dave Cottle said. "It's not as difficult on a head coach, but an assistant can be on the road too much, 12 straight weeks in the summer. It's not a great lifestyle."

Stan Ross, who played for Cottle at Loyola College, is an assistant at Towson. Between now and Thanksgiving, there will be months when he sees more of Princeton assistant Dave Metzbower than his girlfriend.

This year he'll follow prospects as they play high school basketball and lacrosse, try out for all-star teams in June and hit the camp circuit in the summer. He'll watch more as their clubs play in the fall and winter, an endless cycle of Turkey Shoots, Champ Camps and 40,000 miles a year on his pickup.

"Last April and May, I saw between five and eight high school games a week," Ross said. "Neither of us made the [NCAA] playoffs, so Cottle and I get in the car and go. You're going the same places, why not ride together?"

Ross often crashes at the home of Ed Stephenson. In a sport dominated by Princeton and Syracuse, the SUNY Binghamton coach is trying to spread the news of his fledgling program, but even he feels the NCAA calendar could be cut.

"We don't need that much time on the road," Stephenson said.

There are additional schedule strains.

Because lacrosse doesn't have a film exchange, it is one of two sports allowed to scout opponents in person. Unlike football and basketball, lacrosse can bring an unlimited number of recruits to campus for official visits. Programs lock up recruits before their senior year, then target boys entering their junior or sophomore years. It's an accepted practice in basketball, but late bloomers are being squeezed out.

"Ten years ago, lacrosse recruiting didn't start until October of a kid's senior year of high school," Ross said. "Now, it's done by then. People who don't know the sport ask what I do outside of our playing season. Ninety percent of my job is recruiting."

Busier generation

Stephenson, an All-American defenseman for Towson in 1989, didn't pick up a stick until he was a sophomore at Dulaney High. Ross played football and basketball for Boys' Latin, but dropped the former when he was a senior in order to get a better handle on his own college choice, a decision that more high schoolers feel forced to make.

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