City scoops up sport and scores with lacrosse faithful

Players, fans from near and far gather for championships and demonstrate how Baltimore became the stick `capital'

May 27, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

The day's defense-heavy first game was almost done. Some of the country's best lacrosse players were sweating, slashing and scoring their way to a shot at the men's collegiate lacrosse title.

But outside the gates of M&T Bank Stadium, with summer's first sizzling heat taking hold, even the hardiest of the sport's fans were beginning to wilt.

Time to shotgun a beer.

"We're having a great time. And yeah, we'll see the games, too," said Adam Cummins, a former college lacrosse player from Towson who circled up with friends to guzzle Busch Lights from small holes poked in the bottom of the cans.

The homecoming for college lacrosse's championships in Baltimore, which kicked off yesterday, seemed excuse enough to fete everything about the nation's oldest sport, both inside and outside the stadium.

In addition to the season-ending games in three men's divisions, the city hosted a LAXFEST for sport merchandisers along the western side of the Inner Harbor and held concerts at the Pier Six Pavilion and Harborplace Amphitheater.

"This is a great town to host the tournament," said Paul Riportella of West Islip, N.Y.

The father of three who works in construction never played organized lacrosse himself, but living on Long Island now means all of his children - 14-year-old Toniann, 13-year-old Paul and 10-year-old Lena - now cradle, throw and catch a surprisingly heavy lacrosse ball with style.

The Riportellas arrived with a tailgating group of 130 from a town that claimed the high school state championship last year. For the team's varsity coach, Scott Craig, the attraction to the sport needs little explanation.

"I think it brings together the best parts of a lot of sports," he said, standing not far from where his West Islip contingent of parents and children were grilling lunch and playing a pick-up lacrosse game in the stadium parking lot. "You have a field sport like soccer, with the scoring and athleticism of a sport like football or basketball."

The Division I universities - Duke, Cornell, Johns Hopkins and Delaware - grabbed the spotlight yesterday as thousands dressed in school colors and waved placards to cheer on their contenders in lacrosse's Final Four. Emboldened Duke fans, shaking off last year's now-discredited rape allegations against Blue Devil lacrosse players, wore their team's name with pride. The final tomorrow pits Hopkins against Duke.

On the fashion side, a good number of lacrosse enthusiasts remained fully committed to the sport's historically preppy image. Teenage boys with shaggy prep-school haircuts wore polo shorts untucked, and their Madras plaid shorts low. Girls donned pearls with their pink shorts. With flip-flops slapping against the pavement, every other person, it seemed, was reflexively cradling a lacrosse stick as they walked the stadium concourses.

A completely unscientific survey of the crowd also revealed what could be called the 13 Colonies phenomenon: Lacrosse fans appeared to be largely drawn from the upstate New York region around perennial powerhouse Syracuse University; the suburban towns of Long Island outside New York City; the Main Line communities of Philadelphia and finally, the dozens of private and public schools around Washington and Northern Virginia.

But Baltimore and Maryland, everyone agreed, remains a mecca for lax players and their supporters.

Want to replace your lacrosse stick? The retailer Lax World has outposts in Towson, Timonium and Annapolis. Headquarters for the sport's national center is in North Baltimore, with talk of moving into $25 million digs at the Inner Harbor. The national hall of fame for lacrosse's best? It's here, too.

"Baltimore is still the capital of lacrosse. No doubt," said Andrew Sclama, who is the director of marketing for the now-Washington Bayhawks, a professional lacrosse team that until recently called Charm City home.

Supporters point to signs of progress to expand the sport's scope and reach. National lacrosse participation increased almost 12 percent in 2006, according to research by US Lacrosse, the national governing body of men's and women's lacrosse. A total of 426,022 players were members of organized teams in 2006, from the youth level up through professional lacrosse teams.

College players like B.J. Neller could be part of the next wave.

He picked up a lacrosse stick in Arizona in sixth grade and continued the sport in Winter Park, Fla., before joining the Salisbury University team as a freshman last year. Today, he'll play for the Division II crown.

Over the last 10 years, lacrosse has been the fastest-growing team sport at both the collegiate and high school levels, according to data from the National Collegiate Athletic Association and the National Federation of State High School Associations.

Mike Steverson and his wife Debbie of Rockville said their son Mark fell into lacrosse - and luckily so. He hurt his pitching arm at age 8, sidelining his interest in baseball. A football injury soon followed.

But a change of course to lacrosse set him on a path to join Delaware's Blue Hens as a freshman this year. Of course then, his parents said laughing a little, the 19-year-old attackman broke his arm in two places.

"But we're still here, and so is he," his mother said. "It's just been a great weekend."

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