U.S. lacrosse attracting more Canadians

They have 'uncanny skills,' Hopkins' Pietramala says

March 12, 2010|By Mike Preston

United States college lacrosse teams don't have to travel far anymore to find Canadian lacrosse players because the Canadians are finding them.

Take Johns Hopkins freshman midfielder Zach Palmer, for example. Blue Jays coach Dave Pietramala discovered Palmer on a three-minute highlight film Palmer sent Pietramala a little more than a year ago.

On Tuesday night, Palmer, from Oshawa, Ontario, scored three goals and had two assists as No. 7 Hopkins defeated No. 19 UMBC, 16-10.

It was a strange recruiting mission by Pietramala, but he's happy, and so is Palmer. And there are more Palmers waiting in Canada to play, according to Palmer and Dave Huntley, a former Hopkins All-America midfielder and coach of the Canadian national team.

"It used to be around age 12 that most of the Canadian kids started thinking about playing in the U.S. because it is more competitive here and the scholarship money can help pay some of the cost," Palmer said. "But kids are thinking about it even earlier now because of the opportunity."

Said Huntley: "It's very gratifying to see all the kids do well. In the last seven or eight years, the floodgates seem to have opened."

Huntley was one of the early Canadian pioneers, along with Al Rimmer and Mike French, who played for Cornell in the early 1970s. There were always Canadians sprinkled throughout American rosters, but the trend really seemed to catch on when Paul and Gary Gait of British Columbia played at Syracuse and helped the Orange win three NCAA titles from 1987 through 1990.

And the Gaits did it with such flair.

They had the over-the-shoulder shots and no-look passes. Gary Gait had the "Air Gait" move in which he became airborne from the back and side of the crease and then shot as he glided through the crease.

Those moves mesmerized fans here. Back in Canada, it was just another day at the office. Now, if you want instant offense, sign a Canadian. It used to be that some of the top schools in the country, such as Virginia, Maryland and even Hopkins, didn't need to go north of the border because most of the top scorers in the U.S. went to those schools.

With talent spread around these days, a lot of teams have or have had a Canadian. Delaware had John Grant, and Duke had Zack Greer. Hofstra has four Canadians on its extra-man offense, and Syracuse recruits in British Columbia almost as much as it goes throughout New York.

"The Canadians have uncanny skills because they play box lacrosse," Pietramala said. "The game is faster because the field is smaller, and so are the goals. So they have to be more creative in scoring. They have a lot of excellent shooters. While Zach is learning from us, we're learning from him. It's a two-way street."

When Dom Starsia coached Virginia against Syracuse last week, one of his greatest concerns was playing defense around the crease. The Orange has a few Canadians on the roster, and they like to set a lot of picks.

So do the Americans, but the Canadians do it better. They'll get the ball back to the player who set the pick. They can stick some passes into some really tight windows.

"You have to be on your toes with those guys because they do things you don't see a lot," Starsia said. "Canadians are great finishers because they have to get shots off in a hurry and because their goals are smaller."

Huntley says the Canadians have two other advantages. He believes the Canadians catch the ball stronger and lose it less when they get checked.

When the U.S. college season is over, most of the Canadians will go back home and play another full season, which could add 40 games.

"The Americans have their summer leagues, but it's more of a social thing," Huntley said. "The Canadians will go home and play in some small box arena where there is 100-degree humidity."

Pietramala said he wouldn't mind if young lacrosse players who didn't participate in a winter sport played the indoor game.

"When Greer played at Duke, sometimes they would run a fast break like an NBA team with Greer coming up high to pick, and then he would turn and get the ball," Pietramala said. "The Canadians know how to pick and how to fake picks because they have to be so darn creative. Watch them when they're faking a goalie up close. Canadians fake with their wrists. U.S. players use their wrist and arms because we don't have to get the ball off as quickly. They are also excellent one-handed players because their game is so fast they only have time to use their strong hand."

That's one area where Palmer has had to adjust: being able to cradle with both hands. He has also had to learn to slow down and allow the offense to set up because the field is much larger in America.

"There is a whole lot less running and gunning than in Canada," Palmer said.

But Palmer will catch on. The Gaits were slow learning the American game during their first year in Syracuse. Of course, Palmer has tons of models to learn from, such as Tom Marchek, Cody Jamieson and Grant.

"The numbers are unbelievable and still growing," Huntley said.

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