A tough game to love

Lacrosse is difficult and unforgiving, but it's the fastest growing youth sport in America

May 27, 2010

This weekend, Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium will host the second-largest crowd ever to watch an NCAA Final Four. The contests will feature 20 young men wearing sophisticated armor playing on a 110-yard field, an unlikely culmination for a sport invented in the 15th Century by Native Americans, using up to 1,000 athletes wearing next to nothing, playing on a field ranging over several miles.

Lacrosse might have been a niche sport for the Huron and Iroquois tribes, and several centuries later confined to eastern prep schools and colleges. But today, it's the fastest growing youth sport, coast to coast, in America.

As a guy who has played and been around the sport for three decades and in just the past four years has had three sons on 28 different teams in the Baltimore-Washington region, I find the growth gratifying — and surprising. Because the fact is, lacrosse is vastly different from typical youth sports.

It relies on the most difficult elements of athletics. It requires the hand-eye coordination of baseball — catching and throwing an unforgivingly hard ball in a small pocket, often while running. Lacrosse has the brutal collisions and the acute need for field sense found in football. And it requires the endurance of basketball and ice hockey. "Lax," as it's sometimes called, is a very tough game to master, and with all due respect, it's not turning a dozen energetic kids loose on a soccer field chasing a ball, or the slow agony of kid-pitch baseball.

Nor is there the relativism in youth lacrosse seen in other youth sports. There's no political correctness about everyone-has-fun-and-everyone-plays and please-be-nice-to-Billy. I can count on one hand the number of times snacks were handed out after games. As one of my son's coaches, a former Gilman School and Division 1 standout, perhaps uncharitably said, "This sport doesn't tolerate the geeks or the parents who say, 'Oh, let's try this for fun.' After one season, they move on and you see their equipment at garage sales."

And then there are the coaches, many like my friend above. I've coached and been around kids' teams for a solid decade — but there's nothing like the lacrosse coach: rough-hewn, stern, demanding. Praise is spared and practices can be grim affairs. Players are called by their last names, and parents on the sidelines get used to their kids getting ripped unmercifully for mistakes during a game.

Nonetheless, there must be something appealing in the lax gestalt because the sport has exploded across the county. The 2008-2009 High School Athletes Participation Survey, put together by the National Federation of State High School Associations, tallies 153,525 high school male and female lacrosse players, double the number from 2000-2001. To compare that with well-established high school sports, that number is one-fifth of those who play soccer; it equals more than half of those on tennis, swim and diving teams; it's three times the number of high school ice hockey players, six times the number of gymnasts. And the growth is most extreme in the populous West: California has 215 high school teams, Texas more than 140, Colorado, 121.

The youth movement has led to an equivalent expansion on the college level. This spring, 264 colleges fielded men's college lacrosse teams, and there are more than twice as many players today — 9,200 — as 20 years ago. There are 348 women's teams — that's more than triple the number of women's college teams 20 years ago.

Equally important, there are 213 college club teams in the United States and Canada — again, a product of the popularity at the youth level — and many are lobbying their respective college administrations for NCAA Division I, II, or III status.

There's a pro organization — Major League Lacrosse — that despite fits and starts over the last dozen years has six teams and is looking to expand. Lacrosse has also been helped by the Internet; hundreds of high school games are on YouTube, which is agonizing when you can view your own son getting beat in the once obscure but now viral Loyola Blakefield-Severn School junior varsity game.

In 1921, a Baltimore Sun columnist enamored of the fabled Johns Hopkins team called lacrosse "the fastest sport on two feet." It's a long way from the Iroquois to the more than 100,000 spectators who will watch the NCAA lacrosse finals, proof that the fastest sport on two feet is now on two feet for good.

Jeff Nelligan is the parent of three lacrosse-playing sons who've never had post-game snacks. His email is Jeff.Nelligan@gmail.com.

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