It’s early January and my family is waiting for lacrosse season to start. Not that we ever really get away from what is considered a spring sport for high schools and colleges in the Finger Lakes area. My teenage sons are involved in winter indoor leagues in Rochester, and this Sunday, we join other area teams for a tournament in the field house at Hobart College in Geneva.
At Thanksgiving-time, a contest in Ithaca called The Turkey Shoot draws teams from across New York State and Canada. Games are played outside, some in Stewart Park right next to Cayuga Lake. Each year as I’ve looked through Ithaca’s November precipitation du jour, usually a combination of driving rain and/or horizontal-blowing snow, I see more people. Larger numbers of teams and their fans bundle up to play or watch a series of special 30-minute, seven-player lacrosse games, all day long. You have to really love lacrosse to be there.
My point is this – the numbers of us who play it and watch it, and travel far to do it in all sorts of weather – are growing. What I’ve seen here in New York reflects what’s happening across the country: national participation is increasing at a rate of 15 to 20 percent per year. US Lacrosse, the governing body of the sport for both men and women, noted that its youth membership (ages 15 and under) has doubled since 1999 to over 60,000. The National Federation of State High School Associations reported that in 2001, better than 74,000 students played high school lacrosse. Participation at the varsity collegiate level has grown by one-third since 1995.
Lacrosse today, for both genders and at all levels, is one of the fastest-growing team sports in the country, and you have a ringside seat to the fun. New York State boasts the largest number of men’s college lacrosse teams in the U.S., which means that some of the best games in the country are played right here in our own backyards.
It was cool before Columbus
Native American tribes in southern Canada and in almost all regions of the United States, played lacrosse long before Columbus sailed. There were many versions, always with a stick, usually one per player but sometimes one in each hand. The stick was a wooden shaft topped with a curved netted basket for the purpose of catching and flinging a ball made of wood, baked clay, stone or hair-stuffed deerskin.
“The strategy of each player, originally, was to incapacitate as many opponents as possible with his lacrosse stick and then try to score a goal,” said former Hobart College lacrosse coach David Urick, in his book, Lacrosse: Fundamentals for Winning. The Cherokee, for instance, considered lacrosse excellent military training. Teams would consist of hundreds or thousands of players, often an entire village or tribe. The goals would be miles apart and the game might last as long as three days. Since most players couldn’t get anywhere near the ball, they used their sticks to injure their opponents.
Lacrosse in our region was more organized. Teams were limited to 12 to 15 players, and the goals were about 120 feet apart. The Six Tribes of the Iroquois (the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora) called their version of lacrosse “baggataway” or “tewaraathon.” And while the Cherokee may have used the sport to train young warriors for battle or to settle intertribal disputes, lacrosse for the Iroquois was more spiritual. It remains so today. “It is a medicine game to be played upon request of any individual, clan, nation or the Confederacy itself,” note the members of the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Program. “Iroquois Lacrosse is a holistic process that binds communities and the nations of the Haudenosaunee together. This is the reason that we say it was a gift to our people from the Creator.”
In 1636, the first documentation of a game, played by the Hurons, was recorded by a Jesuit missionary. The story goes that since the French thought a lacrosse stick resembled a bishop’s crozier (la crosse) that’s what they called the game. However, sports historian Ralph Hickok notes that the French at that time played a form of field hockey called jeu de la crosse, which, in his opinion, is more likely the origin of the name.
French pioneers took lacrosse to Canada, where it quickly grew. Ironically, at the same time in the United States, lacrosse had almost died out, but the Onondaga tribe near Syracuse, inspired by Canada’s St. Regis tribe, revived it.
Ralph Hickok notes that non-Native American players in upstate New York started playing lacrosse around 1868. It became a favorite among college athletes and spread to New York City. New York University fielded the nation’s first collegiate team; they played Manhattan College on November 22, 1877. From New York, collegiate lacrosse radiated across the Northeast to Boston University, Columbia, Harvard and Princeton. Cornell has fielded a men’s team since 1892, Hobart since 1898, and Syracuse since 1916.
College lacrosse today has become pretty high profile. Fan attendance at the Men’s NCAA Lacrosse Championships has nearly tripled in the last 10 years, with over 100,000 lacrosse enthusiasts attending the men’s Division I, II and III championship tournaments in 1999.
Sports fans describe lacrosse as the most exciting elements of basketball, soccer and hockey put together. A player’s size doesn’t matter since the game rewards coordination, agility, quickness and speed.
Grantland Rice, a famous old-time sportswriter, said, “Once in a while, they argue about the fastest game – hockey or basketball; then about the roughest game – boxing, football or water polo. But when it comes to the top combination, the answer is lacrosse, the all-star combination of speed and body contact. It requires more elements of skill than any game I know.”
The following paragraphs describe the play of men’s field lacrosse in a nutshell. If you read them really, really fast, you’ll get an idea of the pace of the game.
A team is 10 players: one goalie, three defensemen, three midfielders and three attackmen. The field is 110 yards long and 60 yards wide. The goals are 80 yards apart, which provides for a unique 15-yard playing area behind each goal, crucial to offensive and defensive strategy. Play begins with a face-off, then each team works to advance to the goal by running or passing the ball from stick to stick. Players usually make a goal by shooting the ball, but it can also be batted or kicked into the 6-foot-square net.
Play for attackmen and defensemen is limited to half the field, for the most part. Midfielders travel back and forth between goals, which makes frequent player substitutions essential. The goalie operates mostly within the 9-foot circle around the net, called the crease.
Collegiate lacrosse games are 60 minutes long, divided into 15-minute quarters. Ties are decided by sudden death. High school teams play 10-minute quarters. If they tie, the game is decided by no more than two three-minute overtime periods, followed by a sudden death if the tie remains.
What’s not to love?
The more than 250,000 lacrosse players in the U.S. today agree: they love to play. “Players say the games are the most fun (obviously), but that even the worst of lacrosse practices are more fun than the best of football practices,” said Princeton’s men’s head coach Bill Tierney in Lacrosse Magazine. And as for the spectators, there’s no doubt that lacrosse is fun to watch. Figures provided by the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse Program estimate that the annual average attendance at lacrosse events throughout the United States has grown to 10,000,000.
What do they find so appealing?
It’s a simple formula. First, every player handles the ball, which showcases lacrosse as a team sport. At the same time, however, individual initiative and athleticism is celebrated. The running and passing back and forth across the vast playing area gives spectators the unique opportunity to view all the play and quickly formulate their own strategy. Watching the precision passing can be exhilarating, and aggressive stick- and body-checking adds to the excitement. Anticipation and transition, thanks to sudden starts and stops, contributes to the drama.
Today, lacrosse around the world is experiencing its greatest level of exposure, expansion and development. That’s great for the sport, but it makes me a little nostalgic for the days when it was known only to a relatively small community, and was a mystery to outsiders. But now you’re in on the secret: lacrosse is a great team sport, a great spectator sport, and as this year’s season approaches, a sport you may want to experience firsthand. Experts agree that the best lacrosse in the land is still played in areas of New York (and, okay, Maryland) so take advantage of a nice day this spring and head out to a good game.
by Tina Manzer
Tina Manzer has been a lacrosse fan since she was in high school, watching her hometown team, the Waterloo Indians, play. Today, she cheers for the Canandaigua Braves.