By: Jeffrey Newholm
American sports fans may think they already have their fill of sports to follow between baseball, basketball, football, hockey and soccer. But there’s a very old sport that’s making a big push to become mainstream in the American sports scene, and that sport is lacrosse. Lacrosse’s origins are shrouded in mystery, but we do know Native Americans played it before and during the colonization of America by the Europeans, and the game has always been of great spiritual importance for them. Lacrosse gradually began to be played by settlers and became an NCAA sponsored sport relatively recently (early ’70s for men, early ’80s for women). A 2015 NCAA report found that participation rates in Lacrosse have doubled for both men and women since 2000. There’s a modest nine team major league men’s lacrosse league and this year a new four team women’s league. With so many schools jumping on the Lacrosse bandwagon, you’re probably wondering what all the hoopla is about. I’ll give a brief summary on how the game is played, along with my thoughts from a casual fan’s perspective from the last few years.
Lacrosse is an outdoor game where, like soccer, the players are not allowed to touch the ball with their hands. Players control the ball with sticks with a net attached at the end to hold the ball, and aim to either pass the ball to a teammate or fling it past the goalie for a goal. Men’s lacrosse allows and encourages physical body-checking and rough play, but such tactics are not allowed in the women’s game, which is more finesse-based. In most sports, the team that touched the ball last loses possession of the ball when it goes out of bounds. In Lacrosse, however, possession is awarded to the team that was closest to the ball. Teams therefore are aggressive in taking shots because the offensive team can usually chase down the ball in the event of a wild miss. While Lacrosse is most similar to soccer in the style of play, it’s reminiscent of basketball in the level of excitement. Whenever I watch a basketball game, I enjoy the emotional roller coaster of big plays and what-ifs. There’s plenty of reactions of “oh yes nice shot” and “oh rats tough miss”, with momentum often changing wildly. I’ve had the same experience in the lacrosse games I’ve watched. A fan feels lingering regret over a lost face-off (where possession is awarded after a stoppage in play) or big defensive lapse, and great jubilation over a big goal or scoring run-often all in the same game. Points are scored one at a time in lacrosse, like in soccer or hockey, but they come around a lot more often with scores easily rising past ten for many teams.
If all this sounds intriguing, this weekend would be a perfect time to take a first glimpse at America’s fasted growing sport. Both the men’s and women’s Final Fours will take place over Memorial Day weekend, and they both offer something different. Men’s lacrosse is a bit more mature and has a great deal of parity, with a new champion emerging each year. It’s easy to see Maryland, Brown, North Carolina or Loyola winning this year, but tough to see any of them pulling off the feat again next season. Women’s lacrosse is in a similar situation as women’s hoops in that a few teams dominate the young game. Northwestern recently pulled off a fivepeat and this year Maryland is undefeated and is gunning for a threpeat, with Syracuse, North Carolina and Penn State all considered Cinderellas (Syracuse is in the very odd spot of appearing in its fifth straight Final Four and still being huge underdogs). It’s been said that it’s better to be on a bandwagon than to get run over by it. Well I see lacrosse as being the big new American sports bandwagon, and now would be a good time to get on board.
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