A little before 2 p.m. on the second, sun-scorched day of the Ocean City (Md.) Lacrosse Classic, Joe Road, a 53-year-old contractor from Baltimore, was strapping on his shoulder pads, getting ready to play defense for his club team, Touch of Grey. The name comes from a Grateful Dead song, and when Road founded the team 10 years ago it was apt. But now his hair, like many of his teammates', is mostly white. "We Marylanders have a saying about lacrosse," said Road, just before jogging onto the field. " 'Start early and play forever.' " � At the OC Classic, which ran from Aug. 14 to Aug. 17 in this, its 10th year, the games started early (the first face-off was at 8:30 a.m.) and went on all day (the last whistle sounded around 10 p.m.). More than 1,000 players, ages 18 to 62, competed through stifling heat and driving rain showers, with the winning teams receiving nothing more than baseball caps and shorts. If you wonder why they did it, you're not from the Old Line State, where expectant parents buy their kids lacrosse sticks at first sight of a fetal sonogram. "The idea is to have them playing catch before they leave the delivery room," says Casey Connor, a Maryland graduate and defenseman for the Major League Lacrosse Baltimore Bayhawks, who attended the tournament with his pregnant wife, Courtney.
MLL rules forbid Connor and his Bayhawks teammate Gary Gait—lacrosse's biggest star—from playing in the OC Classic, but the cream of the nonprofessional crop was here. The rosters of the 16 men's and 16 women's elite teams were loaded with current and past NCAA All-Americas from powerhouses such as Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Princeton and Virginia. R�sum�s in the masters' (35 and older) and grandmasters' (45 and up) divisions listed pro and world-team credentials. Entrants were sponsored by local clubs (e.g., the Baltimore and Mount Washington Lacrosse Clubs), by bars ( Baltimore's famous Greene Turtle and Ocean City's M.R. Ducks) and companies ( Toyota, Michelob Light).
Play unfolded on five fields. On one, Hopkins midfielder Kyle Harrison, a recent finalist for college player of the year, reeled off an end-to-end rush; on another, last year's top women's collegian, former Georgetown attacker Erin Elbe, whipped in a goal. "Could the elite teams here beat my [ Maryland] team?" asked Terrapins coach Dave Cottle, one of the tournament's organizers. "You'd better believe it. You've got college all-stars on teams with club players, who can be even better. They're more filled out and more experienced than college guys. And they've still got their wheels."
Yet the beauty of the Ocean City tournament, in which some 85% of the players were from Maryland, lay not in the dazzling displays of stickhandling but rather in the mosaic of characters, old and young, male and female, bound together by their love of a game and by what more than a few call "a way of life." They were all somewhere on their path as lacrosse lifers: teachers, doctors, bankers and restaurateurs. Many had gathered the entire family and come out for a few days of ball.
Meet Gavin Stringer, 53, a Touch of Grey midfielder and an investment officer from Baltimore who had not one, not two but five children—two sons, a daughter, two stepdaughters—playing in the tournament. The family bunked together in a condo near the fields, careful to label their sticks. Stringer, who has had two knee operations, talked about his "unexplainable and undying attachment" to the game. His daughter, Courtney, a goalie at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said, "What can you really say? We're lacrosse junkies."
Meet Chad Unitas, 25, son of the greatest of all Maryland athletes, playing for the Kislings Lacrosse Club in the elite division.
Meet the Captain Pete's women's team, blinding opponents with their tie-dyed uniforms.
And meet Rich Evans, a Baltimore Realtor, a defenseman for the Stingers' bar team and the oldest player in the tournament. Evans starred at Gilman School in Baltimore, was a standout at Virginia and played for 15 years with the Mount Washington club team, which often went undefeated for seasons at a time. Let the record show that at 62, Evans still hauls ass. "I'm here to see guys I've known for 40 years," he said in Ocean City. "They remember big hits I made in the '60s and '70s. We talk about old games at Navy or wherever, and at the same time we're still doing it. The other day was perfect: We played our game, and then a bunch of us stayed in the parking lot drinking beers until past midnight. That's what it's about."
Lacrosse is a movable feast, and moving it to Ocean City—a beach community just a couple of hours from Baltimore and Annapolis—was the brainchild of Jim Huelskamp, a former Salisbury State and pro indoor lacrosse standout. Huelskamp's enthusiasm makes him the Ernie Banks of lacrosse, but instead of let's play two, he wants to play four, then play four again the next day. In the summer of 1995 Huelskamp was 31, his pro career had ended and his lacrosse jones raged something fierce. He appealed to a couple of fellow Salisbury alumni, Cottle and Greene Turtle owner Steve Pappas, for funding. "Then I just got on the phone, called everyone I knew and said, 'We're having a lacrosse tournament,' " says Huelskamp, who ran (and, of course, played in) the first OC Classic and slept in a pup tent near the fields.
There were eight teams that first year. It wasn't long before the teams multiplied and the women's and masters' and grandmasters' were born. "Everyone just wants it," says Huelskamp. "Even teams that lose every game every year keep coming back."