Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. grew up with the Long Island building boom after World War II. Part of its high-rise, poured-concrete campus sits on an airbase abandoned because of the swarming population under the flight patterns. Its other buildings, clustered as snugly as the houses in a subdivision, rest tight against the shoulder of a busy turnpike. Like their fathers who ride the Long Island Railroad and Expressway to work in Manhattan, most of Hofstra's 7,000 students commute, and finding an open parking space at the school can be tougher than passing organic chemistry. Hofstra also reflects Long Island's most unlikely sporting boom, a zooming, postwar growth in lacrosse that has thousands of commuters' sons in Manhasset, Mineola, Massapequa and 60 other suburban communities learning to stickhandle, dodge and pass accurately enough not to break the picture window of the neighbor's three-bedroom split-level.
The Flying Dutchmen regularly play home games at night on a $400,000 AstroTurf field, much plusher surroundings than the game is accustomed to back home in Baltimore. And while Hofstra is providing lacrosse with its shiniest showplace, the nearby high schools are now supplying the sport with more and better players than any other part of the country.
As recently as five years ago, the superiority of the Baltimore schoolboy lacrosse player was axiomatic. Maryland youngsters understood stickwork and finesse. Players from other areas, so the line went, missed the essence of the game, using their sticks as weapons and their bodies the way football players did. Hofstra Coach Howdy Myers, who won four consecutive national championships when he coached Johns Hopkins in the late '40s, remembers purists criticizing the aggressive style he taught his players because they felt he was destroying the game. " Maryland lacrosse is like a basketball game," says Myers, who is also the football coach and athletic director at Hofstra. "They want to show you what they can do with their right hand and then show you what they can do with their left. But they don't want any contact."
Ferris Thomsen, who played and coached in Maryland for 30 years before beginning a 20-year tenure at Princeton, agrees with Myers. "They'll probably hang me when I go back to Baltimore," he says, "but I've got a brother who's a federal judge down there and he'll protect me. All you have to do is look at the major college rosters and All-America teams the past couple of years and you'll see that the Long Island boys outnumber the ones from Maryland. First, they've got so many more kids playing on the Island now. Also, I think high school boys are tougher than your prep school kids. In Maryland most of the players are from prep schools, and it's all high schools on Long Island. Maryland won't like hearing it, but the Island passed them five years ago."
There are lacrosse leagues for boys 8 years of age on Long Island now, and most high schools have farm teams in the junior highs in their districts. There are summer leagues for all ages, including one for college players in which most of the teams are sponsored by bars, and the play is particularly aggressive. Baltimore Community College and the Mount Washington Club of Baltimore were once unbeatable in junior college and club lacrosse. The past two seasons BCC has been soundly defeated by Nassau Community College, and the Long Island A.C. has taken Mount Washington's place as the club champion.
Army, which shared the collegiate title with Johns Hopkins in 1969, was the preseason favorite to win the championship again this year, with a team that has 15 players on its roster from Long Island and only two from Maryland. "The players from the Island are now every bit as good as the Maryland boys in their stickwork," says Army Coach Al Pisano, a graduate of Mineola High. "And they have that added tradition that the Long Island player is a little tougher."
Among Army's strongest challengers, only Virginia and Navy are predominantly Baltimore teams. Creeping Long Islandism is particularly strong in the state of Maryland, itself. Forty percent of Johns Hopkins' squad is from New York, and 15 of the University of Maryland's 33 players are Long Islanders.
Lacrosse was introduced to Long Island's public high schools when Jay Stranahan, then a math and social-studies teacher in Manhasset, formed a team there in 1932. By 1959 the number had increased to 10 schools. In the years between, Stranahan had had a player named Jimmy Brown, who many believe was better at lacrosse than football, and Sewanhaka High School in Floral Park gave an indication of things to come. Sewanhaka ran off a 91-game winning streak, twice defeating Baltimore's best prep team during that period.
Since 1960 high school teams have been sprouting in New York's suburbia as fast as Levitt houses. It is an attitude peculiar to lacrosse that nearly everyone involved in the sport is a fiery propagandist for it. "We did everything we could to promote the game," says Sewanhaka Coach Bill Ritch. "We gave equipment to other schools, and we kept putting pressure on athletic directors. Baseball and track coaches didn't like us much, but a lot of the football coaches thought at first it might be a good way to sneak in some spring training."
At the same time, former Long Island schoolboy players were being graduated in large numbers from local universities like Hofstra and from the state teachers' college at Cortland, N.Y., both of which had begun lacrosse programs shortly after World War II. They joined the faculties of suburban high schools, forming cells of lacrosse enthusiasts across the Island. "They persuaded their schools to start teams," says Ritch. "And they gave us what we needed the most to improve the quality of the game here—good coaching."