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In four years enrollment has tripled at the girls' lacrosse camp run by Stanford women's coach Michele Uhlfelder, and the Bay Area supports its own lax retailer, Sling It! But the epicenter of California lacrosse may be to the south. A year ago East Coast power Garden City High of Long Island schlepped to the San Diego suburbs and lost 8-7 to Torrey Pines High. Like the 1936 Stanford-LIU basketball game in which Stanford's Hank Luisetti unveiled the one-handed shot in Madison Square Garden, the Garden City--Torrey Pines game bound the two coasts in mutual respect.
Part of the game's appeal is its composite nature. If you like basketball, lacrosse offers zone and man-to-man defenses, fast breaks and set plays, and its basic offensive maneuver is that hoops staple, pass and screen away from the ball. If you like soccer, lax has the precision passes and the ability to bring spectators to their feet with a goal--except that fans find themselves on their feet 20 times a game. If you like ice hockey, the action and even the terminology are much the same in lacrosse, from face-offs to man advantages to setups behind the net. And if you're a boy who likes football, you get to put on a helmet and pads and hit somebody. (The difference, says former Syracuse coach Roy Simmons Jr., is that lax "is not 11 guys coming out of a huddle knowing what's about to happen. It's more fanciful, imaginative and open.") The women's game, by contrast, is noncontact, without helmets or pads, and its prohibition of body checking allows for more fluid play.
It's probably no coincidence that one sport lacrosse fails to echo is baseball, whose popularity among kids is stagnant or dropping. And lacrosse is at least partly responsible for that decline, for it goes head-to-head against baseball in the spring. "I introduced my friends to lacrosse," says James VanLangen, 12, of Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. "Probably like 14 people quit [other sports] after they saw us playing ... mostly baseball."
"Field hockey is so slow," says Alexi Sanders, 17, of Cherry Creek, Colo. "So much more adrenaline and energy comes out in lacrosse."
"I like it because it's really fast-paced," says Ethan Shaw, 12, who lives in Dallas. "In football you get to hit people, but it's not as fast [as lacrosse], because you stop after every play."
As parents discover that lacrosse is more exciting than soccer, cheaper than ice hockey and not as dangerous as football, the game is getting a closer look. If they're not careful, lacrosse's promoters risk setting up the sport for an almost impossible task: Scroll down the long list of what ails youth sports, and in most cases lacrosse seems to offer an antidote. Youth lax programs don't hesitate to ban zones and long sticks on defense, switch players from position to position or do whatever else it takes to keep kids engaged without changing the essence of the game. At all-day lax "jamborees" the games are almost incidental to the picnicking and socializing. US Lacrosse, the national governing body for the sport, also holds annual Youth Festivals where 15-and-under and 13-and-under games fill a dozen fields but no one officially keeps score.
A kid today will often turn to extreme sports for the autonomy they bestow: No parent or youth coach knows skateboarding well enough to project his unfulfilled dreams or adult insecurities onto a rider and mess with the kid's fun. In lacrosse, too, "parents aren't yelling as much on the sidelines, because they don't know what's going on," says David Morrow, a former U.S. national team player who founded the equipment company Warrior (page 64). "Kids can really take ownership of the sport."
In fact, while youth baseball coaches expect 10-year-olds to hit the cutoff man and turn double plays, lacrosse makes only modest demands on a beginner. "At its simplest, lacrosse is shoveling," Morrow says. "If you can scoop the ball off the ground and run fast, you don't even need to know how to cradle [the wrist action that enables a player to control the ball in his stickhead]. You can get a shot off before you lose the ball." Moreover, at a time when kids feel pressure from coaches and parents to specialize in one sport, lacrosse has long encouraged the renaissance approach. "I've never heard a soccer coach say, 'I want him to play lacrosse too,'" says Dan Corcoran, a youth coach in Connecticut, "but all the time you'll hear lacrosse coaches say something like, 'You can see his toughness from playing hockey.' We get baseball players by encouraging them to play both sports."
Scan a list of Division I lacrosse All-Americas, men or women, and you'll find that virtually all played several sports in high school. Virginia men's coach Dom Starsia never saw his best defensive midfielder, J.J. Morrissey, play lacrosse before offering him a scholarship; he signed Morrissey based on how he hit the hole as a tailback. Starsia has recruited other athletes who never even played lacrosse before arriving in Charlottesville. "In the U.S. we play enough hand-eye sports that a kid is going to pick up the stickwork," he says. "Basically, I've got a team full of I-AA football guys."
Lacrosse even has an ace up its sleeve: a pilot program that US Lacrosse just launched with the Stanford-based Positive Coaching Alliance, a group dedicated to eliminating abusive and unsportsmanlike behavior by youth coaches, parents and spectators. Under the program lacrosse officials, including a "sideline manager" supplied by each team, can hand out a colored card--inscribed with the words please rethink your actions/this event may be terminated if your conduct does not improve--to put a spectator on notice that his behavior is unacceptable. If the misconduct does not stop, the game could be called and the loss assigned to the team unable to control its supporters.