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Get On The Stick
ALEXANDER WOLFF
April 25, 2005
A longtime niche sport, lacrosse is the fastest-growing game in the U.S. at every level. The appeal? It's a neat composite of other sports, it's fast, it's easy to learn. And it's cool
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April 25, 2005

Get On The Stick

A longtime niche sport, lacrosse is the fastest-growing game in the U.S. at every level. The appeal? It's a neat composite of other sports, it's fast, it's easy to learn. And it's cool

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Not surprisingly, the gnarliness factor is highest where the game is newest. "Out west the sport has a different image," says Gary Gait, star attackman with the NLL's Colorado Mammoth, whose from-behind-the-net Air Gait slam dunk for Syracuse during the 1988 NCAA tournament remains the most famous shot in lacrosse. "A kid will walk around with a stick the way he might walk around with his skateboard, and he'll be the cool kid at school."

The extreme aesthetic infuses the glossy oversized pages of the monthly Inside Lacrosse, whose designers study snowboarding and surfing magazines for inspiration. That look is especially popular in California, where several years ago someone started a three-on-three lacrosse league on the beach. An adolescent who's trying to define himself has a lot of choices in a game that's "Thunderdome meets Braveheart," as Peter Lasagna, the men's coach at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, puts it. Even the sport's growth among girls owes something to lacrosse's ability to anticipate how young people want to express themselves. "The sticks are a novelty; Harrow makes hot pinks," says Kate Dresher, president of the US Lacrosse Youth Council. "Plus, not everybody is doing it. When I buy clothing, I don't want to look like everybody else." Dresher's company, Colorado-based Gal.lax.y, stages events like Halloween Scream, in which middle school girls go seven-on-seven in costume. If you're a witch, your stick is a broom; if you're a fairy, it's a magic wand. Youth lacrosse isn't just part team sport, part extreme sport; it's part folk art too.

One of the men responsible for putting the X in lax is Michael Powell, the third Powell brother to star at Syracuse and the one easily identified by the triangles of eye black he wore for each game. Before his senior season, in 2004, Powell promised to pull off a move that no one had ever seen before, and when he did (it turned out to be a full flip, in the flow of a regular-season game, without dropping the ball), it made SportsCenter. Even without that move--and his repertoire of behind-the-back and between-the-legs shots--Powell would be the favorite of any angry young laxman if only because a year ago, after MLL's Baltimore Bayhawks made him their top draft pick, he refused to sign, choosing instead to hang out with his dog, Bodhi, and play his guitar. (He has decided he will play for the Bayhawks this summer and recently signed a deal with Brine that includes his own line of "lifestyle apparel" and calls for him to work with Denver Broncos linebacker Trevor Pryce's Outlook Music to compile a CD of lacrosse-appropriate tunes.)

Nothing allows lacrosse to tap into the hearts of extreme-sport males more than the stick. A player can customize the depth of the pocket and the cant of the head to suit his style of play. A shallow-pocket guy plays fundamental, team-oriented lacrosse. His webbing is taut, and he cradles next to his ear. He can flick quick, accurate passes and shots, the kind favored by conservative, set-play coaches such as Princeton's Bill Tierney. But the rage in the men's game today is the deep pocket. The deeper the pocket, the harder it is for an opponent to dislodge the ball and the easier it is to break a defender's ankles with a one-on-one dodge. The Powell brothers were deep-pocket guys par excellence, and the evolution in equipment helped them push the stylistic envelope.

"The biggest challenge in lacrosse was playing with a shallow pocket," says Bob Carpenter, the founder of Inside Lacrosse and a former player at Duke. "You had to have great wrists and incredible coordination. Now that challenge is gone. Give a stick to Allen Iverson, and with a week or two of practice he'd be much more effective than a lot of guys back in, say, 1980."

Purists howl at such changes. "People on message boards call the National Lacrosse League a pro wrestling version of lacrosse," Carpenter says, "and some don't want to see the game commercialized. But the walls are coming down. Kids are playing in droves. The game is reaching the gearhead. It's not a couch-potato sport, and it's definitely not a marry-my-high-school-sweetheart, play-football-and-baseball-my-whole-life sport."

When Quinn, the Middlebury coach, surveys the future of his sport, he wrestles with an enigma. "To a person, everyone who plays lacrosse falls in love with it," he says. "Yet now the sport is a pyramid with an enormous base [of youth players] and a little pinprick at the top [college and adults]. The big football schools are adding club teams, but there are still only some 50-odd Division I men's programs. So to me the question isn't, Why is lacrosse booming? The question is, Why hasn't it grown more?"

Answers can be found at the bottom, middle and top of that pyramid. At the bottom is a pool of coaches and officials overwhelmed by the hordes of eager youth players. (In response US Lacrosse offers $25 online courses to train coaches and hopes the colored card program will attract and retain out-of-season soccer, basketball and hockey officials and former lacrosse players who've been out of the game for a while.) In the middle, tight budgets discourage more state high school associations from sanctioning lacrosse. And at the top, football schools eager to stay on the good side of Title IX have stunted the expansion of men's varsity teams.

Meanwhile lacrosse's many stakeholders don't necessarily agree on where the game ought to be going. "All these companies are trying to sell looking cool and having chicks around," says University of Denver men's coach Jamie Munro. "But that whole X appeal is countercultural, and there's a lot more character to the game. The lacrosse sucks in those areas where it's just counterculture."

A turbocharged, forward-hurtling vision of the game was onstage in the vendors' hall at US Lacrosse's national convention in Philadelphia in January. Competition among the gear companies all but crackled. One manufacturer peddled 18 colors of pocket webbing, including Day-Glo versions. Another firm billed a protective-cup-and-compression-shorts system with the slogan "Performs like Iron Maiden. Feels like Velvet Underground." Gary Gait talked up the National Development Program, the circuit he's launching for elite high schoolers that will culminate in national championships in July and August. And a rep for Lax Scout, a service that lists young players who want to catch the eyes of college recruiters, explained that the service's top categories, Gold and Titanium, were now "by invitation only."

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