"I'm not that big, but I can still be good. You don't have to be way tall, like in basketball, or really big, like in football."
--ANDREW SHUMWAY, 17, UTAH
"I love the passing, the getting assists. I think the girls' game is better because there's more teamwork."
--LIZZIE STRAZZA, 10, COLORADO
"The gear is really cool. It's pretty futuristic and looks like robot stuff."
--JUSTIN HARDIN, 17, TEXAS
What these kids are describing isn't North America's first lacrosse boom. That occurred centuries ago, when no other sport existed but the one Native Americans played, sometimes for days at a time, with hundreds of players on fields free of boundary lines. But what's happening today--the surge of interest in lacrosse among boys and girls, the spread of the game westward, the seeping of lacrosse into the culture at large--does share one thing with its ancient forebear: Lacrosse again looks like a game with no boundaries. � Twenty years ago lacrosse--in shorthand, lax--existed as a niche sport, popular in and around Baltimore and parts of New York State and New England, with most of the top players developed on boarding school campuses. Now the number of youth-league players in the U.S. aged 15 and under is estimated to be 186,000, more than twice what it was in 2001. The explosion is similar at the high school level, where no other team sport has anything close to lacrosse's rate of growth (page 65). Two African-American midfielders, Johns Hopkins's Kyle Harrison and Ohio State's Regina Oliver, are among this season's best college players, a striking development in a sport long associated with pedigreed preppies. Equipment sales are rising by at least 10% annually, and a 2004 survey of 400 sports-industry executives identified lacrosse as the pro niche sport most likely to bust out. "There's a drumbeat," says Bob Crowley of Mustang Management, a private equity firm that has sunk millions into the lacrosse equipment company Cascade. "Just go into your community on a Thursday night and look at the number of kids playing lacrosse."
The game is even penetrating the consciousness of Joe Fan. While in 2002 you could have found precisely three nationally televised lacrosse games, all collegiate, on network and cable, this year NBC has already aired the All-Star Game of the indoor National Lacrosse League and will cover the NLL Champion's Cup final on May 14; the just-launched network ESPNU will add 10 regular-season games to ESPN's NCAA championship coverage; over the summer ESPN2 plans to air a game of the week from Major League Lacrosse, the outdoor pro league, for 12 weeks; and cable newcomer CSTV is airing 22 college games, men's and women's, in all divisions. Nearly 47,000 people turned out in Baltimore last spring for the semifinal matches of the NCAA men's Final Four, and for the final, between Navy and Syracuse, ESPN logged a record 0.7 rating, nearly doubling its figure from 2002.
Notably, lacrosse has broken out of the East and planted its flag all over the country. This season unbeaten Northwestern is ruling the women's game, and the top-ranked Johns Hopkins men just signed a defenseman from Rancho Bernardo, Calif. Since 2000 four state high school athletic associations--in California, Florida, Georgia and Michigan--have sanctioned lacrosse for boys and girls, and the rosters of college powers such as Duke, Navy and Syracuse feature players from Dallas, Denver and San Diego. When Laura Qualey, now 15, took up lacrosse in suburban Salt Lake City four years ago, there were no girls' leagues, and she had to content herself with clinics "taught by a guy who didn't even know that much." Now, she says, "there's a winter league for girls and advanced clinics, and my high school is starting a team."
Five years ago 43 lacrosse teams existed in Washington State at the youth, junior high and high school levels. The number is now up to 99, and last spring more than 12,000 people turned out at Seattle's Qwest Field for a tripleheader: the state boys' and girls' high school championship games and an MLL exhibition.