Game of Their Life In a state of lacrosse nuts, the diehards battle for glory at the annual Ocean City Classic

Sept. 01, 2003
Sept. 01, 2003

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Sept. 1, 2003

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Game of Their Life In a state of lacrosse nuts, the diehards battle for glory at the annual Ocean City Classic

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.'"

This is an article from the Sept. 1, 2003 issue

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. Resumes 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

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

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."

Marylanders have been looking for places and excuses to play
lacrosse since the 1880s, when Johns Hopkins first fielded a
team. The school's unceasing allegiance to the sport--it is home
to the Lacrosse Museum and National Hall of Fame--is one reason
why these days "you can't walk more than a few blocks in
Baltimore or Annapolis without seeing a lacrosse net in someone's
driveway," says Joe Gold, U.S. Lacrosse's director of special
events. The sport has roots in other parts of the country, Long
Island and upstate New York in particular, but nothing compares
with Maryland, where high school lax games draw as many as 5,000
fans. When the University of Maryland hosted the NCAA Final Four
at M&T Bank Stadium in May, 37,944 came out for the final despite
heavy rains, obliterating the previous attendance record of

Participants outnumbered fans at Ocean City, and the atmosphere
on the field was intense. Players screamed at officials and
chastised teammates who didn't hustle. "We're all family," said
Danny Hart, 26, owner of the Kislings Tavern & Grill and
president of its team. "We love to get together for beers, but
when you put your lid on and go out there it's serious. We're
playing for bragging rights, and after college that's just about

The final rights were settled when Annapolis-based Single Source
Solution played Baltimore-based Laxworld Dewalt for the men's
elite title. The crowd (girlfriends, family members, other
players) cheered and jeered the finer points of the game, while
kids worked as ball boys and dogs loped along the sidelines.
After Source had won, 12-8, the team members gathered at midfield
to get their caps and shorts from Huelskamp. When they broke from
their final huddle with a celebratory whoop--"This is like our
national title," said Source attackman Dudley Dixon--some tossed
the hats in the air, graduation-day-style.

As the crowd filed away, many stopped to shake Huelskamp's hand.
"Thank you," they'd say, "this was great." His face shone as one
big grin. "All right!" he kept saying. "We'll see you next summer."

For more about sports in Maryland and the other 49 states, go to

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LARRY FRENCH HIGH TIME Sarah Oliphant (front) of Annapolis had a ball in the women's division.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LARRY FRENCH CLOSE RANGE Stephen Berger of Jessup, Md., took his best shot against an elite team that included Baltimoreans Josh Gerber (18), Ryan Lanigan (5) and Brandon Mollett (in goal).COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY LARRY FRENCH STICKING IT TO 'EM Ocean City's Zach DiFilippo outmaneuvered the nine-and-under Salisbury club.
Marylanders have been looking for places and excuses to play
lacrosse since the 1880s, when Johns Hopkins first fielded a