Lax To The Max The raucous crowd and healthy television audience for last weekend's NCAA lacrosse championship saw a sport on the rise

June 06, 2004

Last weekend, in Baltimore, it looked as if an NFL crowd got lost
and turned up at the NCAA men's lacrosse championship. On
Saturday, M&T Bank Stadium hummed with the energy of a record
46,923 fans for the semifinal matchups, and another 43,890 braved
the rain to watch Syracuse beat Navy in the championship game on
Monday. ESPN camera crews roamed the sidelines, Coca-Cola
sponsored a "fan zone," and Patriots coach Bill Belichick
delivered a pregame pep talk (to Navy before its semifinal win
over Princeton). Big crowds, corporate sponsorship, a Super
Bowl-winning coach gracing the Final Four: Five centuries after
Native Americans invented the sport's predecessor, a brutal game
called baggataway, lacrosse is having a heyday.

Imagine: Lax sticks have lately turned up on Friends, in movies
such as American Pie and on Polo Ralph Lauren sportswear. How far
we've come. Gary Gait, who led Syracuse to three national titles
from 1988 to '90, remembers crowds being "90 percent people tied
to the game, rather than fans. The popularity has gone up
dramatically." Over half a million watched the NCAA finals on
ESPN last year--up 50% from 2002--and the number of nationally
televised lacrosse games has jumped from three in 2002 to 23 this
year. There are now more than 300,000 players nationwide, almost
twice as many as 10 years ago, and two pro leagues are thriving.
(In the event of an NHL lockout next season, the National
Lacrosse League is ready to fill the void, playing games in NHL
cities.) Mavericks owner Mark Cuban says he's looking to help
bring a team to Dallas; Wayne Gretzky already has a team in
Phoenix.

A pro franchise in Arizona proves lacrosse is no longer just an
Eastern prep school pastime. Once Westerners knew little of the
game; to them, "lax" was an airport. But as players from East
Coast schools moved westward, they started club teams and
encouraged their kids to play. In April, Torrey Pines High of
Carmel Valley, Calif., became the first Western team to defeat a
nationally ranked Eastern school when it beat Garden City of Long
Island. Says Torrey Pines coach Jody Sillstrop, whose program has
grown from 40 players to 85 since 1994, "In the beginning we had
football players who wanted to try it. Then it became a hip thing
to do. Now our football coach is recruiting players off the
lacrosse team."

Players of all ages and both genders are signing up. The game is
relatively simple to learn and doesn't require brute size, and
equipment advances such as titanium sticks have made it easier to
play. "It's as physical as football and has the finesse of soccer
and the coordination and quickness of hockey," says Ohio State
head coach Joe Breschi. Then, as if sensing those latter two
sports aren't necessarily the best parallels for fan growth, he
quickly adds, "Plus, it's high-scoring."

There was plenty of offense on display in Baltimore, where Navy
chased its first national title in any sport since 1964. The
Midshipmen, who took the field for the semifinal carrying an
American flag brought back from Afghanistan, were clearly the
crowd favorites, but Syracuse was too strong. In the most
exciting championship game in 15 years, the Orange overcame a
one-goal deficit in the last five minutes to win 14-13 on a goal
from the school's alltime leading scorer, attackman Michael
Powell. Afterward Powell, hair matted with sweat, cheeks smeared
with eye black, was questioned on the field by an ESPN reporter.
The scene seemed strangely familiar: a star player being
interviewed on national TV as a giant stadium slowly drained of
fans. Monday Night Lacrosse. To a growing number of people, that
has a nice ring to it. --Chris Ballard with Julia Morrill

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY STEVE BRODNER

"A grenade attack cost Green her shooting hand."
--A SOLDIER'S STORY, PAGE 24

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)