Lacrosse, like everything else genuinely American, is a product of theft. It used to be a way for Native Americans to practice their warrior skills, but became a predominantly white sport. It's that brutish, violent (manly) nature that has led some to ask if it's finally ready for a return to its roots as the sport of the Everyman, and there is no better time to revisit that question than during the 2012 Men’s 2012 Lacrosse Championships.
Ground Balls: Preliminaries
When you talk about lacrosse, you're generally talking about four teams: Princeton, Syracuse, Duke, and Johns Hopkins. Sure, there's a professional league, but for most of these kids, this Memorial Day weekend is it; they're going to graduate and get real jobs. The ones that go pro will play between sidelines that are barely ever full; then, when the season is up, head back to their real job.
And it kind of makes sense: when's the last time "Hey, why don't we catch a _____ game?" was ever filled with lacrosse? Your standbys are baseball, football, basketball, and sometimes even soccer. Besides, $40 for a ticket to see some guys who also day trade throw the ball around? And at that price, what is this, the MLS playoffs? No, what you need is the Men's NCAA Lacrosse Championship.
With the same couple of schools always in the running, you can count on some intense rivalries and vicious insult slinging. But out of this year's perennial final four, only Duke showed up. And when you look at attendees wearing Duke colors and insignia, it's almost emblematic of all lacrosse fans: a bunch of white, but mostly sunburned, people who tuck in their T-shirts and wear ridiculously colored pants. The women usually wear peach dresses and don aviator sunglasses whether the specs actually fit their face or not.
In a word, they are privileged. But they have to be. This is an expensive sport that frequently receives neither the support of public high schools nor sponsorships from the game's manufacturers (at least until they reach the collegiate levels). A decent stick alone costs over $100, probably more than some kids have to chip in to cover the costs of their baseball jerseys and all their other equipment. Then throw in a helmet, pads, cleats, and team wear, and you've dropped a mortgage payment.
So it's probably no surprise that the dominant teams hail from really expensive—though also really great—colleges. Even if the school can't throw a bunch of money at their recruits, they can sometimes offer things like discounted (or, in much rarer occasions, complete) scholarships or admittance if the kid's grades are terrible. Because at the end of four or five years, these kids really need a degree in their hands more than they need a stick.
But then there's also the kids at the public colleges with unbelievable lacrosse powerhouses. Instead of shipping teenagers off to frigid Cornell, places like the University of Maryland or University of Virginia amass scrappy little kids that literally everyone else overlooked and bring them to the height of the game. One of the greatest players in the recorded history of lacrosse (and football), Jim Brown, went to Syracuse, a school so big, it looks and plays like a public school. If you can't beat them with your sponsorships and scholarships, you can always beat their helmets in with your record-setting meatheads.
Head on a Swivel: Division I Semifinals
The semifinals start with what might as well be the Catholic Cup: Loyola University Maryland faces off against Notre Dame. It's a slow game, but it goes pretty much as everyone expected: the Irish goalie is first-team All American, but that's not going to stop an offense that rolled over everyone on their schedule but Johns Hopkins (in overtime!). Loyola might not win a single face-off, but it doesn’t matter: As soon as they get the ball, they run to the other end and cram it into the back of the net. For the attackman Eric Lusby and middie Davis Butts, it's just the penultimate leg of their 2012 roadshow.
It's not just that they want the win (or deftly claim it), but there's also a sort of underdog undercurrent to the whole affair: Notre Dame is consistently in the top ten every year, while this is Loyola's first chance at the title since 1998. Men without shirts start to pair groans with each goal. Number (fill in the blank) is aggressively pointing to the name printed across the front of his practice penny as if invoking it returns the power back to his sodden team. Aviators throughout the stadium rise to tops of heads in distress. This was not the storyline they all expected to drink $10 beers to.
And it's the theme for the next game, too: The crowd seems to generally rally behind Duke. But as we all know, they do two things in Maryland: crab cakes and football, but that also means the overrun football teams and offseasons churn out some amazing lacrosse players. Maryland just starts picking Duke apart. It's a more exciting game, if only because these short, genuinely athletic men are clad in a soul-sucking black tinged with hints of gold and red from the Maryland state flag, while running circles around the Blue Devils. The only Duke player not 6'0" or taller is in goal and getting lit up like the barbecues happening two days down the road on Memorial Day. But all of them are wearing the whitest uniforms you've ever seen, just begging to get scuffed, dirtied, and bloodied—walked all over. The entire defensive line moves in an annoyingly amorphous blob that is everywhere and nowhere at the same time; each Duke face that pops up on the big screen has hints of, as the Germans say, backpfeifengesicht.
Needless to say, it starts to feel like a grudge match, like Maryland is finally avenging every team that's never been to the final four, or had to watch as broom handles (allegedly) and general douchebaggery reigned supreme and unchecked. Toward the end, Duke starts doubling on the ball by making their goalie play defense. But the Maryland attackmen just move past goal line extended, turn, and shoot on an open goal. Four times. Four times they score on an absent goalie, and Maryland just wants more. The stadium starts to empty, and Duke doesn't score another goal.
Catch and Throw: Division II and Division III Championships
On the second day, attendees barely arrive. Yesterday was just semifinals and all seats were packed, but today half the stadium is blocked off in anticipation of pretty much no one caring.
As Limestone and Dowling start to play, it's pretty clear why: Division II sometimes gets a bad rap for being “basically just a really good high school game.” Passes zoom past sticks, drop too short, and are aimed at ghost players. But it's still an exciting game. Limestone digs themselves out of their slow start to tie. Of course, Dowling returns the rally by pummeling in another goal or two to maintain the lead. Though the scores mostly favor Dowling the entire game, there are moments where it just feels like Limestone is seconds away from recapturing the game. Dowling barely squeaks by with a win by one point—a matter of last-minute saves would have been enough to take the whole thing into overtime.
But it's probably for the best, because the part of the stadium that wasn't blocked off was directly in the sun. Lookers-on trickle out in various states of dejection, thirst, and stupid practice-penny-induced sunburns. Just glancing around, it feels as if someone at Gillette Stadium took a week to debate, came back, and announced, “Of course we'll shut down the shady side. Those lacrosse guys are responsible. They know what skin cancer is,” completely oblivious to every chanting idiot who runs onto the field as the clock runs out, shoulders as red as their parents' embarrassed cheeks.
Then Cortland starts to warm up. It's a model of efficiency, even if their coaches aren't really warming up their goalie. Over on the Salisbury half, there are six assistant coaches shooting on goal; no team, no backup, no real reason to be out there. Then the two goalies appear and hop in. Three of the assistants are warming them up. By the time the starter is getting warmed up, the team appears. Silently. Two by two. A menacing, undulating swath of gold and maroon.
Most fans have split the stadium so that they stand directly behind their team’s bench, but the rest of the crowd is unsure of what’s really going on. They're both state schools, Cortland in New York, and Salisbury in Maryland. They're both Division III powerhouses, but something about Salisbury says they walked into this stadium knowing full well this is their game. They have the goalie, they have the team, they have way too many assistant coaches—it's their time, and, even so much as just walking onto the playing field, they comport themselves as if they already won.
It proves itself to be another Maryland game: though the play gets rough and unsportsmanlike on both sides, Salisbury keeps coming up the winner in just about every category. They might cradle too hard and drop the ball on rare occasions, but they sure as hell turn around and get the ground ball. Often, they even use that chaos to turn possession into a goal. This kid Bradford manages to rack up six goals: assisted, unassisted, screened, unscreened, locked off, whatever—in fact, Cortland tries the same defense Duke embarrassingly ran the day before, and all Salisbury does is get the ball to Bradford for a goal on an open net. Even better? He might be one of twenty black people who've even been in Gillette Stadium in the last two days. Cortland tries to double the ball only once more, but thankfully get back to playing the game. Of course, they try that play when they're woefully far behind, and nothing comes of it. Salisbury claims a clean victory.
Though before it can all end, a girl behind me says, "This is so sad. All of my teams are losing. I wanted Duke to win, and they lost to Maryland. I wanted Notre Dame to win, and they lost to Loyola. I wanted Cortland to win, and now Salisbury is going to win. Hopefully tomorrow Loyola will win." It seems a great metaphor and a saddening message: I don't want anything to change, I don't like it when these ruffians come to my neighborhood and start playing loud music, dancing in the street, and decreasing my property values.
Turn and Shoot: Division I Finals
The day of the Division I finals is a confusing affair. Bystanders still wear Duke lacrosse tees, 'Cuse headgear, high school pennys, ironic backwards hats and reflective sunglasses, ill-fitting Notre Dame game-day shirts, and not nearly enough sunscreen. It's as if no one knows who's really playing. Also, why is everyone packed into Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts if both teams are from Maryland, and someone's carrying a sign that reads, “Crab Bowl 2012”? Yet even more confusingly, both of these teams seemed the underdog in their Saturday matches. There’s no way to pick a team to root for.
The game obviously begins with Loyola losing the faceoff. To keep consistent, they also start hammering the goal—but the game starts close, goal matched for goal. Something about Maryland is off, though: instead of rapidly passing in order to open up holes in the defense, they keep trying to set up picks. Which doesn't seem to do anything besides force them to drop the ball. In fact, that formerly well-oiled machine suddenly drops more than five passes throughout the game. They're laggy, late, and in some kind of haze. Some idiot takes the opportunity to observe, "The [Maryland] defense is only playing at 80% today," because, duh, those are totally tracked statistics that dumbasses in the stands can have beamed to them on demand all the time.
Only at the end of the fourth quarter, when Maryland’s been scored on for seven unanswered goals in a row, do they finally start passing around the outside and ripping shots. But it's just not enough: Lusby claims four goals for himself, one of which comes from another empty goal due to the double-teaming procedure that seems just as empty headed as the net is empty. All told, Loyola has an easy win at 9-3.
The very nearly undefeated underdog goes home with a trophy, and a couple people even end up littering the stands while they celebrate on the field. Maybe it's because they're the greyhounds, maybe it's because Lusby's a graduate student, or maybe because it's just their time: Division I is theirs and theirs alone. They are the best lacrosse team you can find right now.
But nothing really changes. Everyone goes home for summer; summer officially starts as the sun sets and beaches open for business. Recruits show up in the fall. Practice begins again. The season looms over seniors who are benched because the new kid's too good. Fans show up, tailgate, support their team, and generally expect the same thing to happen. Manly deeds will carry on, but womanly words will wait; lacrosse will exit its hibernation still the every rich man sport it has been for so long. But that won't stop everyone from secretly hoping underdogs like the Loyola Greyhounds can keep upsetting the status quo.