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Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Lacrosse Mania in Philadelphia

You can name the colleges that have won national titles in Division I lacrosse over the past 35 years on both hands:

Johns Hopkins
North Carolina

Others -- Duke, Loyola (Maryland),Towson -- reached the finals and didn't get over the top, and this year is was UMass's turn to try to break those school's stranglehold on the national championship (in most of the years that the seven school named above won the national title, they defeated one of the other seven schools in the title game).

Lacrosse has been somewhat of a schizophrenic sport over the years. Decades ago, the game was played by blue bloods and the middle class in Baltimore, the middle and working class on Long Island and in New York's Central Valley (near Syracuse) and blue bloods at New England prep schools. Outside of perhaps a few DC area private schools, if you didn't play in one of those areas, chances were that you weren't viewed among the elite, or, put bluntly, as any good. Today, it's different, and elite players come from all over, and there are more hotbeds.

If you don't agree, then check out yesterday's national championship game at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, where over 47,000 fans were in attendance to watched an undefeated Virginia squad against unseeded UMass, a formidable program in its own right, making its first appearance in the national title game. My son and I were among the fans at the game, and it was great stuff.

First, there's the Linc. Believe it or not, despite being an avid Phila. sports fan I'd never been there. The reason is simple: none of my friends with Eagles' tickets has invited me, you really can't get Eagles tickets any other way, and I haven't ventured to buy soccer tickets featuring some of the great European teams. The Linc is just a great venue with great sight lines, and it's easy to get to from New Jersey, Delaware and the five-county area that comprises Philadelphia and its suburbs.

Second, there was a Lower Box in the Linc, which is where we sat. So, not only did we get to watch a great game with great sight lines, we also enjoyed good food and didn't have to swelter out there in the heat (I told my son not to get used to seats this good). We sat in shade and relative cool; the initial moments in our car ride home reminded us of how hot it was outside for everyone else. What a way to watch a game!

Third, there was the lacrosse phenomenon, with the Virginia gentry decked out in their orange attire tailgating right next to the lacrosse fans from New Jersey, Long Island and the Philadelphia area, Jags next to pick-up trucks, kids throwing lacrosse balls around in the parking lot, and they were there early. We arrived 1 1/2 hours before game time, only to have to park south of the Wachovia Center -- a ten-minute walk from our entrance -- because so many people were there so early. Thankfully, those running the event honored the tradition that permits kids to bring their lacrosse sticks into the games as fans. I don't know how the tradition started, but there were plenty of kids there with sticks. I had talked my son out of bringing his (he doesn't even play lacrosse, though, he plays t-ball), and he remarked later that bringing a stick to a lax game had less utility than bringing a glove to a baseball game, because the chances of getting a foul ball are far greater. Thankfully, he didn't care that much and elected not to bring his stick, and the lack of a stick didn't diminish his enjoyment one bit.

Tons of people, good if a bit hot weather, and a great matchup. It's not everyday that you get to watch a national championship game in person, and we were excited just at the privilege of being there and in the company of good friends. We rooted for UMass, not because of any affiliation with the school, but because of the concept that they were big underdogs and, well, as happens at many NCAA sites, the hometown crowd typically roots for the upset. My wife and I were at Penn's Franklin Field in 1992, when upstart Princeton knocked off top-ranked Syracuse to win its first national title and broke the stranglehold the troika of Syracuse, Hopkins and Carolina held on the crown for the previous sixteen years. It was a great day then (albeit in the low 60's and drizzling most of the time), so perhaps another big upset could take place on Memorial Day in the city that spawned one of the biggest upsets in U.S. history, the American Revolution. After all, there was a great symbol present in the atmosphere -- the UMass' mascot is a Minuteman.

As everyone knows now, UVA won pretty easily (15-7) and showed why it was the best team in the country. Their speed was superior to that of UMass's, their passing was crisper, and they won 26 of 42 faceoffs, a key statistic in any lacrosse game. The game was close at the half, with UVA up 6-5, and Doc Schneider, the UMass goalie, did his best to keep his team in the game. He was outstanding, but not outstanding enough to stop the multi-faceted attack of the Virginia Cavaliers.

We rooted for UMass, caught up with good friends and ate some good snacks. One the way out, as is my wont, I bought commemorative t-shirts for the kids (the run on merchandise inside the stadium was something to behold). My son marveled at the stickwork of the players, their ability to change direction, how they were able to shoot the ball from behind their backs and heads, how hard they shot the ball, the great replay scoreboards behind both endzones at the Linc, how close it seemed we were to the action, and the sea of orange that decorated one section full of Virginia partisans. It was a great event, and we enjoyed every minute of it.

To learn for yourself about the heightened interest in lacrosse in this country, click on the link to this website and look around.

If you haven't checked out this sport, you really should. It's basketball with some hockey-like hitting on land, and overall just a really good time.


Anonymous Pete said...

I am biased in my opinion of lacrosse as I played it in high school, but I would argue that it is a sport with almost a perfect scoring balance, and thus, it is a great spectator sport. Teams generally score anywhere from 5-20 goals a game, which means that unlike soccer and hockey, fans are sitting too long waiting for goals, and unlike basketball, scoring isn't so abundant that it gets boring. Also, lacrosse can be a fast break type of game where teams can come back very quickly under the right circumstances. I don't remember the teams, but in last years tourney one team scored in the last 12 seconds to tie the game. Good stuff.

7:31 PM  
Anonymous Dave said...

Glad you made it out to the game and took your kid. Trust me, if you ever get him to play the game, he'll never stop. Ever person I knew who tried the game stuck with it and it became their favorite sport. Actually, if you really want him to play baseball, DON'T encourage him to try lacrosse.

Wish I could have been there, but I enjoyed it on TV.

3:44 PM  

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