The average American sports fan knows that when pitchers and catchers report for spring training in Florida (usually around this time in February), spring itself is, to use the cliché, just around the corner.
For those of us Northeasterners whose childhood sport was lacrosse, not baseball, the signal is, instead, the first full weekend of men’s collegiate lacrosse, which commences tomorrow.
Lacrosse is a beautiful sport; full of grace and violence, finesse and strength, played on the verdant fields of March, April and May. It is distinctly American—native American. The brilliant Syracuse University goalkeeper of the late 1950s, Oren Lyons, the Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan, Onondaga Nation, once explained the spiritual origins of this Indian game to Bill Moyers:
Lacrosse is The Creator’s Game and he loves to have the contest and the vitality of the contest. And so, the harder you play — you’re supposed to play it as hard as you can — but, don’t cheat and you do things fair. Everything is always fair. Always fair. Do things fair.
( The brief lacrosse game director Micheal Mann included in his often underrated 1992 movie “The Last of the Mohicans” captured the spirit of a natural and spontaneous sport, with players grabbing crosses (sticks) and joining the fray at will.)
Sadly, the wooden crosses in “The Last of the Mohicans” are now artifacts. I learned to play with a wooden stick (pounding its stiff leather pocket into playing shape), but by the early 1970s metal and plastic had triumphed—today’s equipment uses titanium shafts, plastic heads and mesh. The newer sticks are uniform in their balance and the way they handle—but in my mind, they could never match the deeply personal and idiosyncratic appeal of a wooden crosse.
Despite the high-tech equipment, its players and fans revere the traditions and legends. Oldtimers still talk about Jim Brown, who took to the field at Syracuse as a midfielder and, while famous as a football running back, is also regarded as possibly the greatest lacrosse player of the 20th century.
Today it’s hard to argue that a midfielder should be considered the most dominant player in the modern high-scoring game—the balance of power has swung over to the attack. For my money, the greatest attackman of the last century was Cornell’s Mike French (with all due respect to the Gait brothers, Gary and Paul, and Casey, Ryan and Mikey Powell). French did set the Division One all-time career scoring record with 296 points in just three years of play (before freshmen could play varsity).
In 1975 I helped French pad his career totals while attempting (and attempting is the correct word) to guard him in a Harvard-Cornell game—the Canadian scored three goals in my one half of play (I was mercifully banished to the bench). I’d like to claim I had some success in defending against him, but it wouldn’t be true.
While he isn’t in the Lacrosse Hall of Fame like French, I maintain that attackman Mike Hynes, a teammate in high school and national standout at Maryland in the 1970s, remains the most inventive and entertaining player I ever saw. Not blessed with French’s combination of speed and size, Mike always found a way to win, either by scoring or assisting. Mike was recently inducted into the New Jersey Lacrosse Hall of Fame.
College lacrosse has been dominated by the same teams (Princeton, Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Maryland, Cornell) for the past three decades. While defending champion Hopkins is the consensus preseason choice to win the Division One NCAA title this year, there’s some sentiment for Duke (the Blue Devils lost to Hopkins, 9-8 in the 2005 final.) Princeton is looking to rebound after an uncharacteristically poor 2005 season. For 2006, I’m rooting for Cornell.
Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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