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ReLAX. It's just a whack!

A sports-minded dad learns to love lacrosse.

My 13 year-old (the Boy) just completed his first season of lacrosse (LAX). Having no previous knowledge of the sport (let alone even witnessing a practice), my first game as a spectator was spent with my hands covering my eyes (with just a teeny space open to make sure the Boy was still upright).

I’ll digress a bit and explain that I’ve been involved with youth football in town for almost 15 years. So when I saw that the equipment involved in LAX was about half of what we dress our football players with, I figured I’d be watching a game of pure finesse.

Well, it began with two kids at midfield. They were hunched over, facing each other and almost on their knees. Then they lunged forward, colliding and using their sticks like shovels to dig a little white ball from a small dirt pit where the referee had left it.

The Boy was far away from this activity and still on his feet. His stick, or pole, or shaft was longer than that of the kids up front. I figured he’d be able to keep his distance from other players and just reach in with the head of his pole to stop them from taking a shot.

Understand that football is a game made up of many very short plays. The players line up, hit the opponent once or twice and then someone gets tackled. Everyone catches their breath and they do it all over again.

LAX is a fast-paced game where the action continues as a whirlwind of sticks, hits (body to body), whacks (stick to body), and that very hard white ball. The only “eye” to the storm is the occasional stoppage of play for one reason or another. The hitting and whacking is as continuous as it is unrelenting. 

Imagine kids, with poles, doing everything they'd previously been taught not to do. When someone has the ball and begins to run, a crowd of opposing players chase him down. WHACK! WHACK! WHACK! They swing the sticks and either try to extricate the ball from his little net or dislodge the stick from his hands.

If the swinging and flailing sticks don’t get him from behind, there are bigger kids in front of him with the longer poles. And they too try and separate the player from the ball by either whacking, running into, or slamming him until he can no longer keep possession.

I’m not quite sure of all the rules yet, but depending on if the ref is watching or how the maneuver is performed, you can run over the cradler of the ball by launching into his back with your stick in a horizontal position.

The goalies wear no leg protection at all. If it were me out there, I’d be equipped with those wide leg pads that hockey goalies wear. I’d also be sure that not an inch of my body was exposed enough to be dented or bruised by the ball. Can you imagine a baseball catcher not wearing shin guards? To me it’s crazy, but I’m still new to the sport. As long as their heads are fully protected, I’m good.

Our team was made up of mostly first-year players, many of whom had been recruited by their football coach who, coincidently, also coaches LAX. So it took a while for many of them to understand that tackling and blocking were not allowed. It also took some time for the team to gain some of the basic LAX skills such as cradling, passing, catching, and shooting.

 I’ll be honest; I didn’t like the sport after watching that first game. It didn’t seem to be very fluid or pretty, and much of it looked out of control with little strategy. The Boy was enjoying himself even though he took his share of whacks and was leveled by a couple of kids that didn’t look like they could possibly take him out. The big adjustment for him was trying to figure out when it was legal to plow another player over and when it would be called as a penalty. 

Somewhere during the third game I became completely fascinated by the sport. And by the end of the season I was pacing the sidelines yelling out to the team, “Hit somebody! Don’t let him in untouched! Look out behind you! Pick up the ball!” 

Don’t get me wrong, I was still amazed at the force in which players would whack each other with their sticks. I still gasped when they collided and bodies smashed into other bodies. But I also noticed that for such a fast-paced and full-contact sport, the injury rate was very low. In fact, looking back on it, I don’t recall hearing of any broken bones or trips to the ER. I’m not even sure if there were more than four or five injury timeouts during the entire season.

The Boy looked forward to each and every practice and game. My wife and father, who both had very little previous exposure to the sport, also became big fans and my dad even started watching it on TV.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the number of boys and girls playing lacrosse in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut has climbed above 91,000, according to US Lacrosse, the sport's governing body. While more than four times as many kids play Little League baseball and softball, the number of kids playing Little League in these states has dropped 9 percent since 2003. Lacrosse participation over the past five years has soared more than 42 percent.

The beginning of next year’s LAX season will find me watching with both eyes and with a greater knowledge of what to expect. I’m sure the whacks will be harder and the collisions a little more ground-shattering, but at least I’ll be better prepared.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll buy my own pole or stick and practice with the Boy. He might be as big as I am but if he thinks he’s ready to run through me… perhaps I had better get out of his way. 

Susan Davis June 22, 2011 at 01:55 PM
Wonderful column. I am a Granby native now living in California. Our town just started a lacrosse league two years ago. I also knew nothing about the sport but have become a big fan. Both my son (10) and daughter (13) are playing; the girl's version has less contact and more finesse, but definitely calls for speed and aggression. Both kids *love* this game. One funny note: I've noticed there are very few problems with over-involved parents on the sidelines, because none of us really know what's going on. We shout and cheer when a goal is made or a child is gets the ball. Other than that, we quietly discuss the play from our seats: "did that goal count?" "is he allowed to hit my kid like that?" and "wow! look at her go!" The coaches say it's great!
BOB GORALSKI June 22, 2011 at 04:22 PM
great column,I WAS THERE WITH YOU THROUGH OUT THE SEASON,MOST KIDS FOR THE FIRST YEAR,A SPORT I NEVER PLAYED OR UNDERSTOOD.WATCHING THE KIDS PROGRESS EACH WEEK AND LEARN THEMSELFS WHAT THEY GOULD AND GOULD NOT DUE,ITS FAST, SKILLED AND PHYSICAL AND KIDS OF ALL SIZES PLAYING THEIR HEARTS OUT.AGAIN ITS TEAM ,TEACHING THE KIDS TO COMMUNICTE AND EXECUTE AS A TEAM.BUT IM STILL LEARNING THE RULES .
Don Douglas June 22, 2011 at 06:39 PM
Great article, Ron. As you know, I've always been a fan of your writing. Can't wait to read more from you. Keep 'em coming!
Robert Hepler June 22, 2011 at 07:06 PM
I'm glad that you have gotten the fever. I have been a coach for several years and I wish that our town participated in it when I was young. The rules can be somewhat complicated until you get the hang of it, so I would encourage you to get a book . It is not uncommon for you to have the initial feeling that the game is violent. Actually, we have to teach our players that the ultimate goal of upper level play includes very little physical contact. The ball is moved around with quick, short passes. If you have had a chance to watch MLL or NCAA play on ESPN, you will find this to be true. As you had said you were thinking, I would encourage you as a dad to buy yourself a stick (nothing fancy) and spend some time helping him with his skills. Believe me, you cannot work on the basics enough. It is the root of the game. My son will play his last game in the junior league (he is 11 with 3 years under his belt) and I still encourage him, whenever possible, to work on the basics. Since our sons are only 2 years apart, perhaps we will have the experience of seeing each other at a game without even realizing it (We live in Windsor) High school would be the time when their ages would enable them to play against each other. Also, don't be afraid to step up and be a coach. There is always a shortage of parents that want to obligate themselves to the time. Being a football coach, I am sure that you already know this. Hope that your enthusiasm will continue. It is truly a great sport.
Harry Alford June 22, 2011 at 07:46 PM
Great read. Thank you! http://www.lacrosseplayground.com/
Ron Goralski June 22, 2011 at 08:06 PM
Ha! So true about the parents. They rarely second guess anything the coaches do because they (we) really don't know what the heck is going on. In baseball and football, everyone's a critic. Sadly it won't be long for them (us) to jump over the learning curve and become experts!
Ron Goralski June 22, 2011 at 08:12 PM
Thanks for the tips Robert! And yes I did watch the LAX championships on ESPN. They were great. I even watched the MLL. Ahh I know Windsor well from the early days of Farmington Youth Football. We'd bring a healthy and enthusiastic group of kids over on a Sunday and two hours later couldn't wait to get out! Thanks for the tips and the best of luck to your son... perhaps the kids will meet someday on the field.
Ron Goralski June 22, 2011 at 08:13 PM
Excellent... thanks for the info!
Ron Goralski June 22, 2011 at 08:15 PM
Hey do I know you? We did have a lot of fun learning the sport. He's already talking about playing next season. More road trips Dad! (Does it count when your own family likes your column?)
Ron Goralski June 22, 2011 at 08:17 PM
And perhaps you and your son can be the inspiration for a column on a father and son's day on the golf course (another sport that I know nothing about).
Desiree O'Malley June 22, 2011 at 08:35 PM
Great column Ron. I've missed your writing from the many years of "Inside the Hogpen". I'm glad I'll be able to have my weekly fix again.
Ron Goralski June 22, 2011 at 09:05 PM
LOL... Thanks! All of those newsletters are just a CLICK away.
Patricia Reville June 23, 2011 at 04:07 AM
My son, who is going into his senior year at FHS, is just beginning his summer tournament season. There will be tournaments in many states throughout the next five weeks. We are courting several recruiters from good schools and hoping that one of those schools needs my son's mix of skills. He started lacrosse in the end of fourth grade and has been a happy lacrosse pioneer in Farmington. There was a special sense of excitement among the boys and girls ( my 22 year old daughter started playing in sixth grade, too) who started playing when the sport was new to Farmington. That excitement was fostered by gifted volunteer coaches who mentored our kids through elementary school and middle school lacrosse - until the High School coaches took over. It is those coaches to whom we owe credit for today's program. They deserve our thanks for opening up an avenue to wonderful athletes who otherwise might have lingered on the bench on some over-subscribed sport. My special thanks go out to Jim Cardon and Deb Albert for giving my kids a great start at being team players, good sports, and ultimately good leaders.
John Brockelman June 23, 2011 at 02:03 PM
This is a great article. I was fortunate enough to get involved with the youth program as an assistant coach this year on the above mentioned team after being away from the sport since college. It was very interesting to see how things had changed since my playing days. Clearly ESPN has raised the awareness and the finesse factor to a new level. To Ron's point what hasn't changed is the goalie or injuries. I've always said that a lax goalie (girls or guys) has to be the craziest position in all of sports. You really have very little padding compared to even a hockey goalie. You would also think with all of the hitting there would be a lot of injuries. Other than a few bruises it is still not an issue. Lastly it amazed me how much the board members and other volunteer parents have grown this sport. They put in a lot of time off the field to make this a fantastic program. Farmington is viewed by many as a soccer town. Soon we will add lacrosse to that title as well.
Ron Goralski June 23, 2011 at 02:27 PM
And THANK YOU John for your dedication and time as well. My humble opinion is that LAX along with youth football are the two best run programs in town (The town-run basketball Rec League is fantastic as well.) But that's all a subject for another day. We are so looking forward to next season... and for once my son will be starting football season already in decent shape thanks to LAX!
Ron Goralski June 23, 2011 at 02:30 PM
Patricia- so you and your kids go back to the very roots of the program. I'm sure the coaches mentioned will be flattered by your kind remarks. And the best of luck to your son and his future LAX career. I'll be looking for him on ESPN!
Ron Goralski June 23, 2011 at 02:37 PM
OK let me mention right here that the volunteers in Youth Baseball as well Soccer all do a fabulous job and they (we) all have the best interests of the children in mind! The children are always, always the bottom line. And I applaud every single volunteer that steps into a board meeting or onto a field with those intentions.
Henry Couture June 24, 2011 at 10:13 PM
The legacy of this phenomenal native american sport is alive and well in Connecticut's Farmington valley! Thank you for this wonderful article.
Ron Goralski June 24, 2011 at 11:33 PM
Ahh- Mr. Couture. Always the historian. I did not know of the connection.
Debbieann Durkin July 01, 2011 at 01:08 PM
Great article Ron - as always! Although I have not had much exposure to the sport, it was certainly entertaining.
Mike Colavecchio July 08, 2011 at 07:53 PM
Keep up the good work Ron. I must mention a great resource for parents, players, coaches and officials who want to expand their knowledge of lacrosse. US Lacrosse is a fantastic organization that promotes the growth of the game nationwide. One of the biggest components in the growth of lacrosse is KNOWLEDGE and US Lacrosse is the purveyor of that knowledge. Everything from parents wanting to understand the rules to coaches who desire the latest training tips are available at www.USLacrosse.org. My boys have been playing LAX for half a dozen years now and it has solidly cemented itself as their favorite game. The team work and comraderie of the game has them hooked.

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