Look at the sidelines of a college lacrosse game today and you will see an interesting phenomenon that for years was only a staple of that other spring sport, baseball: good athletes standing around…doing nothing.
Lacrosse has changed over the years, as any sport that sees a huge growth spurt and technological equipment advances tends to do. Nowadays, there is a constant debate over pinched heads, club vs NCAA, mesh vs. traditional, the size and athleticism of the players, zone defenses, stall offenses and fogos just to name a few. The arguments revolve around how these changes have affected our game and what we can do to mitigate their respective down-sides. However, there is another change briefly alluded to in the first paragraph of this article and it has to do with another ever-increasing trend: roster size.
College lacrosse teams have been increasing their roster sizes on average for the past 10 years, possibly longer. At first I saw the trend in college football where rosters can now exceed 100 players. There are even players who have to “share a number” [although they still get their own jerseys]. Now some division THREE lacrosse teams have players with numbers in the upper 50s and not because they think it is cool, but because all of the lower numbers are already taken! I am not going to back this up with statistics because it is not actually relevant to my main point, which is: any game roster over 35 players is quite absurd for many reasons. Personally, I believe a team can get away with only 25 players for a game but that would be such a significant drop, I doubt it would ever be considered.
It is rare that any team at the High School, college lacrosse club, ncaa, MLL or International levels would ever use more than 30 players in a single game. At most a team needs 2 goalies, 5 defensemen, 3 Long stick midfielders, 2 fogos, 3 SSDMs, 9 offensive/clearing/wing midfielders and 5 attackmen. This allotment puts a team at 29 players. The 30th can be an extra wherever else you really feel like you might need it even though 3 LPMs and 9 offensive middies already seems like overkill.
If you are already thinking to yourself that, “this guy is crazy and is obviously not in touch with reality” I have seen this style of roster in action and it can be VERY effective. In Western Australia, where I played in 2001, rosters were limited to 15 players and the level of competition and skill was extremely high. The fitness level of the midfielders was quite impressive and the ability to play all aspects of the game by all players was evident and a breath of fresh air in this age of position specialization.
You will hear coaches at the college lacrosse level dismissing this idea as foolish for a couple of reasons. 1) I need more than 30 kids to run an effective practice. 2) What if players get hurt and the injury bug bites my team hard? 3) We’ve been doing it this way for years now and it seems OK, why would we change it now?
To address the first issue I would first like to say that I pretty much agree with them here. Running a real practice with less than 30 players can be very difficult but these are only game rosters that I am talking about, not practice rosters. There is no reason why a school can’t have a Varsity team of 30 players and then a JV team with an additional 20-30 players. The two teams can practice together but only players marked as Varsity would travel to away games and only Varsity players would dress for home games while the JV players could be on the sideline in street clothes or playing in a JV game themselves, provided the opposition decided to bring theirs along. Would this result in fewer games for the JV players? Of course, but the point of college is not to make as many team trips as possible, it is to focus on academic pursuits. Lacrosse is just an added benefit and it is a privilege not a right to play it.
The second point is also easily solved with a JV team. If 3 of your Varsity boys go down on Wed and you have a big game Saturday, you can pull 3 guys up from the JV squad and since they have been practicing with the Varsity all year, they should be good to go.
The last issue college lacrosse coaches will raise is an interesting one. The system as-is has worked to be sure but that doesn’t mean it’s working as well as it could be. College athletics have gotten out of control and academics and the pursuit of well-rounded graduates has been lost in the process. It is time for college lacrosse to make a stand and be the leader of the pack, regardless of our status as a non-major university sport at most schools. Reducing game roster size at the college level sends the right message to parents, coaches and players while still allowing for very high levels of participation. It eliminates the kids who ride the bench for 4 years just to be on the team. Those kids can play JV, be involved with the team but not have it be the end-all be-all of their college careers. Most kids who barely play for all 4 years but are on the team the whole time have allowed their academics to suffer or their overall college experiences to suffer. The JV option allows them to still be really involved if they want but allows them to experience other things as well.
So now we have seen that this is certainly possible to pull off at high levels, we must address the lower levels of the sport where involvement and participation is paramount. The solution here is also quite easy: create more teams. Where a youth program had 1 team with 40 kids on it, it could easily have 2 teams with 20 kids on each roster. If getting refs is a problem, then more parents need to step up and get involved in their kids’ lives. If field space is a problem, then shorten the games a little or make 2 smaller fields where there once was one and find a way to fit in more actual playing and less standing on the sidelines in $400 worth of equipment that is barely getting used. The kids won’t do it themselves, they need parents and coaches to work together for the greater benefit of all.
The point of this is to make sure that kids who are on the team are playing in games and the rest of the kids can work harder to be on the Varsity team or they can continue on as practice players but they don’t need to be travelling every other weekend, watching endless hours of film and being held to the same level of responsibility as a Varsty starter. I loved playing college lacrosse and had a great experience but we need to look at where our true priorities lie. Are college sports there to get us to the next level or are they there to help us become well-rounded, mature adults? I would like to think the latter is true and that by restricting the number of players on a game roster Lacrosse could step up, be a leader and set a precedent that the major college sports, especially college football, could follow.