From a 50-yard-line seat, a third of the way up a mid-size stadium, set under partial sun and floral colors of springtime, lacrosse seems grand. That is the current vibe having been robbed by February snow, kicked by blustery March wind and slashed by April rain. The weather payoff is brief and reserved for teams that advance into post season games in May. Sunny Championship weekend dreams are born on the icy tundra of January practice when it’s cold, gray and lonely.
In December players hope for a new lacrosse stick under the Christmas tree. It’s the stick that makes the sport unique. No two sticks are alike, even in this precision factory-made age.
A pocket is a living breathing organism. It’s alive. It grows. Shrinks. Gets frazzled. It changes with the weather and with wear and tear. A pocket has a mind of its own. It has a finite lifespan and requires fingertip attention. Those that are most aligned with their pocket, will prevail.
Today’s pockets don’t require the maintenance they once did. Molded pockets have less give …much better scientific materials are being employed. How do you like it? Pockets now stay more consistent for longer periods of time barring severe weather. Men’s mesh is more water resistant and durable than the old days when leather was the norm.
Field conditions have changed dramatically. Competing in mud is a rarity. It used to be every day, especially in upstate New York, Connecticut and New England. The downside is that artificial turf creates ‘greasers. Greasers are slick lacrosse balls that make passing and shooting unpredictable.
Technology dictates that players no longer have to be married to their sticks. Only minor tweaks in stick maintenance are necessary. Checking side strings and assessing the health of shooting strings takes less than a minute.
On the women’s side, Paul and Gary Gait’s pocket revolutionized the game. So have stick gurus, the talented folks who string sticks for the manufacturers. They now take it very seriously and have mastered the craft. That’s a major upgrade for newbies who can take a stick straight from Dick’s to the field.
It wasn’t too long ago that players strung sticks themselves. Or they’d pass along a kit to their team or town stick doctor, providing detailed instructions on how they wanted the pocket, sidewalls, leathers and shooting strings. There was a lot of variety based on individual feel, needs and skill set.
Players always had a gamer, a backup (a former #1 past its prime or a newer less broken in stick) and maybe a third stick waiting somewhere in the wings, unbuilt, all knowing that the gamer would grow ragged, weary and wet. Players were aware of a teammate who possessed a back-up stick and its relative compatibility. At the high school level sharing sticks remains standard procedure.
But let’s not over complicate things. Lacrosse is a simple game. Get the ball and throw it at the goal. Some folks make it a very complex, because it involves ten players almost totally dependent on one another. Yet sometimes those players are on their own. So, it requires skill, strength, grace, speed and a quick and inventive mind. Those who can play a step ahead, set the pace. Teams that play connected are best.
The sounds of lacrosse are – the whistle, the players barking and echoing play or defensive calls, the “ping” of a ball rocketing off the pipe, sticks and pads colliding, benches cheering and coaches endlessly screaming. The noise mimics the rolling ball and the irregular cadence of the indigenous game. Listen to the buzz of the crowd when a FOGO secures a scoop after a tense face-off moment, or the crescendo of a transition tic-tac-toe goal, or a sideline coming to life when a solid hit is delivered. A shot sailed over the crossbar elicits oohs and ahhs. Dad yells “Wheels!” on a clear. The goalie-Mom sits silent, suffering for two hours.
The bench areas are overcrowded. In D1, 65-man rosters have become commonplace. It makes practice a logistical assignment for the staff. Many of the laxers who were recruited heavily and trained so intensely for the game do not get a chance to play at all, or for a few minutes at most. They proudly wear the sweatshirt.
Mom and Dad sport the bumper sticker. These young men do the Monday through Friday work yet watch on Saturdays. Parents shake their heads in angered disbelief and question coach, who seemingly has forgotten that “Tucker” was an All-American, Top 100 recruit and scored a zillion goals for his regional club team during summer showcase events.
They ask themselves, “Is it better to ride the pine on a D1 team or star for a D3 squad?” The answer is that it’s best to be a great teammate. And that has nothing to do with location.
Grandpa is happy to be at the game supporting his grandchild, he’s all smiles while wearing the school logo cap. He’s the #1 fan and could care less about D1 or D3. He does wonder aloud why there’s so much substituting and less hitting.
Winning lacrosse is a bunch of small victories, won in succession. It’s a symphony of skill, speed, power, and precision. It requires hours of study and preparation decided by sequences no coach could ever plan or dream of.
When the clock strikes zero and the horn blares, it’s a dog pile and cheers and beers. New legends born and old ones remain. The game is a time warp.
The alums are forever married to the colors. They miss the locker room; it’s not replicated in adult life. They yearn for team bus rides, and even the cold boxed sandwiches after a road win. They don’t lose sleep over games won and lost. And none of them have fond memories of the running.
But mainly, they miss the stick – that feeling of cradling while running fast, throwing – catching, checking, scooping and shooting. It’s the love of the stick that got them here in the first place. It’s the stick that bonds us – the commonality.
The relationship between player and stick is complex and hard to quantify. There’s nothing quite like it. That, and the brotherhood endure.
So stay in tune with your stick and stay in the moment.