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A new (old) game in town

A former collegiate standout brings the sport of lacrosse to New Tampa - it only took a few centuries.

By JOHN BALZ, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published June 2, 2002


HUNTER'S GREEN -- The sport dubbed "the little brother of war" by its creators ended with smiles and handshakes on a painted rectangle behind Benito Middle School.

Mothers and fathers avoided the sun under polyethylene canopies as two lines of sweaty boys with aluminum sticks filed past each other.

Good game (palm slaps) ... good game (palm slaps) ...

The team in white jerseys circled up, their arms and fists pointing toward the center like spokes on a bicycle wheel. Their jerseys bear the logo of a muscular American Indian with a feather in his Mohawk. One, two, three, Warriors! They cry, reducing war combatants to mascots.

War's little brother is more commonly known by its French name, lacrosse. Although it is the oldest sport in North America it has taken a few centuries to reach New Tampa. The Warriors, the community's first lacrosse team -- operated by the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association -- finishes its inaugural season this month.

Stop watches, umpires, and protective gear have tamed lacrosse and the league's young participants know nothing about its violent beginnings. Before the first week of practice most had never held a lacrosse stick or seen a lacrosse game. They signed up to try something new.

"I just knew there was a field with nets," said 11-year-old Trent Cook, echoing his teammates' nescience.

And yet as friendly as the game sounds, as new as the jersey looks, as cold as the water tastes, ancient history flickers in callow bodies. It is hard to miss.

War and Peace

First the history.

Lacrosse combines the quartet of basketball, soccer, hockey and football, or because it is older than basketball, hockey and football you might say they are its spin offs.

The object is to throw a ball into a net, like in basketball. The net is protected by a goalie and players cannot touch the ball with their hands, like in soccer (they use sticks with mesh webbing). Referees call penalties and award power plays, like in hockey. Players sprint back and forth with the ball tucked close to their shoulder, like in football.

American Indian tribes, the originators of lacrosse, used it to settle disputes. As many as a thousand men made up a single team. Fields stretched several miles; games lasted several days. Since players rarely came near the ball they concentrated on injuring opponents with their sticks.

"They would really beat the crap out of each other, it was the last man standing," is how Tom Fitzsimons described this form of "organized war."

French missionary Jean de Brebeuf was the first European to witness the contests and the name lacrosse derives in part from his likening of the playing stick to a bishop's crosier. But it was a Canadian, George Beers, who founded the first lacrosse league and drafted the first official rules. He replaced the deerskin ball with a hard rubber ball and limited teams to 12 players (now there are 10).

Fitzsimons is the Warriors' coach and was a member of the 1984 Washington College lacrosse team that lost to Hobart College in the Division-III finals.

His perfect Saturday is leaving the house at around noon carrying a lacrosse bag and a hockey bag and returning eight hours later for supper.

"Of course, the wife's not happy with you," said Fitzsimons.

Two sides to a stick

A purple bruise,the shape of Tennessee, hides under his left biceps, a reminder of Saturday's game

According to his mother, Arakawa's problem -- or his mark of strength -- is intestinal fortitude.

"When you see him get out on the field, he ends up being the head of the defense and this other person comes out," said Meridith Hanekson, a former lacrosse player herself. "He will dive to the middle of any situation. Part of lacrosse is learning to control that."

Arakawa's response: "If you're kind of afraid, then you're not going to do well. What's the point of playing if you're not going to help your team?"

During the Benito game, Arakawa defended against a boy he described "like playing against Shaq." Arakawa is 5 feet 3 inches, 128 pounds and a sideline rumor has it that "Shaq" weighed twice that.

Whatever. Shaq couldn't keep up.

"He came out of the game because he got poke-checked in the stomach and he felt like he was going to throw-up," said the 14-year-old.

"And who poke-checked him in the stomach?" Hanekson asked. She knew the answer.

"Me," said Arakawa.

"It was a light poke check, right?" a reporter asked.

"No, not really," said Arakawa.

The artists' interpretation

Lacrosse rewards coordination and agility instead of brawn, but brawn helps. Like hockey and football, it is a sport whose viciousness rises with its players' age.

Six-year-olds interpret lacrosse much the way they interpret other sports. The ball, like a synthetic planet, exerts a gravitational pull sucking players toward it.

Teenagers bump each other with their shoulders. It is not until the adults lace 'em up that the ball zips, the hits pop, and the game's grace peeks out from beneath shoulder pads.

Lacrosse is more popular in the Northeast and the Midwest but the sport has grown to include some 87,000 boys and girls at more than 1,600 high schools. On the collegiate level, Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University and Syracuse University are the traditional powerhouses.

The Warriors have 92 players between the ages of 5 and 15, competing on three teams. They come from Lutz, New Tampa, Wesley Chapel and even Sarasota; and they play squads from South Tampa, Clearwater and Largo.

No one is worried about winning an NCAA championship. They are still learning the fundamentals.

"In P.E. class we played with plastic sticks so no one really liked it," said Jeremy Glass. "It wasn't full contact."

Glass is a tae kwon do black belt and a fan of Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith. He has a slight build and his 13-year-old forearms look as if they could barely twist the lids off of jars. But after he collided with a stop sign playing football two years ago, losing his two front teeth, his mother hardly worries about him on the lacrosse field.

"That was always my big fear, his teeth," said his mom, Mary Glass. "And they're gone."

Early in April, coaches handed out 65 sets of equipment -- a helmet, shoulder pads, a mouthguard, a stick and arm guards (cost $173). Buy a cup and cleats, they said. Two days later they practiced.

"We spent the first half-hour trying to get these kids dressed," recalled Fitzsimons. "The second hour we tried to teach them how to scoop up a ball (off the ground) because that's where you knew the ball would be most of the time. We'll teach them how to throw later."

Fitzsimons expects at least 45 more kids to join next year and he hopes high schools begin to field teams. Until then, the Warriors will be the teachers of history and the bearers of tradition.

"The first day I get a kid who gets a scholarship for lacrosse I'm going to pop a bottle of Dom," he said.

Field chatter

At the start of lacrosse season, there were two girls, sisters. By the end there was one: Sabrina Foley, Samantha had been injured.

Sabrina Foley is a Wharton High School junior with long blonde hair, broad shoulders, and a brush of light freckles across her nose. She wanted to play football but at 15, she was two years too old for WCAA's league. Fitzsimons suggested lacrosse.

"I found out that I was going to be the only girl along with my sister and I was kind of like, "Oh, I don't know' because I'm one of those girls who has to have 50 people to go to the water fountain with."

This is Foley's code for explaining that she likes to talk, a lot, and 13-year-old boys with helmets and mouthguards aren't much for conversation.

Foley has competed in swimming meets, soccer matches and karate tournaments. Lacrosse is her current favorite. Like most teenagers she is embarrassed by her mother's cheering -- loud screaming, running along the side of the field -- and has banned her from lacrosse matches.

In the WCAA league, tripping, hitting with your helmet and slashing with your stick are off-limits. Everything else is standard business.

"At first I was really standoffish but as I got more comfortable with the sport and learned more about it, I got right in there," said Foley. "I haven't body-checked anybody like the midfielders who are slamming people on the (ground). But I get into it."

Lacrosse: the facts

Men's lacrosse is played on a field 100 yards long by 60 yards wide. Field size varies for women and youth teams.

The 10 players on each team include a goalie, three defensemen, three midfielders and three attackmen. Goalie nets are placed 15 yards from the end line of the field, allowing players to run behind them. Women's teams of 12 do not have midfielders.

The game begins with a face-off at centerfield. The ball is placed between two sticks and the players fight to control it. Players cradle the ball with their stick as they run around and pass or shoot.

Men's games are divided into four quarters; each lasts 15 minutes. Women play two 30-minute halfs. The Warriors, composed of players between the ages of 5 and 15, play four 12-minute quarters.

Teams change sides between periods. The team with the most goals at the end wins.

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