From LAX to Lax
It’s 5:30 in the evening and the temperature is still north of 80 degrees. And as they say in these parts, “It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity”. These parts is Towson, Maryland, the home of Towson State University and site of the NCAA Women’s Lacrosse Championships. The Bird and I had crossed the country to take in this, the first of a collegiate lacrosse championship two-fer – the women’s title game tonight and the men’s tomorrow, just 30 miles down the road in Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium.
Thrilled to death to be occupying seats removed from the glaring sun, we were just as happy to make the acquaintance of one Steve Taylor, who like us was in the top row of the stadium and hugging the shade cast by the press box. I’ve seen quite a bit of lacrosse over the years – certainly enough to watch the game knowledgeably. But there was much to be learned about the game as the women play it, and fortunately Steve has been on the front lines of coaching and teaching the game to women for years through his affiliation with the International Federation of Women’s Lacrosse Associations. The game has taken him to 14 different countries, and what he shared with us could fill the pages of a book on how to grow a “second tier” sport – except that I only heard about 50% of what he said. Why?
Apparently, at some point in the past 20 years or so, vast hours of scientific research determined that as a species, human beings are incapable of awaiting the beginning of a sporting contest without being fed a constant stream of loud music and promotional announcements. Conversation? Unnecessary – you can simply text the person you came with. Quiet reflection? For sissies. Making new friends that can add to your knowledge of the game you are about to witness? Socialism.
Fortunately, Steve was patient and willing to repeat himself enough that I was able to pick up some very useful tidbits such as this: As water polo and beach volleyball are to Southern California, lacrosse is to the Mid-Atlantic states – especially Maryland. Sure enough, as I’ve witnessed throughout my weekend stay, lacrosse sticks are a de rigueur fashion accessory among teens of both genders, and lacrosse matches soccer mini-van for mini-van in terms of youth leagues. It is as embedded in the state’s culture as are soft-shell crabs.
So it is with more than a little embarrassment that I admit that when I first laid out the schedule for this humble 100-event quest I only stumbled across the NCAA Women’s Lacrosse Championships and included it because it’s date and location were convenient to that of the men’s version of same. I had honestly expected to be able to roll onto Towson State’s campus, choose from a wide assortment of parking spaces, and stroll leisurely across campus to find a small field bracketed by a couple of sections of bleachers.
I only began to doubt this scenario when the news broke at the University of Virginia that Yeardley Love, a member of the woman’s lacrosse team had been murdered by George Huguely, a member of the men’s team. This put the sporting event squarely in the sights of the mainstream national media, who could definitely impact my free parking and ample seating options should Virginia make it to the Final Four. And only by tracking their progress through the national tournament did I come to realize that it was more than likely that the University of Maryland would be there. That, along with the fact that virtually every car parked at our hotel bore some sort of lacrosse decal encouraged us to head over to Towson State about two hours prior to the game. You know, just in case.
The “Event Parking” highway signs on the interstate first tipped me off…then having to wait for three light cycles just to get onto the campus…a ten minute wait to pay for parking… a 100+ person line that stretched more than 50 yards out from the box office. And the “small field bracketed by a couple of sections of bleachers” was actually the football stadium at a mid-sized Division 1 school. To say that I had underestimated the draw of women’s lacrosse in the Mid-Atlantic is to say that this iPhone thing-y may just be here to stay. The attendance tallies: 9,782 for the championship game and 18,559 for the semi-finals and finals combined. Impressive by any measure.
We learned from Steve that part of the reason for the huge influx of fans is an annual lacrosse conference and expo held in nearby Bel Air – which is evidently a huge lacrosse community, even by the lofty standards by which lacrosse addiction is measured in this area. Promising players from all over the country had descended upon the rolling hills of northern Maryland, all with dreams of eventually qualifying for Team USA and the Women’s Lacrosse World Cup. And they were there in full force on this warm Memorial Day Sunday evening.
The championship matchup itself lived up to everyone’s expectations. Once upon a time, the University of Maryland had dominated women’s collegiate lacrosse, winning 8 of 10 championships, including seven in a row from 1995 through 2001. Of late however, Northwestern University had assumed the role of perennial champions, having won the last five NCAA crowns. And this year Maryland (#1) and Northwestern (#2) had finished the regular season as the two highest-ranked teams in the country. Interestingly enough though, the two schools had never played each other for the NCAA Championship – until now. It was the perfect competitive storm – but the ultimate Sports Fan dilemma: who to root for?
The crowd was heavily pro-Maryland, so perhaps we needed to balance it out a bit and root for Northwestern? Then again, how do you pull for a five-time defending national champion – it’s like rooting for the Division of Motor Vehicles in the Bureaucracy Bowl. Fortunately the decision was made for us when the starting lineups were announced and Maryland featured the Jones sisters – Brandi and Brittany – from the San Diego suburb of Poway. Our SoCal peeps! Go Maryland! Fear the Turtle!!
And after all, the shade of red in Maryland’s team colors does bear a striking similarity to that of a certain underachieving baseball team from Anaheim. Not that I’m influenced by that sort of thing.
To be continued…