That Turtle Lax Shine
A men’s lacrosse field, like we men ourselves, is a simple-minded thing – there are sidelines, end lines, the attack area, a restraining line and a goal crease. That’s it. So as I sat in Towson State University’s Johnny Unitas Stadium awaiting the beginning of the NCAA Women’s Lacrosse Championship game between Northwestern University and the University of Maryland, the sight of various unfamiliar markings on the field made it clear to me that this was going to be a somewhat different game. For instance, extending out from each goal were lines creating a shape that can best be described as the aerial view of a baseball diamond, with home plate being the mouth of the goal. Further out from the goal was a semi-circle that wrapped all the way around the environs of the goal. Curious about this, I sought information from Steve Taylor, a women’s lacrosse coach and event organizer who, as luck would have it, happened to be seated right next to me. And Steve was more than happy to serve as a handy reference guide.
“Oh, you mean the eight-meter arc and the twelve-meter fan”, Steve replied to my query. Of course I did. He went on to explain that in adapting the game for widespread play by women, the powers that be decided to model many of the aspects of lacrosse play on basketball. The objective was to free up the area in front of the goal, thereby creating more opportunities for scoring. Thus was born the eight-meter arc – the equivalent of the lane in basketball. And like the lane, players can for the most part only take up residence there for three seconds at a time. But unlike basketball, it’s the defense that has to mind its visitation manners. Defenders can enter the eight-meter arc pretty much any time, but can only stay there for three seconds unless they are accompanied by an attacker. Kind of like having a chaperone with a stick. OK, got it – now Steve, about that twelve-meter fan? “That’s just for spatial awareness”. It worked. I became aware.
Mostly I became aware that the hardest job in sports is being a women’s lacrosse goalie. Right out of the gate in this game, a Northwestern attacker sprinted down the field with the ball and cruised right up into the goal mouth, where she found herself one-on-one with the goalie. Score. Rinse, lather and repeat – 2-0. Then 3-0. “Ahem…Steve? It appears as if the plan for freeing up the goal area for more offense seems to have worked. Perhaps a tad too well?”
My comment was well-received, and I was treated to a quick synopsis of how basically the skill level of the women playing lacrosse was rapidly outpacing the evolution of the rules of the game. “It would also be helpful if Maryland played some defense at midfield,” he added wryly. And as if by simply uttering these words he could make it come true, all of a sudden Maryland did clamp down on Northwestern – not just at midfield, but all over the place. I began to regard Steve as the Lacrosse Whisperer.
The question at hand became one of whether Maryland could dig out from the sleepwalking that they had succumbed to in the early going. Down 6-0, they rallied for three unanswered goals, but less than three minutes later they found themselves behind by five again, at 8-3. Having recently become a Maryland fan upon discovering that SoCal refugees Brandi and Brittany Jones were Terrapin starters, I took this hard. I had been a loyal supporter for literally minutes, and I didn’t want to see my team go down without a fight. And so they didn’t.
Slowly and methodically they tightened the screws on defense and executed their offense. They didn’t score in flurries, they simply scored consistently. Concurrent with this, Northwestern surprisingly scaled back the attack that had been so freewheeling earlier in the game. In fact, they went long periods of time in which the entire “offense” was limited to two players stationed behind the Maryland goal, nonchalantly tossing the ball back and forth – or just standing there with ball in stick. I seemed to remember something from junior high science about inertia, and bodies at rest tending to remain at rest – and sure enough, Northwestern ground their own momentum to a halt.
At halftime it was 8-8, and with an air of “my work here is done”, the Lacrosse Whisperer bade us goodbye and slipped off down the stadium stairs. When the second half started, armed with the knowledge that he had provided, I became like the “Winter Olympics Savant”, who tunes in every four years to critique figure skaters and second-guess officials as if he’d been evaluating salchows and triple lutz’s for a living. And when Brandi Jones (of Poway, CA) scored first to make it 10-8 and then again to break a 10-10 tie, I began to feel as my good friend Kels might say, that a Maryland win was Our Density.
What little doubt remained was attended to by the plane that had been circling the stadium throughout the game, trailed by an Under Armour banner. UA founder Kevin Plank was after all, a Maryland graduate and football team member who subsequently chose the Baltimore area to build his iconic company. So…umm…Northwestern? Just to remind you whose town this really is…
Maryland won the game 13-11, answering each Northwestern challenge down the stretch with a goal of their own. They had indeed been able to Protect This House, and reveled on the field long past what singer John Hiatt would’ve called a “lipstick sunset”. And a sizable subset of the 9,872 fans that had filled the stadium for the game joined them. The women’s final four had been an event that everyone could point to with pride: The Towson State venue management team, the NCAA, and those that – like Steve Taylor – could rightfully lay claim to helping grow and promote women’s lacrosse well past the point of critical mass. Could the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse Championship to be held the next day in Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium possibly top this? I’ll let you know.