Lacrosse: the divide

Photo: Adam Ohringer
First things first; let’s establish a couple of facts here. Unless you: a) went to public school or b) are American, the chances are that you will probably never even have seen a lacrosse match, let alone know (and understand) how the game works. Seeing as I fit into neither of the two aforementioned categories, I too had no idea as to how the game was played.
Put that another way. I thought I had a vague idea. In my Enid Blyton "Girls at Mallory Towers" experience I assumed it was a gentile game in which sprightly young (female) things hurled a small ball to one another for a while before returning to the changing rooms for cucumber sandwiches and ginger beer. I was therefore highly surprised to learn that the University of London not only has its very own women’s lacrosse club, but men’s too.

The game of lacrosse was invented several centuries by the North American Iroquois Indians, and has changed relatively little from its virgin state. Both UL clubs (men’s and women’s) have been extremely successful in the past. The teams train every week, play throughout two terms, and play matches every weekend. Both teams play in the Southern Leagues, as well as the BUSA leagues. The men’s team consists of around 25 members, and the women’s of around 35 - eleven players on the pitch, plus one in goal. The idea of the game is to run with the ball held in the net on the end of your lacrosse stick, and attempt to score a goal. Your opponents have to try and get it off you before you manage to wing it into the net at the other end of the pitch.

However, aside from these basics, the men’s and the women’s games are very different - men play twenty minute quarters, whilst women play 30 minute halves. “It’s supposed to be a non-contact sport,” women’s captain Emma Glasgow explained to me, when I met the clubs at their weekly Wednesday team get-together at the Fitzroy Tavern near Goodge Street, “with the basic rules being that there are no boundaries. The aim is to get the ball in the back of the net”. “It’s known as ice hockey in the air,” added men’s captain Jamie Fox, who plays for the England squad. “And it’s the fastest game on two feet. It’s a very social game, that’s what’s so good about it. It’s also a very quick and athletic sport”. I therefore decided to take a trip down to the hallowed turf of the University of London’s sports ground at Motspur Park, where the men were due to play Portsmouth University, to see what all the excitement was about.

Approaching the pitch on which the game was due to take place, one thing became blatantly apparent - the amount of sheer padding and protection that the players were wearing, resembling not so much (my idea of) lacrosse players as American footballers. Billy Wilcock of the UL squad assured me that all the equipment was merely to protect the players from the sun. Somehow I doubted this and instead attempted to find somewhere to sit and watch the game that appeared at least reasonably safe.

All this, then, should have prepared me for the game itself. On the pitch the aim of the game appeared to be to hit your opponent’s stick (as long as the ball is encased in the end, mind) as hard as is humanly possible before he is able to leg it up the other end and lob it in the minute net. More often than not, however, the opponent himself got in the way, and was heftily bashed about the body. A couple of footballers walking past and, observing the speed of the game, summed up the situation. “I wouldn’t fancy being the goal-keeper in that game”.

The pace of the game is extremely fast, and as the players are constantly on the run, some fitness is required. This was a fact obviously noted by one sweating Portsmouth player, who, after one particularly active bout, flung himself on the ground moaning, “I wish I was fit!”. Thankfully (for him, anyway) teams have substitutes which they can swap in and out at will. ‘Time Outs’ can also be taken (not the chocolate bar), which are short periods of time in which the teams are allowed to rest and discuss team tactics. But perhaps the strangest thing about the game is the fact that the nets are actually inside the playing area, meaning that players can actually run around behind the net if they should desire to do so.

Although the men’s team admitted at the game that they “weren’t playing very well”, they still managed to thrash the Portsmouth squad who returned back down south after losing 14-2. The spirit of the game was hard to ignore. Despite the game being violent by nature, the atmosphere always remained friendly, with jokes being thrown about the pitch as fast and as often as the ball. The clubs also try hard to organise social gatherings in order to maintain team morale.

However, the elitist image of the sport means that recruitment is hard for the teams, particularly the men’s club; there are no men’s college clubs in UL and only two women’s - King’s and Royal Holloway. “We really want players who have played before” said Jamie Fox. “But we’ll take them at any standard, as long as they are enthusiastic”.

Both captains were keen to emphasise the fact that the main aim of the game, although serious, is to have fun. “Everyone who plays both chooses lacrosse over hockey,” said Emma Glasgow. “It’s much better, far more social. If only it could shake off the public school image we’d have no problems in recruiting members at all”.

Sarah Wakely

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