Lacrosse is a Native American game that began to penetrate colonial society in the 1630s. Its present form originated on East Coast in the 1700s.
It has slowly made its way to the Midwest. Small colleges such as Illinois Wesleyan University are now using it to stay competitive in recruiting students. Even high schools are picking it up.
Men’s team coach Zach Iannucci said IWU was not an early adopter or a latecomer.
“We were kind of in the middle when schools started to bring it in," he said. "We are in our fifth year, so we were a little bit later, but there has definitely been a big wave of it coming in recent years. It’s really growing and growing fast."
Lacrosse is a team sport played with a hollowed metal stick that varies in length with a butterfly net-type glove on the end. The players use the stick to carry, pass, catch, control and shoot the 2-ounce soft rubber lacrosse ball into the opposing team’s goal. Each goal is worth one point. The games last an hour.
“It’s a mix of many sports. You’ve got hockey in there, some football, some soccer. It’s fast. It’s physical. Hockey is probably the closest if someone doesn’t know the sport," he said.
Will Harris, a freshman goalie for the Titans, began playing the sport in third grade.
“It’s called the fastest sport on two feet for a reason. It’s fast-paced, lots of goals, lots of excitement," he said.
Harris said the speed of the game makes it fun.
“There are so many parts that are fun. Being a goalie and being the last line of defense is something I’ve always gotten an adrenaline rush from. Playing goalie you have to have some crazy to step in the cage. It’s a brutal position. I’m bruised and battered all over from taking shots off the knee, thigh, arms all over the place. It’s a labor of love," he said.
Senior midfielder Nick Winter said the 110-yard, 65-foot men’s field basically has three sections.
“On the offensive end you have three attack men, who have to stay on the offensive end. Then you have three midfielders, who can run the length of the field. Then you have three defenders, who have to stay on the defensive end.”
Players wear shoulder and elbow pads, gloves and helmets. Iannucci said it gets physical.
“It’s more of a contact sport than collision sport," he said. "Football is very much a collision sport. There is contact. You can hit each other with a stick. You can see a couple of big hits, but not like in football where it’s every play. It’s a much safer sport. It’s not the goal each play to take somebody to the ground.”
Full contact is a feature of the men’s game, but not so much in the women’s game.
“There’s a little bit of contact," said Lindsey Kellar, who coaches the women for Illinois Wesleyan. "Your sticks can’t touch their body, but you can put contact on from a defensive positioning point of view with your body on their body. I would say it’s similar to the kind of contact you see in basketball.”
Kellar said there are other differences in the women’s game. For one, the field is 120 yards long, there is a 90-second possession clock, and 12 players are on the field rather than 10.
“I don’t know where the differences started. With the Native Americans starting the sport, they were men and only males played. Scotland is where they started the women’s side, so the game could have been very different," she said.
Kellar, like Iannucci, grew up and played lacrosse in college on the East Coast.
“Zach equated men’s lacrosse more to hockey where it’s a little bit quicker. Women’s lacrosse is growing to be quicker. We’ve actually just introduced a possession clock. That has sped the game up a little bit. It’s faster than soccer, but it’s not quite as fast as men’s lacrosse right now," she said.
Players from across the country sprinkle the men’s and women’s rosters. But Iannucci said the majority hail from the Chicago suburbs.
“We do a lot of our recruiting out of the suburbs. The sport has grown and the level of play has really grown as well, and that’s been helpful for us as we continue to grow our program.”
Kellar said the girls game is growing as well.
“The one thing we compete with in the Midwest or state of Illinois is that soccer is in the same season, whereas in other sports it’s not," she said. "If that ever changes that would be nice because you would get more interest on the girls side.”
No high schools in the Bloomington-Normal area currently field lacrosse teams. But the sport is growing throughout Illinois. Matt Troha of the Illinois High School Association says the IHSA added it to the state tournament series this year.
“When we looked at the youth numbers that U.S. Lacrosse gave us, there has been a several year span where they are just doubling year after year, especially in Illinois and the Midwest. We looked at that and said the numbers are here. These kids are playing and they are going to be in high school soon. We wanted to provide them that participation opportunity.”
In this year’s state tournament series, there will be 78 boys and 58 girls teams competing for championships. The only downstate schools are Dunlap on the boys side and O’Fallon on the girls side.
Troha said the IHSA expects more teams next year.
“We’re excited about the growth. The Peoria area looks like it could have three or four teams as early as next year. We anticipate Bloomington-Normal having a team in the near future along with the Quad Cities, Springfield and Champaign areas.”
How soon does Troha see a team from Bloomington-Normal in the state series?
“I would hope three years, maybe five as a safe estimate. I would be surprised if there is not a high school team in the area in five years.”
Both Iannucci and Kellar said the games are appealing.
“You might not have any idea what’s going on at first, but it’s a lot of fun," Iannucci said.
Added Kellar: "Again like hockey, you may not know all the rules or why they are doing certain things but it catches on. It’s fast moving. It’s exciting, which is probably the best part because it’s a faster sport."
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