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June 9, 2010

UnCensered: 'City Lax' Shows Sport's Upside

by Joel Censer | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online | Censer Archive

If you're looking for a feel-good story, "City Lax" isn't it. If you're looking for a story showing the power of lacrosse, this is your ticket, writes Joel Censer.

I’m more than eight days removed from watching the NCAA Division I, II, and III championships live from Baltimore’s M&T Bank Stadium, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around exactly how it all played out. I’m sure a lot of people are.

Walking to my car through the tailgating area an hour and a half after C.W. Post had beaten in-state rival Le Moyne for the Division II championship (and New York bragging rights), I realized that the whole lot looked like some post-apocalyptic warzone where sleeves had been outlawed, the “lax penny” had been developed as currency, and the Ford Explorer reigned. But somewhere in between the grilling and the fiddlesticks, more than 100,000 screaming fans had been treated to some great lacrosse.

Of course, I remember Duke’s C.J. Costabile’s national championship game-winning overtime goal. The sophomore long pole’s high heat -- released just five seconds into the extra stanza -- gave Duke a 6-5 victory against a pesky and plodding Notre Dame squad. The win also made the perennial bridesmaid Blue Devils the first new Division I national champion since Princeton’s Andy Moe scored in sudden death in ‘92 (you know, the same year Kriss Kross convinced people -- including a seven-year-old Joel Censer -- that putting pants on backwards made you cool.)

Somewhat forgotten in the focus on the Blue Devils overcoming their recent postseason struggles (they were knocked out in the semifinals and finals despite being tournament favorites in 2007, 2008 and 2009) and the wild ride it’s been for their fifth-year seniors, has been the real transformation of the Blue Devil program.

The Duke rape scandal may have made people quickly forget, but it was only seven years ago that Duke went 8-7 in back-to-back seasons, star sophomore attackmen Matt Rewkowski and Matt Monfett transferred to Hopkins and Loyola, respectively, and message boards were at a fever pitch questioning if the Blue Devils spent more time trying to be like Ferrigno in the weight room than Marachek on the wall.

A year later, the Blue Devils got an influx of freshman talent (Matt Danowski, Casey Carroll, Peter Lamade, Nick O’Hara, etc.),  and while they may have gone 5-8 that season, the transformation from plodding musclemen to skilled speed merchants looking  to push tempo was on. Just look at the Dookies’ collection of long poles this year: close defender Parker Mckee had the best stick skills for a rope since Brodie Merrill (yep, I said it), Tom Montelli is a converted shortstick who scored four goals, and Costabile was skilled enough to be a play man-up in high school.

Still, I’d be lying if I said I thought Duke was going to win the title. The Blue Devils lacked much of a midfield scoring punch (almost always a staple of championship teams), weren’t particularly scary in settled offense, and were relying on a junior walk-on and freshman (both of whom had been yanked at various points this year) in goal.

But ultimately, their ability in the faceoff circle and efficiency in unsettled scoring opportunities (think about all those patented five- and six-goal runs they had) allowed them to overwhelm their opponents. And when they had to play a defensive-oriented squad like Notre Dame, who forced the Blue Devils to slow it up, take quality shots, and work for their goals, Duke defended well enough and generated just enough offense in six-on-six to claw its way to victory.

On the Division III side, I finally got to see the pride of “Medfuhd” and upstart Tufts, who I didn’t know too much about before the Division III championship (save the fact that they had mastered the social media lax scene). I mean how would anyone south of New York City possibly catch a NESCAC game when the teams never leave the bitter confines of New England?

I’m kidding. Seriously, I’m kidding. I like Newport, Rhode Island far too much in the summer to incite the wrath of NESCAC nation.

While it was hard for me to take the Jumbos seriously when they acted like their lacrosse squad and school were completely unknown entities (they’re a national university with 5,000 kids that can claim Elaine from "Seinfeld" as an alum), I admit I was a little skeptical about their chances against the Sea Gulls. I had heard rumblings that the Tar Heel Blue and Brown liked to push the tempo and frankly, I thought that would play into Sea Gulls' strengths: faceoff man Ryan Finch would get to take more draws and the Salisbury attack would get to work in the unsettled, where it thrives.

Didn’t matter. The Jumbos, who I thought were better at almost every position, manhandled Salisbury 9-6 in a game that really wasn’t as close as the score suggests.

Leading the Elephant charge on offense was St. Paul’s graduate and Baltimore native son D.J. Hessler (think a poor man’s Connor Gill). Hessler helped manage both the Jumbo transition and half-field game, scoring a highlight reel goal to go along with his four assists. Midfielder Jamie Atkins was also great on the invert and at finishing Hessler’s gift-wrapped passes on the doorstep, while Nick Rhoades took care of faceoff with 10 of 18. The Tufts defense, led by seniors Eytan Saperstein and Evan Crosby,  had no problem exposing -- and taking full advantage -- of the Sea Gulls' half-field issues.

Regardless, I’m thrilled for the Jumbos, as I do think it is good thing to have a Division III champion not from Cortland or Salisbury. In a division where there aren’t scholarships, I’ve often wondered if schools with high price tags and tough admissions standards can seriously compete with public universities like Salisbury and Cortland that have great traditions and the advantage of being able to provide in-state tuition in states ripe with lacrosse talent.

Tufts, though, eight years after Matt Dunn led Middlebury to the 2002 championship, showed that the NESCAC is still relevant. And looking at how young the Jumbos were on offense this year, I have a feeling we’ll see them around Charm City next year.

For me, the most memorable lacrosse event of the week had nothing to do with the games. A day after the championships, I was posted up on my couch flipping channels and randomly stumbled upon the documentary "City Lax: An Urban Lacrosse Story" on ESPNU.

I don’t want to spoil too much since the cast is traveling around promoting the movie, but the documentary chronicles the development of the City Lax youth lacrosse program for inner-city kids in Denver.

If you’re looking for a strictly feel-good story, this isn’t it. It confronts many of the very real obstacles inner-city youth face head-on. For example, many of the kids profiled didn’t have real father figures in their lives.

Kei’Zuan, a midfielder who is also an accomplished poet, had already lost his dad, who was killed while dealings drugs,and a 2-year-old brother to pneumonia.

Gaghe, a talented offensive player with a quick fuse (he scored the team’s first goal when he caught it deep in his pocket off the fast break and let it go in one motion), struggles with his grades and has a mother who is in and out of prison.

Even Eric Myrhen, the inspirational fourth-grade teacher who is the one to bring a bunch of sticks to school, battles serious health problems throughout the film.

But ultimately, the kids learn to rally around one another, have fun playing the sport, continue to work hard and get better, and embrace the opportunity to broaden their horizons. (It looks as if now three of the kids will even attend the prestigious Kent Denver school, where they will all play lacrosse.)

As for me, I was in tears. Honestly I can’t remember the last time I cried during a movie. A "Rudy" rerun? But there I was, alone on my couch, sobbing like I did when Red reunites with Andy at the end of "Shawshank."

To see kids who have had to go through a lot of tumult create lasting friendships and gain confidence and feel good about what they are doing on the field was a fresh reminder of why we really play the game, and how much it can give back.

Additionally, watching a few of the kids navigate through private schools and team tryouts made me remember the times people have helped me out and took a chance on me, and all the opportunities and lasting friendships the sport has opened for me.

To see the sport do the same thing and have the same open arms for kids who have had to face real off-field turmoil -- well, to me, that’s what lacrosse is really about.

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