May 18, 2012

UnCensered: Lacrosse's TV Potential on Display

Like hockey, last weekend proved lacrosse is primed to attract new fans

by Joel Censer |

The fireworks shown by Chase Carraro and the Denver Pioneers in a high-scoring affair against North Carolina were enough to keep a New York Rangers fan glued to lacrosse instead of Game 7 of the Rangers-Washington Capitals series last Saturday.
© Trevor Brown

Last Saturday night, I was with a friend who is a die-hard, lifelong hockey fan who has seen the ups and downs of the sport.

For him, the ups are obvious. Born and raised in New York City, some of his best childhood sports memories revolve around the 1994 Rangers team. Mark Messier, Mike Richter, Adam Graves and Brian Leetch took down Russian wonderboy Pavel Bure and the Vancouver Canucks to hoist the Rangers' first Stanley Cup since 1940.

But there were downs, too. In this country, people don't play hockey like they do baseball, basketball or football. When the NHL had its lockout in 2004-2005 and the casual fans couldn't see guys knocking in one-timers or settling on-ice grievances with fists live, they lost interest. Of course, before the lockout most of the games were dreadful defensive slugfests anyway. Not to mention the TV experience -- without already built-in, compelling narratives like Gretzky in Los Angeles -- just wasn't getting it done. Remember trying to follow the puck in that trail of infrared, CGI glory? It stunk.

This year, though, life has mostly been good if you are a Rangers fan. They have a bunch of team-first grinders willing to block shots (they were probably all furiously scribbling notes after Chris LaPierre took that one off the chest on Sunday against Princeton) and a couple world-class scorers who can fill it up. And with the best goaltender in the world in Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers look ready to recreate some mid-90's magic.

Not to mention, there seems to be a pervasive amount of good feelings towards the sport these days. The Philadelphia-Pittsburgh series (half bloodbath, half shootout), is still reverberating across the Eastern seaboard a couple weeks after the fact. Ditto for the Capitals-Bruins first-round series where Washington learned how to play defense and grind a little to take out the defending champions.

The NHL's lack of goal-scoring, the post-lockout stench and the visual problems have been either been fixed or healed by rule changes/Father Time/HDTV/or the utter excitement people get when some Canuck is tossed into Plexiglas. Whether fans like the speed of the game, its physicality or just the way players seem to have an utter disregard for off days or fists to the face, people in America are responding to the stick-and-puck sport. Hockey has found its stride.

Lacrosse, meanwhile, is most certainly not in the same type of golden era. Sure, the game is growing faster than any other sport. Yes, ESPNU has a docket full of college games on TV every weekend. Even The Atlantic -- which is filled with people who are paid to think about these sorts of things -- openly wondered if lacrosse is ready for the mainstream.

Yet for all the positive indicators, some people who are intimately involved with the sport seem to have real problems with the modern game. The long, grinding possessions. All those substitution games. The way a team can just suck the air out of the ball. It's been a near constant groan all season. Whether because of overbearing coaches, hyper-athletic defenses, or superior stick technology, people complain that "the fastest game on two feet" has been reduced to ankle-weighted action.

The public, media-friendly war over tempo pales in comparison to the problems other sports have faced. It doesn't have the repercussions or grave seriousness of steroids in baseball, or the current concussion issue facing the NFL. Or the drug problem the NBA had in the '80s (where are you Bernard King?). Still, it's big enough that the New York Times bought ink to discuss it just last weekend. As Lacrosse Magazine editor Matt DaSilva so eloquently wrote last year, the fight for and against a shot clock seems almost like "a battle for the soul of lacrosse."

So with these two different realities facing hockey and lacrosse -- as one sport gathers steam and another begins to question itself as it gets shoved into the spotlight -- I thought there was zero chance I could convince my friend to scroll the couple channels down to the Denver-UNC during Game 7 of the Rangers-Caps series. After all, it was his house, his remote.

But I got creative. I lobbied for the Denver-UNC game by playing up the whole "Moneyball" narrative.

"C'mon dude. You don't understand. These two teams love to get up and down. But UNC does it differently. They just have more talent than everyone else. When the Tar Heel coaches hit the recruiting trail, they are playing with house money. So their players are usually the same guys that are on recruiting covers when they're still eating Gerber's.

"Denver, meanwhile is 2,000 miles away from East Coast hotbeds," I continued, "so they have to find talent in different ways. This includes a Canadian pipeline where they get these guys who grow up playing this tighter, indoor version of the sport, where they develop super soft hands and a unique skill set. It's sort of like how Brad Pitt built that baseball team in Oakland. You don't want to miss Scott Hatteberg hit that home run again, do you?"

He finally relented. After watching 10 minutes, he didn't want to change it. Part of this was just because he's a Rangers fan, and after a decade of heartbreak, he was terrified of being disappointed. Part of it was just about anyone could be easily enticed by the Pioneer-Tar Heel tiff. Jason Noble throwing deft touch passes in settled offense. Marcus Homan blistering some shots in transition. Mark Matthews toe-dragging and generally cutting up the Carolina zone.

It was also a bit chippy in the way playoff lacrosse should be. None of the hand-slapping chumminess that you get when half the guys played on some Empire State or Baltimore Crabs summer team together. This was MIAA, Philly, Long Island, I-95 corridor studs meet the Canadian-infused roadshow (with a side of KFO, Kentucky Face-Off, in Chase Carraro). Refs threw laundry. Bad blood was spilled. It felt like the playoffs.

By the end of the game, my friend was engaged and asking questions: "Why do the box guys play with one hand? Haven't I seen that Denver coach on another sideline before?"

It wasn't the only barnburner or bloodspat from the weekend. Duke dispatched Syracuse with startling efficiency. The Blue Devils were in typical May form. CJ Costabile wrought havoc between the lines, Robert Rotanz was doing his over-hand-to-a-pipe routine and Justin Turri was turning it on in a way senior midfielders often do in May. On the other side, you had to tip your hat to Syracuse's Kevin Drew, who did about everything you can possibly do as a defensive-middie to bring your team back into it. Tim Desko ended his career in style with another one of those SportsCenter Top 10 Goals.

Our game is not in as bad of shape as the slow-down "We need a shot clock now!" narrative suggests.

Later that day, Colgate played UMass in a game where the ESPNU coverage finally met generally off-the-radar, hardened Northern up-tempo parity. Not surprisingly, there were technical difficulties. By the third quarter, broadcasters Jack Emmer and Joe Beninati (who also calls Washington Captials hockey locally) were forced to call the games through their cell phones.

You know what people haven't been saying enough? How hostile an environment Amherst and Garber Field was for the Raiders. Let's not even start with the old-school Astroturf, where knees and ankles go to die. Even through the TV feed, I could feel the venom being lobbed at the 'Gate from the Minutemen fans staked out on the sideline. It took time, but eventually Ryan Walsh started screaming defiantly and the Raiders were playing like they knew they belonged and were there to advance. The flag-happy refs who wouldn't let UMass play their physical brand of lacrosse helped, too. By the time the TV feed came back on, we were lucky enough to see Peter Baum seal the deal.

Heck, the two more grinding affairs were probably my favorite games. In Charlottesville, Matt Lovejoy and Chris LaPierre picked their spots in transition and made enough of the Princeton's brain lapses (book smarts don't always equal athletic smarts, I suppose) to survive the Tyler Fiorito brick wall. Maryland took their Under Armour sponsorship and long history up to Amish country to face a well-honed Lehigh upstart buzzsaw. I give Terrapin senior Drew Snider a lot of credit for putting a lot of the offensive load on his back in the second half. Joe Cummings and Mike Chanenchuk chipped in huge goals as well. But still I left that game wishing I had paid the extra money for that cable package that gets the CBS Sports Network with all those Patriot League games. Because one game of split-dodging phenom Roman Lao-Gosney wasn't enough.

The basic point is that our game is not in as bad of shape as the slow-down "We need a shot clock now!" narrative suggests. Those first-round games couldn't have been any better if teams had 30 seconds to get a shot off or a two-point line to bomb from. There was no "four corners" offense eating clock, or those double-invert sets that would make dried paint blush. It was just gripping, old-fashioned, tense, "we definitely need a five-second tape delay here," postseason lax.

College lacrosse isn't perfect. I do sense that introducing a shot clock is a smart move. Mostly because I think the quality of coaches and players would mean offenses would evolve and we wouldn't have to deal with as many 6-5 February games, teams hoarding possessions and stifling creativity, and guys playing a game of chicken at the midline to see who is going to sub off first. I also wish refs had an easier time making high hit calls. And announcers didn't just reflexively rip into anyone who decided to clear the crease.

Whatever tweaks we have to make to the game, let's make them. But let's also remember a couple low scores do not mean we have a bad product or that new fans won't get wrapped up in the sport. We're good enough to skip Rangers-Capitals Game 7. With eight televised games last weekend, we took a long look in the mirror. And we looked pretty darn good.

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