April 13, 2009

Points Taken: Coaches, Umpires Stress Safety

by Justin Feil | Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

The NCAA Women's Lacrosse Rules Committee voted last June to increase penalties for dangerous play, such as dangerous contact around the head area.
© Jim Agnew

Fifty-five fouls were whistled and 18 cards given, including five red, in Delaware's 10-8 win over Albany on March 13.

"It was a little wild," said Delaware head coach Kim Ciarrocca. "It was a very physical game. At one point I said, someone is going to get hurt and we've still got 12 games to go."

The game is one of the heaviest carded this season after the NCAA Women's Lacrosse Rules Committee voted last June to increase the penalties for dangerous play. Slashing, dangerous contact around the head area and stick-to-body contact are points of emphasis this season as the committee sought to address mounting safety concerns. Players can be issued yellow or even red cards for violations.

Said Northwestern head coach Kelly Amonte Hiller, a member of the rules committee: "We need to consistently work with our athletes, officials, governing bodies and everyone associated with our sport to continually insure that our game is as safe as possible."

The new rules call for a three-minute, non-releasable penalty for every yellow card. In the past, only the fourth yellow was punished. Two yellows in one game result in a game ejection. A red card draws an immediate ejection and a one-game suspension.

Emily Schaknowski received a yellow and a red card against Albany, and the subsequent one-game suspension forced the Blue Hens' junior attacker to push back scoring her 100th career point one game. Delaware's leading scorer hasn't gotten another card since then, but Ciarrocca understood the message from umpires.

"I completely agree with what the officials had to go to," she said. "With about 10 minutes to go, they told us the next thing was an automatic red. A yellow card meant nothing."

Said Princeton head coach Chris Sailer: "It's a much bigger penalty now. Those that have played the game and coached it forever, we love the game and think there are rules in place to make it a safe game."

Before the start of the season Sailer, the college chair of the US Lacrosse Women's Division Coaches Council, wrote a letter to collegiate umpires in support of the enforcement of the new points of emphasis, asking them to err on the side of caution regardless of any sideline coaching criticism that might come with it.

"It was to show that coaches are behind the effort to keep the game safe," Sailer said. "We wanted to back the officials. We all want to do what's in the best interest of the sport. We want the game to maintain its integrity."

US Lacrosse launched a “Rules Rule” campaign in early 2009 to help players, coaches, umpires and parents understand they all have a shared responsibility in maintaining the safety and integrity of the women’s game. The outreach program kicked off with a Rules Rule poster that encourages players to Be Fierce + Fair (BFF). A BFF coin was distributed to umpires to give them the platform to discuss the importance of safety with captains at the pre-game meeting. A dedicated sub-site on the USL web page allows players to sign the BFF pledge and also gives people the opportunity to nominate individuals that display acts of good sportsmanship. More information about the campaign is available at http://www.uslacrosse.org/womens_div/bff.phtml.

"I don't want it to get to the point where we're in pads and helmets," Sailer said. "Our game is not the men's game. People often confuse it. We want to keep it as its own unique game."

More than 175 college coaches from all divisions signed the letter that went out to all umpires, though a few of the biggest names did not. Amonte Hiller, of the four-time defending Division I champion Wildcats, did not. Gary Gait, Syracuse head coach and a legend in the men's game, did not.

Gait could not be reached for comment, but among Amonte Hiller's objections were the inability to discuss the letter's contents, some of the language of it and the timing and perception from officials of it. She stood in favor of the new points of emphasis, but wanted to see how umpires would interpret them before reacting to them, and has been pleased with what she's seen.

"Most games that I have watched," she said, "are being officiated fair, safe and in accordance to the points of emphasis."

Ciarrocca, a Division I coach for 17 years, was among the coaches who signed the letter, but notes there's a fine line between maintaining safety and being too proactive.

"We needed the aggressiveness to be more controlled," she said. "I agree with that. My biggest fear is we'll go back where we were 10 years ago when you weren't able to play defense. If you're coaching kids right, we shouldn't have to do that.

"I think everyone is trying to do a better job on defense," she added. "We don't want to wear helmets. We don't want that. You can still be aggressive, but it's got to be under control."

For every Delaware-Albany game, there have been numerous games with minimal carding. Princeton did not have a single card in its hard-fought 8-7 win at Virginia. The Cavaliers had just two yellows.

Through their first nine games, the Tigers have just seven yellow cards, a number on par with last year's total of 16 cards in 18 games despite an increased vigilance by umpires to call games tighter.

"There were concerns initially," Sailer said. "Things that were not getting called in past years were getting cards. I haven't heard so much as we've moved on. I think people have adjusted.

"I feel like there's less carding now," she said. "Our biggest challenge is in the area of officials' education and continuity and consistency."

Oregon has traveled coast to coast this season. The Ducks have 28 yellow cards through 12 games. Their opponents have 34 and two red cards.

"I am pleasantly surprised with the consistency with whatever region we've been in," said Oregon head coach Jen Larsen. "It's usually more the crew that's there for the game, and then both teams have the same officials that are calling it tighter or more leniently."

Teams have learned to adjust to the rules of emphasis, and coaches are finding they don't have to reiterate the need for control as frequently. Players understand what is going to draw a card.

"Putting in the rules to protect the players is 100 percent what you need to be doing in the game of lacrosse," Larsen said. "That direction is a good direction -- allowing them to be aggressive but not in a manner that can be absolutely dangerous.

"The aggressive style of play is still out there," she added, "but players are not doing it in a malicious manner. I think it's been good."

Coaches agree that the points of emphasis should make the game safer. New rules that ensure the safety and integrity of the game are in place. The games just have to be umpired properly.

"I think they're doing a great job with it," Ciarrocca said. "There's only one game I wasn't happy with it."

And it wasn't against Albany.

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