August 6, 2008

Aug. 6, 2008

Note: This "His Space" column by Bill Tanton appears in the August issue of Lacrosse Magazine, a US Lacrosse publication available exclusively to its members. Join now to start your monthly subscription to LM.

by Bill Tanton, Special to Lacrosse Magazine Online

I was spoilin' for a fight, so I tried to pick one with a girl.

That's right -- a girl. You didn't think I was dumb enough to pick a fight with somebody like Paul Rabil, did you?

Actually, a woman, since she just turned 30. I learned that in one of her recent columns. She's Lauren Ober, the women's lacrosse columnist in this magazine.

I suggested to our editor, Paul Krome, that Lauren and I do a point-counterpoint debate in adjoining columns. That's hardly a new journalistic ploy. Lauren says women's lacrosse is better than men's, and I write the opposite.

As usual, Krome was right. He knew it would be a pointless debate. Lauren has been involved with women's lacrosse since she was a child. Naturally she prefers that. For the same reason, I like the men's game. The debate would been a waste of space and settled nothing.

Actually, I was relieved.

For one thing I like Lauren and I like her columns. What I especially like is you never know what she's going to write about. I generally write about well known players and coaches and teams, some from long ago. Lauren writes about uniforms, social life, about turning 30. A fresh idea every month. That's not easy to do.

I will miss her contributions to LM. [Ober's final column runs this month.]

And I do like women's lacrosse. Sort of.

I have grown daughters who played in high school. Every spring I see a few women's college games. I'm well aware that the players today are much better than they were when my daughters played -- much as the boys are also better now.

So there was nothing for me to poke fun at? Still, it seemed a good idea to go to the women's NCAA Division I championship weekend at Towson University for a look at the best.

I saw, all right. I saw Northwestern beat Penn, 10-6, to win its fourth straight national championship. I don't care who you are, male or female, you've got to be impressed by the athletes on both those teams and by how hard they play. That also applies to the women playing at Syracuse and Duke, which made it to the semifinals.

Over the years I've asked men what they think of women's lacrosse. Usually they just say they like the men better. Often they complain about too many whistles or they say they don't understand the rules.

I asked Brian Reese, who I thought would be uncomfortable admitting either version of the sport is better. Reese is general manager of the MLL Denver Outlaws. His job is selling men's pro lacrosse. His wife Cathy, who was an outstanding player at Maryland, just as Brian was, is the head women's coach at their alma mater.

Reese was too smart to fall for that.

He said, "They're two different things. I like the grace and flow of the women's game and I like the men's game for the physicality."

I marvel at what coach Kelly Amonte Hiller has accomplished at Northwestern. To me, she's the Coach of the Decade, male or female. In 2000 Northwestern didn't even have women's varsity lacrosse. It still doesn't have a men's team. Kelly became coach in 2001 and by 2005 she and her teams started winning the NCAA championship. They've won every one since and they've done it far from the traditional lacrosse mainstream.

Phil Hersh, an old colleague of mine at the late Baltimore Evening Sun, probably appreciates the Northwestern women's lacrosse story as much as anyone.

"I fell in love with that team years ago," says Hersh, now a 61-year-old sports writing veteran with the Chicago Tribune. "Back then, Kelly was pulling aside women from the cross country team and asking them if they'd like to play lacrosse. I enjoy this because the players are real students taking real courses. I've covered big-time college football and basketball. It's not always that way there."

Another old friend, Gary Gait, played a significant role in this year's NCAA women's championships. Gary only became coach of the women's team at Syracuse, his alma mater, in July 2007. In his first season there he took his women to the national semifinals, where they lost to Northwestern. It was the highest finish ever for the Syracuse women.

Gait, the best lacrosse player I've ever seen, was assistant coach of the women's team at Maryland under Cindy Timchal when the Terps won all the NCAA championships from 1995 through 2001. Maryland hasn't won a championship since Gary left.

Kelly Amonte Hiller clearly has the championship touch. She was a star on two of Timchal's championship teams. Now Kelly has four more titles of her own. "The road," she says, "was a little easier back when I was playing. There are more good teams out there now."

"How has Northwestern been able to win four straight national championships?" I asked Gait.

"They win," he said, "because they're so athletic and they go 110 percent all the time. The pressure never stops."

The women are impressive, all right, but I'd still rather watch the men. The physicality Brian Reese mentioned has a lot to do with that.

In June, Loyola College named Jen Adams from the Maryland staff as its new head women's lacrosse coach. I told Jen this spring that she's the best women's player I've ever seen. As I see it, within 12 months, the best men's player ever and the best woman have taken over major Division I women's programs.

The ladies are becoming more interesting than ever.
Contact Bill Tanton at
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