December 5, 2012

From NELJ: Playing overtime

By Scott Souza

Former Vermont star Vanessa Cox hopes to earn a spot on the 2013 Canadian World Cup team.

When Vanessa Cox graduated from the University of Vermont as its all-time leading goal scorer in 2005, she wasn’t done with the sport.

Not by a long shot.

The former Newton (Mass.) North High star had dual residency in Canada through her mother, and had her sights set on playing for the Canadian national team at the upcoming World Cup. So she wanted to stay close to the game and continue to play at the highest level she could to keep her skills sharp.

However, as Cox looked around the New England landscape, she found opportunities for women’s players — especially at a high level — were scarce.

“Obviously, there is no pro league like there is for the men,” said the 29-year-old, who made the Canadian World Cup team in 2009 and is in the running for a spot on the 2013 team holding final tryouts this fall. “Most cities have recreational leagues. But it’s a little different from the men. You can definitely still play, but you run the chance that when you show up for the actual games, sometimes not a lot of other women show up for whatever reason.”

That’s not always all that different from the men.

In fact, it’s an issue that has plagued some efforts to run both men’s and women’s recreational leagues as the sport has grown in popularity over the past two decades. What was once considered a niche sport with a small-but-very-passionate group of players who would attempt to play at as high a level as possible for as long as possible, lacrosse has become a sport where more people want to play later in life, but bring with them a much more varied range of experience, skill and dedication.

Leagues throughout New England have looked to adapt to the vast changes in clientele with teams and programs that cater to both the very talented and committed recent college graduates who may still have hopes of playing professionally or internationally, to the former high school player who may have run on the second or third midfield group two decades ago but whose interest in playing has been rekindled while lugging sons and daughters to weekly youth leagues.

“We try to let people know that lacrosse is a sport where it’s never too late to play and learn,” said Tyrone Croom, founder of Cro-Art Lacrosse, which organizes youth, high-level and adult recreational leagues throughout New England and aims to be an outlet for players from 6 years old to 60. “The level of people interested in playing out there has increased so much it’s unbelievable.”

The challenge for those running both men’s and women’s leagues is balancing the desire to have as many people play as often as possible in a way that is both competitively balanced and realistically feasible for adults who have families and full-time jobs.

David Williams, who runs the Olde New England Lacrosse League for players into their 30s, 40s, and recently the “half-century” crowd of players in their 50s, said scheduling the eight-week summer league each spring can be the most complicated part of his offseason.

“When you have a guy in his 40s trying to run with a guy in his 20s, it can be brutal,” he said. “But just because your legs are slow down doesn’t mean your stick speed is any different, so we still have some very strong players at that age. Then there are the guys who haven’t played in years, get that lacrosse jones back, and say to themselves, ‘I can still do this.’ The only thing with them is that lacrosse skills don’t get better through misuse.”

Still, the demand is there and it is up to guys like Croom, Williams and Greenhead Lacrosse League director Craig Roderick to devise schedules and leagues that respond to that demand in a way that makes it competitive and fun for everyone.

“One thing we’re very proud of in this sport is the culture we’ve created where now people are being able to play at all ages,” said Roderick, whose league operates out of the North Shore of Massachusetts and dates back 13 years. “We’re definitely seeing that progression of players who played in high school, went to college, and now have come home and want to keep playing. It’s becoming more of a men’s hockey culture — without the fights. Maybe 10 years ago, there was a perception of lacrosse — a lot from outside the sport — that players were all prep school guys, lackadaisical, who kind of had that surfer mentality. That can be fun, too. But it’s really transitioned. Now you have more of that hockey culture where people will keep playing on some level until they reach retirement.”

Williams formed the Olde New England league in 2004 with “six or eight” teams. In 2006, expansion started and now there are 36 teams in the league, including 22 over-40 teams.

“The biggest problem we have is geography,” he said. “We have teams in Portsmouth, R.I., and Portsmouth, N.H., and all the way up Route 3 from Buzzards Bay, Mass., to Bedford, N.H. You can’t ask guys to travel 130 miles on a Tuesday night for a game. So because of that, we have games where some stronger teams have to play some weaker teams. But we try to make it as competitive as possible with a few neutral-site games each year where some of the weaker teams that are far away from each other will play at a field we have access to at Chelsea (Mass.) High School. For some teams, that may be their only chance at a win.”

Croom said keeping players of similar skill sets on the field together is a challenge for him, as well. In that endeavor, he has created divisions where he tries to place teams and players based on their talent, then uses the English soccer system of promotion and relegation, moving the most competitive and the struggling squads up and down divisions each year accordingly.

“That’s the hardest part of my job,” said Croom, who grew up in Sudbury, Mass., and played Division 3 football and club lacrosse at Susquehanna College in Pennsylvania before founding Cro-Art in 2001. “I might get an email from a guy who says he played at Duke or Lehigh a few years back. But he might have been talking about a club or intramural team and not the Division 1 team. I don’t fact-check these guys, so they might come in and be overmatched. But usually they realize it pretty quickly and we make adjustments. Everyone wants to be on the same competitive level.”

On the women’s side, Cox said players have searched out different routes to play as they’ve waited for recreational opportunities to catch up with those of their male counterparts.

She has played for and coached in the USA Athletes International program that organizes trips for current college players and recent graduates to play in Australia, Germany, England and the Czech Republic. She also coached for four years at MIT and said college coaching is the way that 80 percent of her national squad teammates have stayed in the game.

“It keeps us involved and gives us a chance to get out there on the field and run with the younger players,” said Cox, who now coaches a club team at Brandeis University and works in the athletic administration department of the Waltham, Mass., school.

Players need to accept that many teams and leagues are works in progress, where there will be the occasional no-shows, the periodic skill mismatches and more. As the leagues expand and accept new teams, they sometimes have issues with those upstart programs forfeiting games when new players haven’t yet accepted the responsibility of being part of the post-graduate community and showing up when there’s a game on.

Players may find a club team in their region — one that may travel great distances to get to tournaments — but could have a tough time latching on if they don’t know someone in the club, or if their skill level is below the talent of the established club.  Conversely, they could learn of a new club in their area and be frustrated by the low skill level of their new teammates.

For someone who wants to keep playing, however, there’s a payoff for dealing with those kinds of frustrations, namely that they get to stay involved and active in the game they love.

Cox noted that the hard part is not in finding a program to be involved in, it’s in making the commitment to stay involved.

“I would just say, ‘Search the web’ (to find a team or league),” she said. “There’s something out there for everyone. It may not be right in your town yet. But if you’re willing to drive a few towns over, you will find something where you can play.”

 This article originally appeared in the November-December 2012 issue of New England Lacrosse Journal. 

Twitter: @NELaxJournal