January 28, 2013

From NELJ: Scientific sticks

By Phil Shore

Former Boston Blazers star Dan Dawson says, ‘Nowadays,you pick up an old stick that’s not offset, and it’s pretty amazing to think you used to play that way.’

You can’t play lacrosse without a stick.

It’s an obvious statement, but an important one.

The stick is an extension of the lacrosse player’s arms. It’s how you move the ball downfield. It’s how you stop your opposition. It helps you make incredible, dazzling plays. It’s also your excuse when something goes awry.

In short, your stick is a tool and just as tools used to build and fix things have changed and improved since the days of cavemen, lacrosse sticks have evolved from the first all-wooden sticks to today’s ever-changing menu of sophisticated throwing/catching devices.

“Every player knows a good stick from a bad stick, but it’s very hard to explain why you like something,” said Tom Burns, senior product manager for Warrior Sports. “We’ve had to step up our game with testing the pros. … It’s a lot more scientific than it’s ever been.”

Native Americans first played the game with wooden sticks, mostly hickory with a triangular basket at the top netted with animal tendons or vines, later replace by leather straps. The stick, simple as it seemed, was important to the Native Americans, a spiritual instrument lifted in praise of the Creator, who gave them lacrosse as a gift. To this day, many Native American men are buried with a stick.

Wooden sticks hand-crafted on Native American reservations were in limited supply. Moreover, there also were several inconsistencies from one stick to the next. From the game’s beginning through the 1960s, however, there weren’t other options; as the sport gained popularity, however, the stick needed an upgrade.

Enter sporting goods manufacturer STX in the late ’60s.

“The most significant innovation in lacrosse, not just sticks, has to be the plastic lacrosse head which STX patented in 1970,” STX men’s product manager Chris Morea said.

STX developed a synthetic lacrosse head that fit onto a hickory shaft, earning U.S. Patent No. 3,507,495 for its design of the first plastic lacrosse head. The head helped with consistency of the game, because each one was the same weight and same material.

The first synthetic head was the beginning of real innovation to the lacrosse stick, but things moved rapidly from there.

“When I first started playing, we used the Hickory by Husky. It was almost a rectangle shape and it was big and bulky,” said former Boston Blazers star Dan Dawson, a Reebok-endorsed athlete now with the Rochester Knighthawks. “Nowadays, you pick up an old stick that’s not offset and it’s pretty amazing to think you used to be able to play that way.”

STX invented the first aluminum handle in 1973. Richard Tucker, the founder of STX, was at it again when he and partner William Crawford were awarded U.S. Patent No. 3,822,062, known as “Mesh Webbing For a Lacrosse Stick.”

In 1991, David Morrow and his father came up with the idea to create a lacrosse handle out of titanium, which was the beginning of their company, Warrior. The new metal made the stick more difficult to bend.

As manufacturers scrambled to improve their products, they also innovated, with the next game-changer being the development of the offset head.

Brine released the Edge, a head credited for starting the offset movement and reshaping the lacrosse head into what it is today. Its U.S. patent description says that because the head sits lower than the plane of the stick, there is a better feel for the head and the ball in the pocket. Other manufacturers developed their versions, always striving for refinements.

“The offset head pushed the development for better control and easier scooping of groundballs,” said Paul Carcaterra, the sports marketing director for Maverik.

The plastic head, aluminum and titanium handles, and offset head all helped to foster better control, balance, durability and availability of the lacrosse stick. Ask manufacturers and players what consumers are looking for today, and the answer routinely includes both “lightweight” and “durable.”

“I like to be confident that I can go a full 60 minutes with good durability and not think that I’m going to break it setting a pick,” Dawson said. “Coming from Canada, it’s that all-weather stick that you really have to take care of. … Temperatures change a lot so you have to make sure the plastics are good. The shaft is ever-changing, but you never want to compromise the weight for the durability.”

Light but able to hold up to both temperatures, picks and stick checks seems to be a conundrum, a battle that manufacturers grapple with consistently.

“Philosophically speaking, you have to figure out what’s more important. We’re going to compromise the slightest in weight but make it so much stronger and more durable,” Carcaterra said. “You don’t want it to compromise your performance. If it’s too light, it could get too flimsy and won’t hold up.”

Searching for that balance, Jerry Prochko and his company C12 Lacrosse believe they have found the solution with a high-performance carbon-fiber handle.

The company uses a seamless carbon fiber system along with an exoskeleton to stiffen the shaft and protect it from dents. There’s even a video on C12’s website showing someone performing a 270-pound deadlift with one of the carbon-fiber handles.

“Seams in a handle don’t laminate and that’s where you get your failure,” Prochko said, referring to the importance of the seamless technology. “Once you start getting dents in your handle, there’s a psychological element that dampens your confidence that that ball is going to go exactly where you want it to. [Some players] can’t tolerate a dented handle or dented pole.”

He also said that the pole also continues to add to the innovations in control.

“It dampens energy. When you’re getting stick-checked and you have sticks all over you, you don’t get that ping like with aluminum sticks,” he said. “You’re able to secure it and the ball won’t pop out.”

Another innovation to the stick is the position-specific heads and handles.

“When you look at heads today and the positions of the game, there’s very different requirements of the equipment,” Warrior’s Burns said. “We look at the head and try to see what a defender would need or what an attackman would need. You see a lot more specialization in the game today. You see guys that are just lefty attackmen. You see it in the faceoff position, where it’s just really specialized. You see it happen on the field, and I think the equipment has just been in response to that.”

While sticks continue to evolve in an effort to improve the level of play in all levels, several NCAA rule changes over the past decade also have impacted head measurements and pocket guidelines.

The new laws of the game in the college ranks have given the manufacturers new challenges to work through.

“The NCAA rule changes to head specifications a few years ago created an enormous amount of work for us,” said Morea, noting that the challenges required some heavy lifting by the company’s research-and-development team.

Carcaterra said he believes the new changes won’t hold the game back, however.

“It will help the younger players develop better habits; if a stick is strung properly, the hold will still be there,” Carcaterra said, noting that some individual players are proof positive that good players will adapt. “Mark Matthews never played with a ‘U,’ he just had such strong hands from box,” Carcaterra said. “Steele Stanwick used a traditional leather stick.”

As companies move forward, it isn’t just the stick that should be enhanced. Burns says that the player’s knowledge of the stick and how it works needs to improve as well.

“Understanding your stick is so important to players. You need to understand the shooting strings and what whip is,” he said. “Your whole career in the beginning is tuning your stick, like a guitar. It’s understanding what causes that, and that takes some time. People don’t understand why the ball is coming out of the stick a certain way, and it should be taught at a very young age how to fix your stick.”

While the stick’s function remains the same as it did in the very first game of lacrosse played by the Native Americans, its look, feel and technology has changed immensely.

From wood to plastic heads, and wood to aluminum to titanium to now carbon fiber handles, many have invested in improving the stick. With increasing feedback from top players — and with even the more average players starting to be more aware of what makes a stick “right” for them — continuing efforts to improve the stick should continue making the game better and easier for future generations.

This article originally appeared in the January 2013 issue of New England Lacrosse Journal.