Written by Tom Ciafone
Growing up in a non-lacrosse hotbed like Phoenix, Arizona, there were few opportunities to see the game played at a higher level.
Before the advent of YouTube, ESPNU and the ACC Network, lacrosse was broadcast twice a year, for the NCAA Semifinals and Championship game. From the perspective of a young player on the West Coast, the game seemed exclusive to communities in Maryland and New York. The players that matriculated from West Genesee and Georgetown Prep to Division 1 programs were mythical, hearing only secondhand stories of how well they played. Twice a year I was able to see three games where I would try to glean as much information as I could until the next year’s championship.
My first helmet came with a sticker on the back that said “Official Supplier of Major League Lacrosse.” I had no idea what Major League Lacrosse was. I had never seen a game. I didn’t know the teams and couldn’t name a single player. Like most kids, I kept that back panel sticker on because I felt a sense of pride knowing I was using the same gear as the pros.
One summer, I was looking through the TV guide (back when you had to get the TV schedule from the newspaper) and saw “Major League Lacrosse” scheduled for Tuesday at 1. I stared at it in disbelief. By my second year playing, I knew about the MLL, but only from box scores and pictures that would be posted online. I had a few player’s names memorized and some talking points about their career, but nothing beyond that.
My excitement was palpable; however, I kept it to myself. To an outsider, it looked like I was getting worked up over a two-hour game scheduled once a week in a sport that wasn’t widely known. To me, it was validating. The sport that I was investing so much time and energy in had a professional league and more importantly, I could watch it for the first time.
To put it into context, imagine, as a fan or player, not having access to all the lacrosse games that are available now and instead, you were limited to three games a year. Then imagine discovering that you would be able to watch an entire season, nearly 4x the number of games you had previously seen, each week for a summer. It was heaven.
The first game I saw was the Baltimore Bayhawks versus the Boston Cannons. Joe Beninati had the call with Quint Kessenich. For those two hours, I was in awe. I had never seen someone dodge like Conor Gill, seen speed like Mark Millon, or witnessed a defensemen as punishing as Lee Zink. The game was played high tempo. No horns for middies (back when the horn was a thing) with substitutions on the fly. Middies like Brian Langtry and Jeff Sonke stretched defenses with long range shots that stung corners and made goalies look helpless. Most eye opening was the creativity on the field.
It was like players had their handcuffs taken off and could play however they wanted. Behind the back shots and passes weren’t a clever, one time move but rather a requisite for the offense. Multiple box fakes were necessary to get a goalie off their line. The defense would lay violent slap checks on any ball carrier threatening to dodge to the cage with the second slide coming like a freight train. After that first game, it was clear the unwritten rules were that flags were never thrown and shooters rarely scored unscathed.
That first game set in motion a routine I would follow every week from elementary to high school. Every May, I would buy a pack of VHS tapes to record each game and in between, I would watch and re-watch those games to see what I could take away. I remember spending a month working on an underhand wrist shot after I had seen Gary Gait and Tom Marechek execute it beautifully around their defender. I spent another month analyzing defense’s slide packages after watching Ryan Boyle dissect a defense with his dodges and feeds. I made a point to finish each wall ball session with quick sticks after watching BJ Prager score time and again on the crease.
I wanted to emulate my favorite players, even saving up for gloves with “banana fingers” and weighing the pros and cons of having a helmet with a clear chin (like every player on the Lizards). When summer was over, I would go back and watch the games again, so much so that I could recite the commentary before the announcers said it.
While cleaning out my parent’s house, I found my trove of MLL tapes that I had accumulated throughout the years. I remembered how that film was my greatest learning tool. Two hour classes each week hosted by Millon, Cattrano, Jalbert and Polanco. As a young player starving to see more lacrosse, it opened a gateway where I could learn from the greatest players in the world. High level lacrosse was no longer confined to the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, it was now on a national stage.
I’m jealous of what kids have today. When I started playing, the only real resource available was 15 second, grainy video clips of scoring plays on e-lacrosse.com. From my perspective, I think content on YouTube and social media makes players more competitive. If you have college highlights, wall ball routines, and position specific training coming to you on your social media, it gives you a better idea of what you should be working on.
Kids now can have Kyle Harrison or Joe Walters as a coach to guide them through workouts, shooting and dodging. I know if I had access to all of Matt Ward or Danny Glading’s games and highlights, I would spend more time in the backyard working on the things they were doing well.
This is my story. I don’t want it to be misconstrued as just an old man saying, “Back in my day…” Rather, I want to shed light on how instrumental the league was in gaining exposure for the sport. Twenty years ago, I could’ve never fathomed a pro lacrosse team in Denver, San Francisco, L.A., or Dallas. But the league did it. In doing so, it gave kids from up-and-coming lacrosse communities something to aspire to. The chance to see the best in the game and practice what they saw in their own backyard.
It is that framework that has inspired generation after generation of players to build on the skills and techniques of those who came before them and innovate in ways we have yet to see.
Tom Ciafone is a Powell Craftsmen who creates custom sticks for the Powell Lacrosse Woodshop. Follow Tom on Instagram @southernstringscarolina