Glory Days: What Has Happened to Summer Lacrosse?

Glory Days: What Has Happened to Summer Lacrosse?

By Will Hazlehurst

I bet a lot of you thought the high-octane portion of amateur lacrosse ended several months ago. If so, riddle me this:

What would you call a physical activity schemed-up by adults for children as young as 9 years old in which the little dudes scramble around an agro-asphalt complex of fields for up to a full day in temperatures as high as 105 degrees? If nothing familiar fits the description, your visceral response should probably be child abuse. This might apply, but in the Northeast and spreading across the country like a seductive whisper, we call it youth summer club lacrosse.

When you finish reading this, you may consider me the biggest hypocrite going or the whistleblower whose time is long overdue, or maybe both.

I have bought in big time, helping administer and coach a youth club team. I have also observed this athletic megalith with all of its grasping hands exposed. If you are totally unfamiliar with the enterprise, I was equally blissful three years ago. Now I am going to show you what has developed while you weren’t paying attention.

How big is this activity? Taking the measure of anything today is a euphemism for how many Google hits it returns. Try typing “summer lacrosse tournaments” — the preferred venue of the clubs — into this cloaked arbiter. I quit counting after 25 pages, with most of these containing 10 or more entries. Some are duplicative, but the sheer number of hits renders this negligible. In the end, I have no idea how many summer tournaments there are, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it topped 100. The average tournament attracts 50 or more teams. Some attract several hundred. Each team typically pays $1,000 to $1,500 per age group to participate. Let’s round down to 50 tournaments with 50 teams each at $1,000 a pop. You’re talking a $2,500,000 industry. It is probably at least twice this amount, perhaps exponentially larger, so realistically we have somehow spawned, without much swimming upstream, a $5 million-plus summer economy. Now you know why people are holding the tournaments. The real question is why parents are paying and the kids are playing.

When I was growing up at the neo-plastic end of the Glory Days, if we played competitive lacrosse in the summer, it was in a local summer league. This didn’t start until my early high school years, 1969-1970, and it was pretty raw.

My first experience was at the dell — now mostly parking lots — at Loyola High School in Towson, Md. The field was a series of low hills, but it was hard to tell because it appeared they were trying to grow wheat grass in the same location. There were no coaches and no goalies. The hockey-sized goals were filled with discarded pieces of plywood, distinguishable by their splintered edges and Paleolithic paint markings.

I was just old enough to drive myself, so I must have been a ninth-grader. I wasn’t nearly the best player in this beta version of summer lacrosse, so I am glad the Division I coaching fraternity didn’t line the field in their Boca Raton retirement chairs. I certainly wouldn’t have been offered the sophomore scholarship, but I weighed 50 pounds less than two years later in my junior year of high school. But who could anticipate a high school freshman growing?

I graduated the next summer to the Heros Summer League, conceived and operated by perhaps lacrosse’s first Svengali, Matt Swerdloff. This was a big deal in its day, combining some of the best high school and college players on the same teams. The summer after my senior year in high school, my Heros team contained three first-team college All-Americas, a who’s who of other big name college players, and me. This was not unusual for Heros, but it was a pretty heady experience, nonetheless.

I stuck with Heros until the lure of bikinis and “waves” vacuumed me down Route 50 to Ocean City. There I may have achieved my most enduring summer lacrosse legacy as one of the founders of the Ocean City Summer League, the story of which will find its way into a future column.

That was about it for me and organized summer lacrosse, but I have a younger brother. I know other local franchises followed, most prominently the Loch Raven Summer League. I’m sure this was duplicated in lacrosse hotbeds around the country, and as players we were all very satisfied with this. So how did a happy little parochial summer athletic and social activity evolve into today’s parking and heat strained monstrosity? If the kids weren’t responsible, who was?

Somehow I missed the Big Bang of summer club lacrosse, when it exploded from a pin- sized pimple of potential energy into a still expanding universe of clubs and tournaments. I wasn’t there, but I will hazard a guess as to the generative physics.

Somewhere, someplace, a coach and a parent got together and said my/your kid is too good for this, he needs to play against better competition. Money changed hands, word spread, and shameless parental ambition was once again set loose upon the world.

I postulate this on hard evidence. Like the cosmologists studying the universe today, the echoes of this decision are still evident. How so? After seven to 10 years of existence, summer club lacrosse has just now started to include C-level competition. Up until this summer, the kids who would arguably benefit the most from an extension of their spring lacrosse season were denied because in someone’s opinion, they weren’t good enough.

But the contempt goes beyond this. Every year I start the competitive period of our summer by sending the parents a letter warning them about the eco-system they are about to enter. Even as a multi-family housing developer, I tell them summer club lacrosse is one of the most mercenary environments in which I have ever been involved.

I tell them to be prepared for long hours of sitting under a bush tent in lawn chairs enduring temperatures Matthew Broderick described in Biloxi Blues as “Africa hot.” In exchange for smiling through this, I ask them not to expect too much out of the tournament experience. I tell them cheating exists — no one really checks any of the players’ ages or skill levels — and teams often play “down” to win more games. I tell them no matter how user-friendly the tournament companies appear, they are businesses and the bottom line drives all.

How does this impact the tournaments? I have already identified one way: inconsistent ages and skill levels. I have discussed this with the tournaments holders, but they claim they don’t have the resources to monitor this. If this is really true, the profit margin must be razor thin because $150-a-season recreation soccer teams in our area carry a binder with roster and birth certificates.

The iniquity of this really shows up in the early summer tournaments where recreation teams pay for the privilege of assault by club (teams). I have asked why there are no club divisions in these tournaments but have never received a satisfactory answer. My belief is that the tournaments don’t want to discourage a single paying customer by making them play at the appropriate level.

Getting beaten badly by a far superior team is uncomfortable, but easily the most perplexing part of the bottom line approach to summer lacrosse tournaments is the officiating. I have a lot of friends who referee these games and most are excellent, but generally the officiating ranges from acceptable to surreal. The referees appear overworked in the heat, occasionally unqualified, and almost always poorly informed as to the rules of the tournament.

To give you a glimpse of the experience and add some humor to what is becoming a somewhat dark column, a few of my more picaresque officiating encounters include:

  • Playing four games in the same tournament under four different sets of rules.
  • Losing a shot-out-of-bounds possession when my player was clearly the closest to the ball because the referee said a player on the other team “showed more enthusiasm”.
  • Losing 12 minutes of a 20 minute running half while the referees conferenced on four different calls because one clearly didn’t know the rules. I actually timed this on one of the cool new apps on my phone. When I complained at the end of the game, I was hit with a double flag, double hat penalty, my first ever. It was a spewing Roman Candle of penalty paraphernalia.

The real question should be why the tournaments allow these comic set pieces to occur. The referees are the only consistent contact point most tournament participants have with the event. A ridiculous showing by this group, whether their fault or not, makes a tournament appear less than professional at best, and hapless at worst. Make no mistake, I believe the referees are giving it their best; it is up to the tournament companies to get this right. Why can’t they hold a pre-tournament meeting to vet the referees’ qualifications and review the rules of play?

I know this is only youth lacrosse, and some perspective needs to be maintained, but my last officiating cartoon bubble points to my biggest concern with the tournaments. They are growing to a point where they can’t handle the number of participants. In an effort to manage this and not turn anyone away, they are squeezing in more games and converting every aspect of the games to running time. This includes injuries and penalties. In some tournaments, timeouts have been abandoned and half time is now two minutes. Who benefits from rules that discount the amount of lacrosse played and the number and length of rest periods? Certainly not the players.

In some tournaments, extreme compression is necessary to fit up to six games in one day. This number of games is necessary to complete the tournament’s playoffs. I know the kids (coaches and parents) love a championship system, but there has to be some reason applied. I won’t pivot this column towards global warming, but I don’t expect summer temperatures to get cooler soon. Given this and a little common sense, I would argue that no tournament, coaches or parents should allow players to play more than four games in one day, and three is probably much safer. If the tournament can’t get a championship format to fit into this number, then they need to go back to the drawing board. And at least an hour, but probably more time should be required between games, with absolutely no games back to back.

I have pointed out the warts on the tournament beast and even started offering some suggestions. Earlier I asked why parents are paying and the kids are playing. The kids are the easy part. After what has become a surprisingly short spring season — for some recreation teams lasting barely 2½ months — kids are still hungry to play lacrosse. Summer tournaments have pretty much become the only game in or out of town.

Kids also sign up to be with their friends. In today’s world, a summer lacrosse tournament is really just an extended play-date. You can always recognize a team with good chemistry when ice battles break out under the tent between games.

Why do parents pay? This is a little more problematic. Hopefully it is because their kids want to play. Too often, unfortunately, it is because the parents see lacrosse as a path to something else. Scholarships and local, perhaps even national recognition for their child.

Too many parents are living vicariously through the success of their children, and summer club lacrosse pushes this mentality like steroids. Some clubs and tournaments even prey upon it. It is the reason the elite and super-elite club teams have come into existence. In response to these, I would argue that creating and celebrating an exclusive team under college age is senseless. Unless your child plays on a national team, he will never again play with as select a group of players, even if he plays on a collegiate national champion. Kids need to learn to play with kids with different skill sets. Their ability to do this will probably be a better barometer of their future enjoyment and success in the game than anything else.

My teams have won tournaments but also been laid waste before we even pass the water bucket. I would argue that we have learned as much from losing as winning. Even the best kids need instruction. Many of them are superior because they have matured early. With this advantage they often utilize bad habits which are extremely difficult to cure. Your son’s club team should be working to correct these, not employ them.

My feeling is that summer club lacrosse and the parade of tournaments should be about your child learning to be a better player, teammate and sportsman. As for parents, attempt what I still have a hard time accomplishing: Check your ego at the gate.

Hopefully the tournaments will work to correct their obvious flaws before a standard has to be imposed on them. In the meantime, only select the tournaments that fit your standards. In other words, vote with your feet. Return to the tournaments you like and leave the others behind. In summer lacrosse where too many people are still working to monetize the game, it will likely get worse before it gets better. This past year some tournaments fielded U-9 (7 and 8 year old) brackets. Shouldn’t these kids still be playing with toys?

Will Hazlehurst is a 1978 National Champion with Johns Hopkins and writes Glory Days columns for Inside Lacrosse. More about him can be found here.