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Hefferon: Lacrosse offers thrilling alternative to baseball (Feb. 21)

Jack Hefferon | Monday, February 20, 2012

As the weather has turned warm-ish and the sun has begun making cameo appearances in the South Bend sky, there have been at least three columns in this fine paper celebrating that, finally and gloriously, it’s baseball season once again.

I’d like to challenge that.

While pitchers and catchers reporting is the traditional mark of baseball’s return from the offseason, I don’t know if we can qualify this as its true arrival. Spring training, when all thirty clubs flee the cold weather for the warmer diamonds of Florida and Arizona, is an over-celebrated date, helping to break the monotony of February sports and giving talk radio another source of material. We won’t see these teams back up north until the calendar says April and the thermometer says 50, at least.

In the meantime though, there is a sport that has cut its hibernation short and braved the cold.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to lacrosse season.

Lacrosse is a sport that has yet to establish a place in America’s consciousness, which is ironic considering it is America’s first sport. It’s been played in this country for nearly a millennium, or about 700 years longer than “America’s pastime.” In addition, it’s the fastest growing sport over the past decade at both the high school and collegiate levels. Unfortunately, none of that has translated into anything more than fringe popularity for the sport.

Yet.

A short pitch for the sport: It’s like hockey played in the air, with transition play and set offenses resembling something like basketball. It has physical play that can appeal to any football fan, but is more likely to result in bruised arms than concussions, which is why it’s exploding at the youth level as well.

Games only last about two hours and average a total of around 20 goals, which is plenty of scoring, but few enough to make each score worthy of a celebration.

The sport has dipped into the professional ranks with Major League Lacrosse, founded in 1998. The fledgling league has maintained a steady presence of six teams, with several failed expansions and folded teams dotting its history.

However, it holds a television deal with ESPN and plans once again to expand next year.

But as professional lacrosse flounders along, the college game has thrived for a number of years. The sport maintains a strong following on the east coast, and the Final Four on Memorial Day weekend has consistently drawn well over 100,000 fans, second only to men’s basketball in attendance.

And with new programs springing up every year, college lacrosse can only grow from there.

And for the average Notre Dame student, access to a high level of lacrosse can be found right on campus. Both the men’s and women’s teams braved 30-degree weather last weekend to upset top-10 opponents at Arlotta Stadium, and they’ll be back out there this weekend. The men boast one of the nation’s best defenses, and the women’s high-powered offense has already gotten off to a record-setting start, posting 17 goals against No. 6 Stanford.

So do yourself a favor and make the walk over to a game this weekend, however chilly it may be. Take a spot on the mound that runs right next to the field and experience a sport that you might not hear about every day.

Yet.