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The COVID-19 pandemic has perhaps irreversibly altered the youth, amateur and professional sports landscape. With changes come new opportunities.
Here are 15 ways the lacrosse community and the sport at large can emerge from this better off than we were before.
1. WE ARE A MORE SOCIALLY CONSCIOUS SPORT
The pause in on-field activity gave lacrosse leaders and influencers the time and space to become activists in the national movement for social justice.
The advent of the MLL Four and Black Lacrosse Alliance served as the most visible and powerful embodiment of the effort. They let us know that lacrosse, a predominantly white sport, has a long way to go. They kneeled, stood at midfield, wore patches and t-shirts and produced videos that went viral. They protested against police brutality and systemic racism and shed light on the inconvenient truth about the racial dynamics of our sport.
But the uncomfortable conversations did not start and stop there. US Lacrosse issued a detailed anti-racism statement that included modifications to its staff and volunteer leadership. Lacrosse organizations around the country invited people of color in the sport to speak with their athletes and coaches about their experiences both between and outside the lines. Social media provided the platform for people and companies to confront their biases and blind spots — and for followers to call out how we can all do better.
“It all starts with conversation, expressing truly the way we feel with the goal being to try to understand the other person’s point of view,” said Dr. Miles Harrison, father of lacrosse superstar Kyle Harrison and a member of Morgan State’s famed “Ten Bears” team of the 1970s. “People willing to have this conversation must understand that candor is necessary and comfort is secondary.”
2. COMMUNITY PLAY WILL BE REVITALIZED
The reset on priorities due to the pandemic, including cost and time commitments, opens the door for community programs to fill a need within the sport. The new Saugerties Area Youth Lacrosse Program in the Hudson Valley region of New York is a great story of a program adjusting on the fly to benefit its players.
When the pandemic ultimately brought about the cancellation of the spring season, league president Justin MacDougall decided to go on offense.
“I just decided we needed to stop waiting and be proactive,” MacDougall said. “We wanted to refocus the community on something that would occur instead of something that wasn’t going to occur.”
They switched gears and planned for a summer season, following the recommendations from the US Lacrosse Return to Play medical advisory group and the New York state guidelines. They started Zoom practices, at-home conditioning and by late June, some small group gatherings led by parents in anticipation of opening weekend on July 6-7.
“We lucked out that all those benchmarks were kind of met,” MacDougall said. “We focused on what we could do. Practices, mini-scrimmages, small-sided games with each other. The bottom line is, the kids walked away happy. The parents walked away happy.”
3. WE ARE BETTER CONNECTED NOW
The best and brightest minds in lacrosse have never been more accessible. Technology has made them so.
After the first few weeks of quarantine, the lacrosse community began to adapt to its surroundings. With the absence of in-person instruction, coaches and players turned to a growing digital ecosystem to engage with fans and colleagues.
Each year, US Lacrosse hosts LaxCon, the sport’s largest educational event. For several months during the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet became a convention of sorts.
US Lacrosse offered access to its U.S. national team athletes via its summer clinic series and virtual Zoom huddles facilitated by its regional manager. The PLL offered one-on-one training with some of its top players, the WPLL connected with players with a digital training series and the IMLCA and IWLCA each hosted webinars featuring some of the most respected coaches in the sport.
“The most rewarding part is kids have come back four, five, six sessions now, which shows they clearly value them,” said Mitch Belisle, whose company, Trilogy, ran virtual clinics during the pandemic. “At the end of the day, people just want to connect, and that’s what sports are about.”
4. SPENDING WILL BE MORE CLOSELY MONITORED
Many families have had real financial struggles during the pandemic. The limits on travel combined with many families need to tighten their purse strings have resulted in less money being spent on sports than in a typical year. It’s unlikely that things will just go back to normal after a chance for reflection this year.
One example of a different approach is the Long Island Junior Lacrosse League. This program for middle and high school girls works in compliment with existing club programs, providing them an opportunity to play high-level competition without the associated costs of travel and tournaments.
The six-week summer season consisted of midweek evening games, following standard US Lacrosse girls’ rules consistent with New York state reopening requirements, played on local turf fields.
5. ABSENCE MADE OUR HEARTS GROW FONDER
We missed our friends and teammates. We missed learning from our teachers and coaches. We missed the fun of practices and competitions. The next time we step on the field as a team, we will not forget how lucky we are to play this game.
We’ve been waiting for months to get back, and we’re not going to take this opportunity for granted. The chance to play the game is a privilege — we had to quarantine at home, social distance and wear masks to earn it.
Players in the Premier Lacrosse League appreciated their chance to compete in the Championship Series.
“This has been the longest offseason that any of us have ever had,” Archers LC star Marcus Holman said before the series. “You train so much and you shoot and you lift weights and you do sprints. Part of the validation in that is when you get when you have success against somebody else. You don’t know if the work you’re doing is going be good enough yet."
6. THE PRO GAME HAS NEVER LOOKED BETTER
The MLL and PLL seasons adapted to the pandemic, but the broadcast opportunities and unique camera angles, player interviews, etc. could easily carry on to “normal” times.
The PLL — a league already prioritizing social media — took its coverage to another level during the PLL Championship Series in Herriman, Utah. The MLL took advantage of having each of its six teams in a bubble in Annapolis to beef up its social presence, too. The NLL, which was already a prominent league on social media, will conduct a live virtual draft.
Overall, broadcast quality improved dramatically during both the MLL and PLL seasons. The MLL games were aired on ESPN’s family of networks, with the championship game airing on ESPN. NBC’s family of networks aired PLL games and brought fans inside the huddle during timeouts on NBC Sports Gold. The access has never been greater, and the game has never looked better.
7. A MORE NIMBLE AND INNOVATIVE NGB
By national governing body standards, US Lacrosse is young. Established in 1998, the nonprofit organization has spurred a period of unprecedented growth in the sport. Since the pandemic reached the U.S. in March, US Lacrosse has:
● Developed return-to-play recommendations. In just 30 days, the NGB compiled more than 100 research documents, engaged more than 80 industry reps and published a five-stage roadmap for getting players back on the field.
● Formalized standards for youth leagues.
● Established an innovation task force. The group has recommended changes in operations to increase member value and market relevance, further the USL mission and position it for success and sustainability in a post-COVID-19 sports world.
● Overhauled its customer relationship management system. Unlocking the potential of cloud-based technology, the member experience looks vastly different today. Look for a new league management system coming soon.
● Created a unified discipline of the sport. Coming soon to US Lacrosse members, this fun, fast-paced, non-contact version of lacrosse (from 3-on-3 to 6-on-6) fits on smaller fields, can be mixed or single gender, can be officiated formally or self-officiated and allows for a variety of sticks and softer balls.
8. COOPERATION OVER COMPETITION
Youth programs, leagues and clubs have worked together to implement responsible COVID-19 action plans and protocols. The necessity of sharing resources and best practices during the pandemic has opened up lines of communication and opportunities for future collaboration between on-field rivals.
Formed two years ago, the Iowa Lacrosse Association is comprised of nine clubs scattered throughout the state. Determined to resume playing this fall, leaders pulled together to develop a league-wide COVID-19 action plan.
“Working collaboratively is second nature for us,” ILA president Beech Turner said. “Since the beginning, all the clubs have been committed to helping each other to recruit players and grow the game.”
9. A BREAK FROM THE RECRUITING RAT RACE
There were still recruiting events over the summer, but instead of college coaches lining the fields in their camp chairs, they evaluated prospects virtually and on film. The pressure was less palpable, and as the NCAA continued to extend the dead period (now through Sept. 30), players could work more on themselves.
“The shift in focus could be from being seen to being ready,” said Theresa Sherry, founder of The Tenacity Project.
Added North Carolina women’s coach Jenny Levy: “Everyone should be digging into their personal development. When the time is right, you will be seen.”
Duke men’s coach John Danowski said the spring high school season could become relevant again for juniors and seniors.
10. LACROSSE WAS MOSTLY SPARED AS COLLEGE ATHLETIC DEPARTMENTS SLASHED BUDGETS
Knock on wood. Furman is gone, yes. But men’s and women’s lacrosse survived mass cuts at Stanford and Brown. According to The Washington Post at the time of press, colleges across the country cut 179 teams because of the coronavirus pandemic. Just seven of them were lacrosse programs, with Furman men’s lacrosse representing the only casualty (again, knock on wood) at the Division I level. (Editor's Note: The number of teams cut has since surpassed 230.)
To lose a program — Division I or otherwise — is a loss for our sport, especially given US Lacrosse’s efforts to grow the game to as many communities as possible. But for a non-revenue sport like lacrosse, it’s refreshing to see relatively few programs lost when so many other sports are being cut. Perhaps this bodes well for the sport’s future, as athletic departments see the value in fielding men’s and women’s lacrosse teams.
11. FREE PLAY FOUND A PLACE IN THE SPORT
Miraculously, some kids were able to get outside and play sports without the need for deliberate practice plans, formal line drills or brand new uniforms. Parents began to see how free play activities — from target practice with a tin can to hopscotch — can foster creativity, fun and overall physical literacy.
Need a little structure? US Lacrosse created Pickup Lacrosse, a board game that allows participants to design their own lacrosse contests and create Power Up cards for exhibiting special skills. Check it out at uslacrosse.org/pickup.
12. KIDS SAMPLED OTHER SPORTS AND ACTIVITIES
And they’ll be better lacrosse players because of it. With organized sports on hold, the quarantine was a perfect opportunity for some families to dust off old equipment or try new activities. Bicycles and workout gear were sold out everywhere and local parks, tennis courts and hiking trails were full. Sampling other activities creates healthy athletes and reduces burnout from sport specialization.
Growing up, Penn midfielder and U.S. U19 women’s team gold medalist Michaela McMahon played all sports with her sisters. The family’s athletic interests included basketball, field hockey, soccer, baseball and lacrosse. During quarantine, McMahon said “training and playing sports is all we’ve been doing together.”
Her sister, Izzy, is an attacker at USC who began her college career playing basketball for Army. Multi-sport diversity has helped the McMahons thrive in lacrosse.
13. WE REIMAGINED THE GAME
The pandemic has forced us to downsize our game, with fewer players per team, less congregating and more movement. Sounds a lot like the Lacrosse Athlete Development Model.
The LADM was indeed the blueprint used by Blackhawk Lacrosse in Hanover County, Virginia, when it reimagined its summer program. From late June through mid-August, the league offered its members pick-up lacrosse every Thursday night, featuring small fields, small goals and coed teams that changed every week. Blackhawks created four divisions and followed US Lacrosse’s return-to-play recommendations. “It was back-and-forth lacrosse with constant movement,” league president Shane Roberson said. “We played six-minute quarters, and the kids were gassed.”
Drawing 150-175 participants per week, including many first-time players, the reviews have been overwhelmingly positive.
“This isn’t just a pandemic option for us now,” Roberson said. “It’s something that we’re planning to carry over in future summers.”
14. WE REMEMBERED WHAT MATTERED
Nat St. Laurent got too aggressive on defense. When he went for an over-the-head check, his opponent took advantage. Jamarcus St. Laurent, 6, rolled to his right. He found an open lane to the goal then bounced home his shot to seal the overtime win. “Let’s go!” he shouted after he tossed his stick and Ohio Northern helmet into the air and sprinted down the street in celebration. Jamarcus won a bag of Skittles.
Coaches have found use for the extra time at home. They’ve played board games, created new games like “Rage Ball,” devised daycare routines and offered virtual webinars to stay sharp and engaged.
15. THE 2021 COLLEGE LACROSSE SEASON WILL BE THE MOST HIGHLY ANTICIPATED IN HISTORY
Super teams at Duke (men) and North Carolina (women). D-III standouts answering the bell. Bloated rosters. Potentially regionalized schedules.
It only took a few weeks after the cancellation of the 2020 college lacrosse season to start thinking about the future. Most seniors were granted an extra year of eligibility and some, like Princeton’s Michael Sowers, were forced to transfer to other schools.
Most of the stars of the 2020 season are returning for another go at a national title — pair that with a star-studded freshman class in both men’s and women’s lacrosse, and you have a recipe for a thrilling 2021 season.
Michael Sowers joins incoming freshman Brennan O’Neill at Duke, Kerrigan Miller brings her talents to an already stacked North Carolina lineup and Division III standouts like Mitch Wykoff (Syracuse) and Charlie Bertrand (Virginia) are taking their shot at the Division I level.
What more could a lacrosse fan want?
“Next spring promises the greatest amount of talent in the sport of collegiate lacrosse than at any other time in the history of the sport,” said Anish Shroff, the play-by-play announcer for ESPN’s college lacrosse broadcasts. “The roaring 20s may have begun with a whimper. But the roar may never be louder than next season. There’s plenty of time between now and then, but it will most certainly be worth the wait.”