PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- The young boy ran through the woods and meadows with his lacrosse stick, whipping the air and imagining himself as a young Indian warrior, training for battle by playing this ancient game that was a "gift from the Creator."
But the woods and meadows were in Czechoslovakia, and the lacrosse stick was homemade, fashioned from a willow branch, metal tubing and a hand-woven net, crudely but lovingly based on early 19th-century drawings of American Indians playing lacrosse.
And the "lacrosse" being played by that youngster and other members of the Czech Boy Scouts in the late 1960s and early 1970s was an improvised game with rules of their own devising, since they had no idea that lacrosse was still being played in North America or anywhere else in the world.
The Czechs have since learned a lot about modern lacrosse. The small but devoted tribe of Czech lacrosse adherents have formed at least 11 men's teams that play either indoor box lacrosse or open-air field lacrosse. (As in the United States, field lacrosse is a spring sport; box lacrosse is played in the autumn and winter.) There are also four women's field teams. The men have played fiercely and successfully for the Czech Republic in European field lacrosse tournaments.
One of the members of those tournament teams, Petr Tahal, 32, has used his excellent command of English to write that elegiac description of the young Czech lacrosse player racing through the woods -- it is a composite, he says, not a self-portrait. He is also an informal spokesman for the Czech National Lacrosse Team that will compete in the 1998 International Lacrosse Federation Men's World Championship Games, to be played at the Johns Hopkins University's Homewood Field in July.
Tahal says that Baltimore and Hopkins are "well known" in the Czech Republic's lacrosse community. "If we could talk about any place in the U.S., we know about Johns Hopkins and Homewood Field," he says. He adds that Baltimore and Maryland are also known as the home of the Lacrosse Hall of Fame and that Steven B. Stenersen, executive director of U.S. Lacrosse (formerly the Lacrosse Foundation) had done "a great job for us," helping the Czech players to establish communications with the international federation of lacrosse.
The 1998 edition of the games, a quadrennial event begun in 1967, will be the largest ever. The tournament will feature 11 nations, divided into two "pools," playing 36 games over an eight-day period.
The "Blue Pool" will consist of the five premier teams -- the defending champion United States, Australia (the 1994 runner-up), Canada, England and the Iroquois Nation. The "Red Pool" will consist of the Czech Republic, runner-up to England in this year's European tournament, plus Germany, Sweden, Scotland, Wales and Japan. The winner of the "Red Pool" will advance to the next level to take on the competition there.
"We want to win the Red Pool to be first," says Tahal, whose team defeated Germany, Scotland and Wales before losing to England in the European tournament held in Stockholm, Sweden, in the summer. "But there's Japan, and we don't know very much about Japan. We believe we could beat them, but who knows?"
Czech lacrosse has clearly come an extraordinarily long way from its slapdash beginnings. "The history of lacrosse in the Czech Republic reads like a home-built airplane project complete with instructions in another language," says a brief chronicle of the lacrosse team of Pilsen, better known for pilsner beer, some 55 miles southwest of Prague.
Tahal, who was born in Kelin, about 31 miles east of Prague, first became "enthralled by the ways of the North American Indians" and the idea of their game of lacrosse when he joined the Czech Boy Scouts.
The Scouts eventually developed a set of rules for what they called "Czech lacrosse" and played their first tournament in 1969, using homemade sticks and tennis balls. The first Prague League of Lacrosse was founded in 1978, and box lacrosse was introduced by a Canadian visitor in 1985.
Although some genuine lacrosse sticks from the United States and England did manage to find their way into Czechoslovakia, most of the players still had to experiment with aluminum and fiberglass to make their own sticks. They hand-sewed their own gloves and protective padding and even made their own helmets, Tahal says.
After 1989's "Velvet Revolution" swept aside the Communist government, it became possible to legally import and produce decent plastic lacrosse sticks. Tahal then learned the subtleties of the field game and "embraced it."
He has met a number of recent Johns Hopkins players who have visited or worked briefly in Prague. One of them, Casey Gordon, a 1995 graduate, helped coach a club lacrosse camp while teaching English in the city; another, Brendan Kelly, a 1989 graduate, played with a visiting team of English and American players.
Tahal readily concedes that few spectators other than family members come to watch Czech lacrosse games, and the sport poses no threat to the popularity of ice hockey, volleyball or soccer. "Its very easy to play soccer or volleyball, but to play lacrosse is difficult and expensive. The equipment costs several thousand [Czech] crowns." (There are about 30 crowns to the dollar.)
The 5-foot-9-inch, 164-pound Tahal, who plays attack on the field and a "corner man" defense position in the box game, finds lacrosse especially appealing because brains are more important than brawn. One need not be a basketball giant nor a football behemoth to excel in lacrosse.
"It's my sport," he says. "It's a team sport. It's fast. It's similar to ice hockey -- you don't have to be tall, like in volleyball or basketball. But if you're smart enough, you can be a good player. It can be a rough game ELLIPSES but if you can be smart, you don't have to be strong."
Tahal has visited Baltimore. He came to town last year to watch the Final Four of the NCAA Lacrosse Championship series. He previously had viewed a 10-year-old film of a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill game, but he now rolls his eyes when recalling the level of play he saw at the Final Four.
"Its a different world of lacrosse for me. The game being played is so good. It was the first time I saw such good lacrosse with my own eyes. It was exciting for me to watch."
Tahal, who works as a computer software developer, said he hopes 22 to 24 Czech players can come to Baltimore, but "it depends on money." He worries that the Czech team has no "professional" coaches. "We would like to get someone from the States to help the team improve its tactics and skills for the world games. He could come here, maybe, in March and work with our national team for three or four months before the games."
As for the tournament lineup, he thinks the United States is certain to retain the world championship.
"There's no question. They're the best in the world."
Pub Date: 12/14/97