Sticking with it

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Baltimore is known for lacrosse. So perhaps it's no surprise that Maryland is on the cutting edge of the sport's latest national trend -- adults picking up their sticks and returning to the fields to stay in shape.

In recent years, the popularity of lacrosse has been on the rise. More than 90,000 people gathered in Philadelphia last weekend to see the Johns Hopkins Blue Jays win their first NCAA championship in 18 years.

This weekend, more than 20,000 people are expected to come to Baltimore and Harford counties for Lax Splash, one of the largest youth lacrosse tournaments in the country. Lax Splash, host to more than 300 teams, unofficially ends the youth lacrosse season.

But it's not just collegiate or youth lacrosse that is growing. More adults are getting back in the game, too. Approximately 186,000 young athletes today play the game, making lacrosse the fastest-growing sport in the United States, according to US Lacrosse, the sport's Baltimore-based governing body. But the total number of lacrosse players was about 350,000 in 2004, up from 250,000 in 2001.

"Lacrosse has always held a special place in the culture of Baltimore," says Steve Stenersen, US Lacrosse executive director. "So here we are seeing it develop from a game into a lifetime sport."

Maryland may be the only state with an official men's masters league, the Maryland Masters Lacrosse League, for players 35 or older, says Joe Avveduti of Alexandria, Va., who chairs the Masters and Grand Masters Committee for US Lacrosse.

Teams competing in the league include players for Pickles Pub, Toyota, Interlock Paving and a group called the Geezers.

Grand masters teams have players 45 or older, with many teams fielding athletes in their 50s and 60s.

Many women also play into their 40s and 50s, but the women's game has not yet developed official masters or grand master leagues, US Lacrosse says.

Adult players compete in a handful of tournaments across the country, including the popular Vail Lacrosse Shoot-Out and the Lake Placid / Summit Lacrosse Tournament.

Many Mid-Atlantic teams will travel to Baltimore June 18 for the Charm City Baltimore Lacrosse Classic in Patterson Park. Men's masters have competed in the International Lacrosse Federation World Championships since 1994. Grand masters have competed in the worldwide competition since 1998.

"Master's level lacrosse is just exploding," says Stenersen.

For some, returning to lacrosse is like coming home.

Hunter Francis, 47, credits the sport with helping him center his life.

A player for the University of North Carolina, Francis left the sport behind when he starting climbing the corporate ladder. Out of college, he joined the Chubb Insurance Group, first in Atlanta and then in Boston.

His job was demanding. He traveled the country, entertained clients and kept a suitcase packed in his car. He tried to maintain some balance, but slowly things fell apart.

During a particularly rough patch, when Francis was commuting between Washington and Baltimore, his weight ballooned to 255 pounds from his normal 195 pounds. The 6-foot-3 former goalie's waist expanded from 36 inches to 42 inches. He was overweight, overworked and unhappy.

Slowly, Francis reconnected with lacrosse and found his way back to health. "I was having a values crisis," he says. "And I would say lacrosse saved my life."

Today, Francis has chucked the corporate job. He wears a handful of lacrosse hats, including director of Team Toyota's six adult teams. His weight has returned to normal, and so has his waistline. He stays in shape by working out at the gym and playing a lot of lacrosse. Francis estimates he plays as many as 120 games a year.

He plans to play at the Grand Masters level for a U.S. World Team in 2006.

Not everyone has made such a dramatic conversion. But many players put in hours at the gym and stay in shape to continue playing the game they love.

In the Baltimore area, there has been a proliferation of more casual teams akin to pick-up basketball. In Jarrettsville, for example, a group of guys has been meeting every Sunday for years to play lacrosse.

The oldest player, Jack Edwards, 73, says he played on the first team at Towson University, then the Maryland State Teachers College at Towson, in 1958.

"I've never really stopped playing all these years," says Edwards, who still takes the field as a defenseman. "We don't try to bang each other around. ... I say, keep going out as long as you can."

Edwards even returned to his Sunday-morning play after open-heart surgery in 2000. He stays in shape by walking and trying to keep up with his young grandson.

He has been an inspiration to his teammates, many of whom are in their 50s and 60s. George W. Denlein, 58, also plays on Sundays. The pick-up games work because most everyone subscribes to a practical motto, says Denlein: "We have to go to work tomorrow."

Denlein also has founded a competitive grand masters team, A Touch of Gray, which competes across the nation. He plays defense, although he admits, "I used to be a lot faster."

Grand masters lacrosse has slightly different rules, says US Lacrosse's Avveduti, 53, a former All-American at the U.S. Naval Academy who still plays as a midfielder.

"Lacrosse is a very physical sport," he says. "We've got guys in their 60s playing so we've put in place some restrictions on bodily contact."

At the master's level, for example, players can hit other players within five yards of the ball. At the grand master's level, players can only hit the player with the ball.

The women's game doesn't permit direct hitting. But it can still be a rough sport. Andi O'Connor and her sister, Laura LeMire, both in their 40s and with five children between them, play for Team Toyota, keeping up with athletes in their 20s. Their team recently won the Women's U.S. Lacrosse Association Tournament for the eighth straight year.

In addition to coaching young girls, O'Connor stays conditioned by working out at a local gym. She's also become hooked on deep-water running classes, which she says help her stay in shape without risk of injury.

For older players who have fallen away from lacrosse, Francis says it's never too late to return. With an explosion of players, it's easy to find teammates of all skill levels.

"If you put your stick down, you can always come back," Francis says. "I'm a testament to that. ... It's like riding a bike."

A stay-fit game plan

To stay conditioned for the demands of lacrosse, adult enthusiasts in their 40s and 50s offer the following advice:

Cross-train: Mix up your workouts with other sports, including cycling, running, deep-water aerobics or swimming.

Diet: Cut the calories and try to return to your game weight. Suggestions include going heavy on fruits and vegetables.

Practice: Play as much lacrosse as possible. Some athletes play as much as three times a week or as many as 100 games a year.

Run: Consider some track workouts or sprints to build up your speed.

Lift weights: Hit the gym for weight workouts to strengthen your muscles.

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