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With games 'in the dead of winter,' college lacrosse has gone mad

With games 'in the dead of winter,' college lacrosse has gone mad
Penn State coach Jeff Tambroni dressed warmly for the Nittany Lions' game against Loyola Maryland. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun)

A friend sent me some pictures of Susquehanna University's lacrosse scrimmage in the snow over the weekend. There was game footage on television of Maryland and Johns Hopkins playing on snow-covered fields the same day.

I was waiting to see some pictures of players standing on the sidelines wearing long NFL parkas or some Cheeseheads eating bratwurst and baked beans in the parking lot before going inside Lambeau Field to watch the Green Bay Packers play on the frozen tundra.

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Where were the heated benches?

College lacrosse has gone mad.

There are absolutely no sensible reasons to be playing lacrosse games in early February, and if you need proof, all you have to do is look throughout the entire country, especially in the Northeast, which has been blanketed by snow.

Some coaches will point to the big games that have already been played, like Virginia against Loyola Maryland and Duke against Denver, but a lot of fans and media aren't paying attention yet. It's too darn cold.

"Why are we playing a spring sport in the dead of winter?" asked Colgate coach Mike Murphy.

Albany coach Scott Marr said: "I believe we are doing a disservice to our sport by playing games in February. Honestly, I think it's a joke, it's the haves vs. the have-nots. The teams with indoor facilities or nicer weather could care less about the teams who don't."

It can't be fun for spectators. It can't be fun for the players practicing and playing in these miserable conditions. One of the magical draws about lacrosse is that it is played in the spring and summer months. It's a time for short pants, T-shirts, sandals and loud colors after months of bundling up in layers of clothes, knit caps and scarves.

But, within the past five years, head coaches have started practices in early January and the early games soon followed. In the late 1980s, then-Maryland coach Dick Edell always had the first game of the season among the area teams playing some Pennsylvania lightweight the first week of March.

Now, games are played in the first week of February. Apparently, these early games allow some teams to play bigger-name schools outside their conferences, which could help them get into the 20-team NCAA Division I tournament.

Or some coaches don't like to play weekday games, giving them a week to prepare for conference opponents. Conference champions get automatic bids.

Whatever the era in which you've played, one thing remains constant: Most coaches are control freaks.

"As much as I loved watching a ton of lacrosse this past week, I have no problem if the games started March 1 and ended in June like college baseball does," ESPN analyst Paul Carcaterra said. "I know there's a lot of financial ramifications and that it's not as easy as turning a key, but it doesn't make any sense to me.

"I just don't see how players are benefiting from playing so early. Start practice in the third week of January or on Feb. 1, start games March 1."

As Carcaterra said, it's not that easy. But it really isn't that hard, either. They've done it before, they can do it again.

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NCAA and college athletic officials have to look at the financial situations, but they also have to look at the potential health issues of playing in poor conditions and the safety factor in winter traveling.

Lacrosse is not on par with major college football and basketball. Most of these teams don't fly to games, but travel on buses on some of the same snow-covered, unplowed highways and roads we all travel on.

It seems that a lot of coaches agree with Carcaterra about pushing back the date of starting the season, but they also want to change championship weekend, which is played every year on Memorial Day.

"Why are we so married to Memorial Day weekend? Why don't we let Memorial Day weekend be the semifinal games and then you give the kids a week?" Murphy said. "Kind of like what they did in college football this year: Give those teams a chance to have a week to prepare and you'll have a great game.

"If you were to have it on a Saturday afternoon on the first or second weekend of June, I think you might find that the numbers will go back up. We've talked about it as a coaching group. Games are getting earlier and earlier, and the competition is getting greater and greater. Teams don't want to play midweek games if they can get away with it because of the NCAA tournament. If you're not playing these weekday games, then there's only so many Saturdays or weekends that you can play and something's got to give."

It just doesn't make much sense. At this point, we're all just kind of stumbling through the lacrosse season because there is nothing appealing about watching kids play in shorts in frigid conditions.

Most of us are still in college basketball mode, waiting for conference championships and then March Madness.

"Right now, we are irrelevant as a sport, we are not only competing against the weather for our fans, we are competing against basketball for TV time, a battle we will not win," Marr said. "The issue is playing midweek games vs. playing in February, unless we move our championship off Memorial Day weekend."

Traditionally, when the basketball season is over and the weather turns warm, lacrosse kicks in. But now, some of those rivalries like Hopkins-Towson or Hopkins-UMBC have been taken away because they were played early in February.

Unfortunately, no one really cared then. And that attitude won't change until the sport does.

"Times change, sports change, and we need to evolve with those times," Carcaterra said. "We're seeing this game being played earlier and earlier in ridiculous weather, and it's insane."

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