Kicking off 2012 with Manchester lacrosse

Published February 4, 2012, on

It’s a cold night on the last day in January. Little by little players show up to the lighted field and exchange the normal pleasantries.

“Happy New Year. How was your break?”

Many have not seen each other since before Christmas. A few show off new gear they received over the holidays. By 5:30 p.m. most have arrived and are geared up. After a lap and some stretches the team gets into line drills. It is clear that some haven’t picked up their sticks over the six-week break, as the ball spends more time on the turf than in the air. This does not go unnoticed by the coaches.

This scene could have been taken from any of the almost 700 college teams that started practicing this month throughout the United States. This one, however, is almost 3,000 miles east of any U.S. border.

Part of my job as a Local Development Officer is to coach the University of Manchester lacrosse team. With the majority of my time spent coaching kids, it is nice to work with people who don’t have their parents pick out their clothes every morning.

My first introduction to the team was a three-day preseason camp. Immediately, I was impressed with how organized they seemed to be. They not only paid for the use of the field and coaches, but also got 20 players to come out a week before classes had officially started.

In my six months working with the team, I have developed an appreciation for how much work they put in off the field. Over here, players often times are responsible for setting up games, getting referees, providing transport to and from games and recruiting new players. I understand many club teams in the States have these same responsibilities, but at Plattsburgh my coaches planned everything down to what we ate on road trips.

When we got out onto the field, I’ll be honest, I had no idea what to expect. What I found was a mix of talented veterans and inexperienced rookies, both eager to learn as much about the game as they could.

Take midfielder James Bates for example. Bates is a Manchester native and a product of one of the country’s many youth lacrosse programs. With over ten years of experience, his play on the field is indistinguishable from that of a typical American. Don’t believe me? Take a look at Stony Brook’s roster, which features not one but two British natives, including attackman Nick Watson, a product of Leeds University.

On the other hand, you have Will Harrop who picked up the game a year ago. A former rugby player, Harrop was drawn to lacrosse at a “fresher fair” where clubs and teams recruit new members. With a three-year university system, the window for picking up and excelling at the game is small. Despite the steep learning curve, many still manage to succeed. Harrop was named captain of the second team.

This combination of veterans and rookies is the formula that makes up most university teams in England. Sprinkle in the occasional American or Canadian doing a semester abroad or pursuing an advanced degree, and you have a melting pot of talent.

At practice the team is preparing for a quarterfinal cup game the following day. As with most sports in England, there are several competitions during one season. In addition to standard league play there is also a single-elimination tournament for a cup trophy. Manchester’s first-team has drawn Bath, a scrappy team in the south.

As the team goes through line drills the conversations would be familiar to any lacrosse team. One player’s stick is not throwing right while another is attempting to break in his pocket. While most might have only picked up the game within the past two years, they have had no problem adapting to the lingo.

The next day the team boards a coach headed for Bath. The bus is a rare treat for the players. Normally they have to drive themselves in rented passenger vans to games. Due to netball and badminton games taking place at Bath as well, the university has provided transport.

As we motor down the M6 the players talk about the passing of the Premiership’s deadline day, the equivalent of the trade deadline in MLB. Everton fan Zach Rooney is pessimistic despite having beaten top-of-the-table Manchester City the night before. With Everton playing in the shadow of Liverpool, it’s tough to get excited about anything.

Once at Bath, the game starts off sloppy. Most of the play seems to be occurring between the two boxes as opposed to inside them. Both teams struggle to possess the ball. Manchester has their opportunities but can’t seem to finish. The Bath goalie, a German exchange student, has attackman and team president Andrew Downes’s number as he stops him several times on the crease.
At halftime Manchester leads 5-0 and seems to be in control of the game. By the third quarter they have figured out the German goalie. The game finishes 15-1 with Downes scoring the final goal, his only of the day. He celebrates as if he’s just put away the game winner, much to the amusement of his teammates.

Back on the bus the guys scan the online forums and text friends in hopes of finding out who they will play in the semi-finals of the cup. Twenty minutes into the ride someone announces that league rival Sheffield Halam, one of only two teams to beat Manchester this year, has fallen to Exeter. Cheers and whoops can be heard throughout the bus, as the netball and badminton teams look on confused.

As I sit and watch from my seat, I can’t help but feel like I’m headed back to Plattsburgh after another road win.