Feature: Lacrosse 101

For an American sport invented over 300 years ago, more people should know something about lacrosse. The game is team-oriented, fast-paced, and features athletes wielding metal sticks — what’s not to love? Despite its attractive attributes, however, lacrosse remains relatively unknown. Today that changes.

Some history will frame what will become a lesson in lacrosse. Invented by Native Americans sometime in the 1600s, lacrosse often settled tribal disputes in lieu of war. Since then, the sport has evolved to include cleats and mouth guards, and still settles conflicts, although with fewer deaths. Water bottles might also have an impact on the drop in fatalities.

But what is lacrosse? It depends on who is answering. The rules for women’s and men’s lacrosse differ significantly, even more so than softball and baseball. Let’s start with the universal basics, beginning with the field.

The field is 120 yards long and 65 yards wide. Two goals sit 100 yards apart, meaning 10 yards of space sit behind each goal. Think hockey with more room. These goals are slightly bigger than hockey goals, six feet tall and six feet wide with narrow pipes.

That leads to a simple question. When a player says, “That shot went off pipe,” what does he or she mean?

A. The shot went off the goal pipe

B. The shot hit a fan who was smoking a pipe

C. The shot hit the pipe of the fan who was smoking but not the fan

D. All of the above (trick shot)

Easy question, easy answer. Don’t overthink it. Back to the field.

Around each goal is a small circle where the offensive players cannot go. The word “crease” brings khaki pants to most people’s minds, but this circle has the same name. The goalie spends most of his or her time in the crease, although defenders can also move through it. In the middle of the field is an aptly named midfield line. There are two lines on either side of the midfield line known as the restraining line. More on that later.

With a general idea of the field, let’s get to the sticks. The formal name for a stick is a “crosse.” In both sports, regulations require the stick to be approximately three feet long. The netted end of the stick, called the head, is roughly triangular and holds the ball with a series of strings. There is essentially another book of rules for the heads that details how deep the ball rests, how wide the head is and so on and so forth. If a referee declares a stick illegal, odds are the sixth string from the middle is a little worn out so the pocket is a hair too deep.

Men’s lacrosse sticks have a deeper pocket, meaning the ball is farther down in the netting than in women’s lacrosse. Since William and Mary has a varsity women’s program and not a men’s program, let’s focus solely on women’s lacrosse.

Everything about a women’s lacrosse stick is designed to make catching the ball nearly impossible. Athletes need a lot of skill to catch and throw. To keep the ball in the stick while running down the field, players create a centrifugal force by rotating their stick back and forth rapidly. This motion is known as cradling. Since women’s lacrosse sticks have shallower pockets, the ball can fall out easily even without the players’ body-checking each other. Thus, the rules are designed to minimize contact between players.

That’s not to say women’s lacrosse isn’t action-packed. Far from it — a player is allowed to check an opposing player’s stick at or near the top of the head. Defenders can push off the ball carrier’s hips, which is crucial to defending an offensive player who is trying to dodge.

What’s a dodge? It’s not about wrenches or truck commercials. A dodge is when an attacking player jukes, spins, outruns, or uses basically any movement to get free of a defender and shoot. They are, in essence, “dodging” the defender. If a defender gets beaten, another defender has to stop the ball carrier — that’s called a “slide.” It’s not a random defender, but instead a complicated defensive system.

On to the game itself. A lacrosse game begins with the ball at the middle of the field, with a single player from each team inside the circle at midfield and two more from each team at the edge of this circle. The setup is very similar to a soccer kickoff. The ball is placed at the middle, between the heads of two opposing players’ sticks, which are pressed together tightly. At the whistle, each player tries to flick the ball to his or her teammates in what is called the “draw,” like a faceoff in hockey. It might help to think of lacrosse as the result of hockey and soccer being thrown together in a blender. Maybe with a butterfly net too.

The other seven players of each team (excluding goalies) are behind the restraining line on either side of the field. Once a team controls the ball, they head toward the opponent’s side, which runs from the restraining line to the endline. However, not every player can go in this area. Lacrosse has 22 players on the field at the same time, which can certainly create a crowd. To prevent this, only seven players from each team are allowed between the endline and the restraining line. When an offense controls the ball in this area, the situation is called “settled lacrosse.” Most of the game takes place in this area as seven vs. seven lacrosse.


Transitional lacrosse is aptly named for when the teams are transitioning from seven vs. seven offense to seven vs. seven defense, or vice-versa. Transitional lacrosse occurs after turnovers and draws or after a goalie makes a save and tries to “clear” the ball to teammates. In these situations, oftentimes the attacking team will outrun the defending team, leading to a temporary advantage. These “fast breaks” can determine the outcome of the game; with a few precise passes, an attacker can end up one-on-one with a goalie.

If a ball hits the ground, play continues. Lacrosse heads have a slanted top, allowing for a shovel-like function to scoop up the ball. Groundball advantage refers to which team is better at scooping up the ball and is a telling indication of which team enjoyed more time of possession.

The most complicated part of lacrosse consists of the arcs and penalties. A quick refresher — the crease is around the goal. In front of the crease, but well before the restraining line, are two arcs: the eight-yard arc and the twelve-yard fan. If a penalty is committed within the eight-yard arc, the player gets a “free-position shot.” The game is paused and defenders must be five yards away from the athlete with the ball. The offensive player stands on the eight-yard arc with a clear lane to the goal, where the goalie waits. To top off the unholy combination of sports examples in this article, the free-position shot is more like a free throw in basketball than a penalty kick in soccer, based on positioning. As soon as the whistle blows, the defenders collapse on the open lane as the ball carrier rushes to shoot.

To wrap it all up, here is a quick list of penalties. Women’s lacrosse players are required to wear a small cage around their eyes, leaving most of their head exposed, for reasons unknown. Any checks near a player’s neck or head are illegal. Body checks that are not on the hips are also illegal. Standing alone in front of the goal for prolonged periods of time is also illegal, except for goalies, for whom it’s another day at the office. Checking too close to a player’s hands also merits a penalty.

For most penalties outside the arcs, the whistle is blown and play stops. The player who committed the penalty and her teammates must be five yards away from the ball carrier. Then the whistle blows and play resumes. Particularly egregious penalties result in yellow or red cards. Since it’s easier to commit penalties on defense, the team with the most penalties probably had to play more defensively. The number of penalties can thus be indicative of time of possession.

With a better understanding of lacrosse, there isn’t any reason to not enjoy the sport. The College plays at Martin Family Stadium — go impress with knowledge of a formerly mysterious sport.


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