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 March 2001
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Good Sport




Written by
David R. Eltz and Joe Bendel

Photograph by
Jack Wolf




TEAM WORK |

 It was one of those moments kids dream of every day in backyards across America.

Stephen Love (Arts and Sciences ’99), a midfielder for Pitt’s Lacrosse Club, is tearing up the field, clearing the ball from Pitt’s end. It’s a semifinal of the National College Lacrosse League (NCLL) Final Four in May 1999. Pitt has just scored. There’s less than a minute left. Precious seconds tick away for the opponent, the University of Maryland. The winner advances to the championship game; the loser slinks home.

Love reaches midfield. The game is almost over. Suddenly, the ball flies from the webbing in his stick. A Maryland player scoops it from the ground and runs with desperation. The seconds tick by…12, 11, 10…. The Maryland player is 20 yards from Pitt’s goal. He’s "going to the cage," as they say in this sport—rushing toward a 6-foot-by-6-foot goal; a clear shot in his sights.

From nowhere, it seems, Adam Snyder sweeps in, his legs churning, his arms pumping, his chest thumping. He launches his body into the air and—Thwack!! Snyder plows into the Maryland player just as he rears back to fire the ball at Pitt’s goalie, John Lambert. Lambert catches the ball. The Panthers win, 5-4. "It was one of those once-in-a-lifetime things," Snyder says today. The brawny junior, who’s pursuing a dual degree in information sciences and studio arts, is now team co-captain.

It was just one of several highlights in this club’s 10-year history. In 1993, just two years after the club was founded—under club status the team receives neither financial support from the University nor sanction from the National Collegiate Athletic Association—Pitt won the NCLL championship. Pitt also won division titles in 1997 and 1998. The 1999 semifinal victory set up a championship game with rival Penn State. Pitt lost, 10-6, but the team’s "once-in-a-lifetime" moment against Maryland continued to strengthen one thing: its heart. And on countless fall and spring afternoons since, some 35 members of the Pitt Lacrosse Club have gathered to play a game more often than not eclipsed in popularity by big-ticket sports.

And they just can’t stop playing.

"Lacrosse is for life," says coach Rob Heaps (Business ’97, Public and International Affairs ’97), who played on the team as a graduate student. "You play this game once, and that’s it. You’re a lifer."

Lacrosse is something like the offspring of a union between hockey and soccer. The sport is played on a 110-by-60-yard field, a goal at each end, 10 players on each team. Players run up and down the field—sometimes as much as eight miles a game—hefting graphite sticks, at the end of which is a webbed net. The net is used to fling a hard rubber ball slightly smaller than a baseball. The remaining equipment—slender arm pads, helmet, a plastic mouthpiece, and padded gloves—is designed less for protection than speed.

Games are split into four 20-minute periods. The object is to maneuver the ball crisply upfield and into the opponent’s net. The sport is one of perpetual motion, what with a goalie, three attackmen, three midfielders, and three defensemen running, passing, and shooting from start to finish. The action-packed contests feature shots that fly in excess of 75 miles per hour, open-field hits that would make Jack Lambert proud, and everything from behind-the-back passes to no-look shots on goal. And for anyone who thinks this game is for the meek, take note: National Football League Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown was an All-American lacrosse player at Syracuse University in the 1950s.

It’s a sport the players at Pitt go to great lengths to preserve. This team can play only so long as its budget lasts, and the budget comes from whatever money they can raise. Fund-raisers range from selling T-shirts and shorts to sending letters to alumni. "If you don’t push, you don’t get anywhere," says Snyder, who dreams of seeing Pitt lacrosse someday becoming a Division I sport.

This sport is new to most of the team. Take Ryan Moore, an information sciences major and another of Pitt’s co-captains. A senior midfielder and defenseman who intends to enter the Air Force as an officer upon graduation, Moore didn’t play lacrosse until he came to Pitt in 1996. Always athletic, playing soccer and baseball, Moore grew up outside Philadelphia and occasionally watched the Wings, that city’s professional lacrosse team, on television. But it wasn’t until he saw his first practice at Pitt that he fell in love with lacrosse. Now he wouldn’t give it up for anything. "Trust me," he says, "When you start playing this game, you never stop. It’s an obsession."

Moore sits with Snyder and John Algie, a finance major, on a couch in a cozy Squirrel Hill living room one crisp winter evening, preparing for budget talks with their coach. Burning logs crackle in the fireplace. A videotape of the 1998 NCAA Division III lacrosse championship plays on the television.

"It’s the fastest game on two feet," says Algie, a sophomore from Long Island who is hooked on the game’s frenetic pace. But even more than the speed and the action and its uniqueness, lacrosse is a game of trust. "Big time," says Heaps, as the players around the room nod their heads in agreement.

Snyder, dressed in his blue high school warm-up pants, his head recently shaved, puts it best. To play this game, to challenge the attackmen trying to score on your team, you have to trust your teammates to back you up. You have to know, Snyder says, that if you fall down or trip, someone’s going to be there.

It takes teamwork. There’s no other way, Heaps says. As much as it takes individual skill to fake a pass or to dance through the other team’s defense, you still need each other. "One man, there’s no way you can stop a team coming at you," Heaps says.

Those guys out there are your brothers, Snyder adds. "No matter what happens in the game, good or bad, you’re always accountable to each other," he says, his words coming out with the emphasis of a jackhammer. "Even if I were not friends with the other players prior to the season, afterward you pretty much do anything for each other."

After all, they’re teammates.



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