Bruce Miller's Brooklyn accent cut through the sunny Virginia afternoon: "Poke-check! Poke-check! Who's got Numbuh 10?"
Running along the sidelines shouting encouragement and instructions at his players as they jockeyed for position, he called, "Who's got Six?" From behind a plastic mouthpiece and masked helmet, a muffled voice gargled from the field, "I do!"
But No. 10 from the Waldorf Jaycees' lacrosse club rolled and twisted his way toward Braddock Road Youth Club's goal and scored anyway. The handful of Waldorf parents who had traveled just under an hour to see the game cheered the star. The game returned to the faceoff at center field.
The afternoon was sunny and cool, the fans few -- mostly relatives of players -- but enthusiastic. When the erratic, scrappy play of the "midgets" brought Braddock Road the chance for a goal, an attack player scooped the ball like a chip shot past the Waldorf goalie. It was almost a fluke, an awkward effort, but it counted. "Hey, what's your golf handicap?" joked an observer. The player smiled inside his helmet.
The score tied at halftime, the Braddock Road team sat on a slope at Little Run Elementary School in Fairfax County and listened to Miller, a burly aeronautical engineer for the Navy: "The first half's past," he said. "It's a new game now." He told them to watch No. 10, whose trademark seemed to be rolling and twisting his way past Braddock's defenders. "Get your forearm out," Miller advised. "And when you get near the goal, shoot the silly thing. Don't spend your time twirling the stick -- shoot!"
Waldorf began the second half with a stunning drive toward the Braddock goal, and a score. In the fray, a Braddock Road player fell on the field, clutching his midsection. He stretched out on the sidelines, apparently unhurt.
"I told him not to eat eggs this morning," his sister, wrapped in a blanket against the wind, muttered to the small group of Braddock Road fans sitting on the grass. "He has a stomach ache."
But real injuries are not uncommon in lacrosse: Though the players wear helmets with faceguards, arm and shoulder pads and thick gloves, they are unprotected from the chest down. Players can whack at the sticks and arms of opponents, to knock the ball out of the stick's net; they can poke-check -- jab at the player who has the ball -- and bodycheck.
When a Braddock Road defender shoved a Waldorf attacker so hard that they both tumbled to the ground, sticks flying, a 16-year-old girl in the crowd, watching her first lacrosse game, murmured, "God, it's violent. I love violence."
Braddock Road tied the score again in the second half, this time with a shot face-to-face against the Waldorf goalie. As Braddock Road cheered and slapped gloves, the Waldorf goalie reamed out his defenders in language that raised a few eyebrows along the sidelines. His defenders glared back.
"He didn't have any defense," explained one observer. "I've heard soccer goalies rip out their fullbacks, too. They hate to get scored on."
But Waldorf's agile No. 10 fought his way back through the Braddock line and scored again. Braddock Road had only minutes left. What looked like a possible goal was flung too high, and coach Miller gave a strangled gargle of disbelief. It was the Braddock Road midgets' second defeat of the season by Waldrof, both 3-2.
The Braddock Road midget team -- ages 10 to 13 -- has not won a game this season: a building year, coaches would say. But Robert LaChance, lacrosse coach at Sidwell Friends, says Braddock Road's team will eventually become formidable because it enrolls players as young as 10. By the time the beginners are 13, they will have three years' experience.
At Sidwell, however, except for some instruction in physical-education classes, LaChance cannot begin competitive lacrosse until seventh grade.
But in some areas -- notably Baltimore -- kids start learning lacrosse early. When Miller's team traveled nearly two hours recently to Cockeysville, outside Baltimore, it faced players vastly more skilled. After the defeat, one Braddock Road player noted dismally, "They've been playing since they were five years old."
For those from Maryland, especially from near Baltimore, interest in lacrosse begins early. Baltimore has traditionally been the southern end of the lacrosse hotspot, New England the upper end. In our area, the only place where lacrosse has nosed into the public schools is Prince George's County. But interest in the sport seems to be growing, and this year both the Univeristy of Virginia and North Carolina are vying with Johns Hopkins University for the collegiate title this month.
Lacrosse, which claims to be "the fastest sport on two feet," was originally a game of North American Indians, who called it baggattaway and used sticks that reminded French missionaries of a bishop's crosier (la crosse).
Today, the game is played on a field approximately 60 yards wide and 110 yards long. There are 10 players on each side: three attackers, three midfielders, three defenders and a goalie -- all allowed to body-check, or shove, and to jab the opposition and whack the stick of the player carrying the ball. As in hockey, "man down" penalties sideline players for infractions and give temporary advantage to the opposition.
Well played, the game is primarily airborne, with long, accurate passes caught in flight with an extended stick, or whipped into the net for a goal.
Boys and men wear helmets with face guards, shoulder and arm pads like those worn in football, and thick gloves; goalies may wear additional protection, including a bib-like attachment to the helmet to protect the throat.
Women's lacrosse, without helmets or protective arm or shoulder pads, has more regulations. Players, coaches and referees have periodically complained that the game allows women to suffer head and mouth injuries, but the United States Women's Lacrosse Association, saying that wearing helmets will encourage roughness, continues to favor playing without protective equipment.
Because there's no professional league, adult players form clubs and often do double duty as officials for the youth league.
Although no public school systems in this area offer lacrosse as an interscholastic sport, private schools here have fielded teams for several years. This year five area private schools are playing league lacrosse: Landon, Episcopal, St. Albans, Sidwell Friends and St. Stephen's School in Alexandria. St. Stephen's officials say lacrosse is so popular there that they have had to discourage the boys from bringing their sticks to school because they kept whacking each other with them.
Lacrosse as a club sport was emerging in several high schools in Fairfax County until the school administration cracked down on school-sponsored athletic clubs that wanted to compete against other schools under the school banner. Lake Braddock Secondary School Principal John Alwood says that about 40 students at his school were in the lacrosse club. They have since formed a neighborhood club. Robinson Secondary School's lacrosse club, however, has been invited to participate this weekend in the second annual Montgomery Country Recreation Department youth lacrosse tournament jointly sponsored with Bethesda Kiwanis Club. No Montgomery County public high schools offer lacrosse this year, even as club sports, but the recreation department runs a youth lacrosse program in the spring and summer adult competition.
Prince George's County Public Schools, however, teach lacrosse through physical-education classes beginning with fourth-graders. Physical-education specialist Feda Martin says that schools use plastic sticks, with molded plastic cups rather than nets, and soft rubber balls. At high-school level, students are allowed to play with regulation equipment, which includes wooden sticks, helmets and protective pads.
LaChance, of Sidwell Friends, says that the "Little League syndrome" -- parents' transferring their competitive spirit to the youngsters -- does not exist so far in lacrosse. "I don't know a lacrosse program that makes it so competitive that it's not fun."
Although he tries to teach his team certain plays, LaChance adds that lacrosse, like hockey and soccer, is so fluid that it relies heavily on quick reaction and adaptation. He and BRYC Midgets Coach Bruce Miller say they can find a place on their teams for a player of any size.
On a recent Saturday morning, LaChance and Miller scrimmaged their teams, making the meeting a learning session. Both coaches took the field with the players and jointly refereed while instructing their players on technique and positioning.
Among the Braddock Road players was a boy who lives only blocks from Sidwell, but commutes twice weekly for practice and more for games into Fairfax County. His mother said he was so enthusiastic that when he received his equipment last spring, he wore the shoulder and arm pads all day and to breakfast the next morning, and took his stick, helmet and pads with him on a family trip to California.
Miller says that applications for the Braddock Road squad have increased so much that he had to start a waiting list this year, but "I am still waiting for the first girl to apply." If she plays on the BRYC team, he says, like the boys, she will wear a helmet.