FOR SOME youngsters, the hallowed traditions of baseball can't compensate for the boredom of standing in right field for seven uneventful innings.
Others find the rites of spring all wrong because they miss the roughhouse contact of football. And still others are simply looking for a new challenge.
So they've been turning to lacrosse in increasing numbers.
Inspired by the success of teams at the Naval Academy and the universities of Maryland and Virginia, the sport began to catch on in local high schools a decade ago. And now it's beginning to intrigue young boys ages nine to 12, so much so that player interest far outweighs the amount of field space and qualified coaches available.
Lacrosse, a centuries-old Indian game, combines the best elements of several sports. Eleven players per side constanty move up and down the field, much as in soccer. A ball slightly smaller than a baseball is cradled in wooden sticks with nets. The object is to pass it, setting up shots into a net guarded by a goalie. Opponents are allowed to body check , as in hockey, to gain possession of the ball, adding a physical elementthat lures football lovers.
That contact and the coordination required for passing and catching were once thought to be too much for preteens. Throw in the approximately $150 it costs to outfit a player in protective equipment and you had a sure recipe for slow growth.
Now, however, youth clubs in Northern Virginia and Prince George's County are providing equipment by lending it to players. And the Montgomery County Recreation Department, which has held instructional clinics for several years, is launching an ambitious program this spring and summer to establish teaching clubs, and teams, in eight areas.
If the Montgomery County program even remotely approaches the success anticipated, more than 400 boys 12-and-under will be playing organized lacrosse in the metropolitan area this spring. Four years ago, there were fewer than 80 boys playing at this age level in the entire Washington area, not including several private school programs.
Lacrosse for girls has yet to reach the 12- and-under group, although several clubs now have girls' teams at the junior high and high school levels. The rules for girls' lacrosse differ sharply from the boys' version, even in the collegiate game. The major difference is the minimal contact allowed in girls' lacrosse. Local lacrosse organizers have yet to find enough interest among 12-and-under girls to start teams.
All area organizers say that once athletes try lacrosse, they're hooked. "We don't have many dropping out. Out of a hundred who come out, we may lose one per year, and then we just give them their money back because we usually have a waiting list," says Alex Morris, whose Vienna club of the area's most successful from elementary through high school levels.
"We had a kid call recently and said he was on a select soccer team in the spring, but he also wanted to play lacrosse. I told him it was a bit much to play both. His mother called a few days later to say he decided to just play lacrosse this spring. Like a lot of other kids who played soccer, he was looking for something with more scoring and action."
For elementary-school players, the clubs stress learning to throw and catch before tackling the physical elements of play. Ray Whitehouse, commissioner of lacrosse for the Springfield Youth Club, says that, in a week to 10 days, even beginners can gain enough fundamental skills to advance to other areas of the game.
"What we have found is that a kid will try and try and try and won't be able to do it," says Whitehouse. "Then, all of a sudden, it clicks."
Rick Robinson, a coordinator of many sports programs for the Montgomery Recreation Department, says his department is approaching the sport, as it has many others, by pioneering rules variances to encourage athletes of varying skills.
He calls his program "soft lacrosse." "It takes some time learning to throw and catch, so once that is learned, it suddenly becomes so much harder when there is someone trying to whack it out of your stick with their stick," says Robinson. "We are trying to set up programs where there is virtually no body checking for kids this age, and minimal stick checking. This way, kids can get an idea of what the skill aspects of lacrosse are all about."
Developing the skills is fine and dandy, of course, but the basic lure for some boys remains the chance to mix it up legally.
"All their lives, kids this age were told not to hit somebody," says Whitehouse. "Suddenly, you give them a stick and equipment and tell them to go out and starting hitting people, and they love it."
The physical aspect is a significant concern to parents contemplating whether to let their children try the game, but Robinson says his experience has shown the extensive protective equipment has meant a lower percentage of injuries than in, say, baseball.
"Our referees are the instructing type. They will stop play and instruct kids about something right in the middle of the game," says John Bosworth, whose Prince George's club is unique among private organizations because it has plenty of available fields and coaches, and seeks as many players as it can get. "You don't see kids in our games slashing each other with the sticks. They know if they do, they will be out of the game for a few minutes."
George Alapas, a graduate of lacrosse-crazy Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and now lacrosse commissioner of the Braddock Road Youth Club, sees lacrosse growth continuing at a rapid pace. "You used to have to go to Baltimore just to buy equipment, and 10 years ago, you never saw kids around here carrying a stick," he says. "Now, on a nice spring day, you almost never see a blank wall in our neighborhood without a kid with a stick throwing a ball off it." ON THE STICK
The following organizations have instruction and competitive teams for boys 12 and under wishing to participate in lacrosse. All lend out the necessary equipment, except sticks:
MARYLAND MONTGOMERY COUNTY RECREATION DEPARTMENT -- Public clubs forming in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Wood Acres, Beverly Farms, Damascus, Redland, Montgomery Village and Darnestown. Cost $20. Call 468-4210. PRINCE GEORGE'S LACROSSE CLUB -- Cost $39. Call 552-2421 (day) or 779-7295 (evening).
VIRGINIA BRADDOCK ROAD YOUTH CLUB -- Cost $35. Call 978- 7666 before 9 p.m. SPRINGFIELD YOUTH CLUB -- Cost is $6 club fee plus $35 lacrosse fee. Call 644-5153 after 6 p.m. VIENNA YOUTH LACROSSE INC. -- Cost $35 fee to join plus $20 fundraising fee, which is returned if participant sells quota of fundraising items. Call 281-4254