WHITTIER — People, places and things associated with lacrosse: sticks, helmets, fast feet, finesse, near-naked Indians, beer, Jim Brown, Canada, the Eastern Seaboard, Johns Hopkins University and Whittier College.
Whittier College? The Poets ?
They've become the No. 1 lacrosse team in the West (14-1 record), not because of their iambic pentameter but because of their rapid-fire shots that shake up goalies and their body checks that almost rock the Whittier hills looming above the playing field.
"Nice day for a ballgame," Skip McDaniel, Whittier's assistant coach, said Saturday before the Poets took the field against Claremont College in a Western Collegiate Lacrosse League playoff game.
Lacrosse is a ballgame, and that's usually a necessary explanation in California, where the East Coast and Canadian sport is about as vague as the hilltops on a smoggy day.
But Saturday was clear, allowing the hills to shine in their shades of green, and the sport to come easily into focus. It was an idyllic setting that would have impressed even lacrosse-loving Easterners, to whom the game, after a rugged winter, is a springtime state of bliss in which magic unfolds on April grass.
And Whittier put on a magic act Saturday. Its shots--fired from sticks (crosses) that had net pockets attached to them--kept disappearing into Claremont's red, 6-foot-wide by 6-foot-tall goal cage.
The barrage began when senior midfielder Ben Hieltjes, who looked like a swimming pool man armed with a skimmer, scooped up the little white ball, ran down the field and scored with only 15 seconds gone in the first period.
It never let up. "Make that net move, make it wiggle," the Whittier players yelled, and they did. Living up to the sport's motto--"the fastest on two feet"--the gold-jerseyed Poets used a fast break that would have impressed the Los Angeles Lakers. Most of the shots could be called "layups," attempted only when the shooter was close enough to see the whites of the goalie's eyes.
Junior Kitt Clark bore down on the area in front of the goal that has been worn to dirt. Then, when a defenseman came out to challenge him, he flipped the ball to Steven Sather, an attacker, who caught it deftly in his net and flicked it past a goalie who had no chance.
What it takes to win in lacrosse, besides a lot of players who grew up playing it in Canada or New Jersey, is quickness, agility and the ability to locate the open man and make the proper pass.
And, said Doug Locker, Whittier's 28-year-old head coach, "an awful lot of endurance" to survive all that dashing and dodging and the checking that crackled shoulder pads and occasionally sent bodies flying.
But the Indians who invented the game in Canada in the 17th Century would have probably perceived modern lacrosse, played on a football field, as a piece of cake. Now they endured.
Barefoot and wearing only breechcloths and war paint, the Indians--often hundreds to a team--battled over a countryside--the goals were sometimes miles apart. Games would last several days. If a player did not perform up to his ability, he suffered a fate far worse than hearing a coach's wrath--he would get a switching from squaws.
It was more than a game then, according to Bob Scott, former coach of Eastern collegiate power Johns Hopkins and author of a lacrosse handbook. "The roughness of the game served to accustom players to conditions of close combat, and its length to develop endurance for war and hunting parties," Scott wrote.
Whittier's only defeat this season was an 18-7 loss to Guilford during a spring trip to that North Carolina college.
"The West is a few years behind (the East)," Locker said. Eastern colleges such as Johns Hopkins and Syracuse, where football great Jim Brown was also an all-American lacrosse player, have long dominated the sport.
At those schools, lacrosse players get scholarships. But at Whittier, where lacrosse is not a varsity sport, none is given. It is a club sport, and each player is charged yearly dues of $200 and must also furnish his own helmet, gloves and stick.
Locker, who is also the assistant admissions director at Whittier, has been the team's only coach in its five-year history. When the club formed, Locker, who knew next to nothing about lacrosse, was its administrative adviser. He became the coach, he said, because "they couldn't find anyone to do it." Now, after years of attending clinics and studying, he has become well-versed in the sport's strategies.
But Locker's main talent is recruiting, and the Whittier roster reflects that--12 players are from Canada and 8 are from the East, including freshman attacker Derek Godfrey of Montclair, N.J., who leads the team with 51 goals. McDaniel, Locker's assistant, said, "We offer a solid lacrosse program for the kid who wants to come to the West Coast and go to a small, liberal arts school."