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Pickup Sticks

Lacrosse: Although the game is popular in the East, prep players here must find a club team to participate.


IRVINE — When Harvey Belson walks his dog at Heritage Park, he always makes a point to look for the boys playing the strange game with the long sticks.

"I don't know what they call it, but it sure looks like fun," Belson said, as his mutt, Dawson, sniffed the grass at his feet. "It kind of looks like hockey, but it's not as rough."

In the distance, the Irvine Lacrosse Club is running through a scrimmage on a makeshift soccer field. Wearing pads on their shoulders, arms and hands, as well as helmets, the players race up and down the field, carrying, passing and catching a small rubber ball in the basket-like head of their sticks, called crosses.

There's not much walking involved with lacrosse, a sport that originated with Indians in Canada and was introduced into the United States in the 1870s. Lacrosse is French for "curved stick," but the Huron Indian tribe of Ontario referred to it as little war.

And it can be a war. In this physical game, collisions are frequent. During action on the field, which is slightly larger than a football field, players often poke opponents with their sticks, trying to take the ball away.

"It sure looks like they're having fun. . . . too much running for me, though," Belson mutters, as he turns and continues his walk.

On the field, poking turns vicious, and jabs knock players to the ground. But as fast as they land, they're on their feet again, running.

"Ball down!" someone shouts. In an instant the ball is scooped up by another player who sprints down the field. Unable to find a teammate to pass to, he shoots. As he sends the ball zipping toward the goal with a quick flick of his wrist, he's decked by a defender and the shot bounces off the goal box frame.

As the scrimmage winds down the club's players, all of whom are Orange County high school students, start to relax. A winded Brian Wellikson, a junior at Irvine High, says he's not surprised by Belson's comments.

"I think we get that question every time we're out here practicing," Wellikson said. "They pretty much don't have a clue. Although one guy asked me if we were playing jai alai.

"When I tell them we're playing lacrosse, they give me this look, like, huh? 'You know, lacrosse,' I'll say. 'What the Indians used to play.' "

At that, Wellikson and his teammates start laughing. They know the sport they love is relatively obscure, at least on the West Coast.

Lacrosse enjoys great popularity in the East, where it is a sanctioned sport on nearly every high school campus, an NCAA sport at most colleges and is played professionally. The National Lacrosse League features seven teams, from Baltimore to Ontario, that play a 15-week indoor schedule.

Those interested in playing lacrosse in the Southland must find a club team. This year, four high schools--Irvine, El Toro, Woodbridge and Laguna Hills--are fielding teams in the Orange County Lacrosse Assn., which includes junior high teams. The season is from late February to early May. Any high school student can participate on any of the four teams regardless of where he lives.

Kirk Lamitie, a junior at Esperanza High, recently moved with his family from New York, where he played lacrosse on his high school team. Because Esperanza doesn't have a lacrosse club, Lamitie chose to play for Irvine.

He's one of the more experienced players on the team, which has 17 members, about a quarter of whom are beginners.

"You can't believe how big this sport is back East," Lamitie said. "In New York, kids start playing at an early age and every high school has a lacrosse team. I don't know why it's not big out here. But then again, California has surfing and water polo. I'd never heard of water polo until I got to California."

Lamitie used to play football in high school but quit so he could devote more time to lacrosse.

"It's more relaxed than football as far as the coaching and stuff. Look at me. I get to come out here, play a fun game and hit someone with a stick," Lamitie said, laughing.

Matt Green is the team's other veteran. A senior at Irvine High, Green wants to continue playing lacrosse in college. He and Wellikson started playing the game when they were introduced to it at Sierra Vista Middle School in Irvine.

"I remember watching it played as a demonstration sport [during P.E. class] and I said to myself, 'This is a game I could play,' " Green said. "It's a demanding sport that takes a lot of concentration. But at the same time, it doesn't require every moment of your life."

Similar sentiments came from Jeff Malinen, who plays for Laguna Hills.

"When I was in seventh grade, I had already played Little League baseball and soccer. I didn't really do that well in either of those sports, so I was pretty much was resigned to the fact that I would not play sports in high school," he said. "But when I saw lacrosse at my junior high school, I gave it a shot, and I've been playing ever since. I hope to keep playing in college."

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