Island is lacrosse.
Like no other area in the country, Long Island loves lacrosse. It is part
of the culture, woven deep into life every spring and summer as high school and
college seasons give way to youth and professional leagues. The area is
densely packed with talent, developing top players and sending them to the
corners of the nation, the globe even, as missionaries for the sport.
Think of a great lacrosse player, and chances are there are ties to Long
Island. More than one-third of the players on this year's Division I
All-America first team - four of 11 - came from high schools on Long Island.
There were 16 Long Islanders honored on the list overall, and that's just in
Division I. Division II is virtually a Long Island league - one could argue it
wouldn't exist if not for the region - and nearly every program in Division I,
II and III has at least one player from Long Island.
At the Division I championships last week, three of the four men's teams
were coached by a Long Islander and all four had a Long Islander as a captain.
Even in the professional ranks, the Long Island Lizards won the inaugural Major
League Lacrosse championship with a team of mostly homegrown players. The
National Lacrosse League, which plays the sport indoors, also is deep in Long
Island talent. It's hard to imagine any other region duplicating that kind of
success in any other sport.
"Long Island has a perception, and rightfully so, as a traditional and
historic hotbed for the game," said Steve Stenersen, executive director of U.S.
Lacrosse, the sport's governing body. "It features some of the most evolved
youth programs in the country with the best coaches and best officials at all
levels. There is no question that lacrosse supporters on Long Island are among
the most committed and dedicated."
Which leaves one question. Why?
Why has lacrosse become so intertwined with Long Island? Why did a sport
originated by American Indians as a way to prepare for battle, a sport named by
the French because the stick had religious characteristics, a sport that has
become the national game of Canada, find such fertile soil here.
Stenersen speculated that the great number of Irish and British immigrants
lacrosse clubs that grew in popularity, thus establishing the major hubs of the
sport. Others point to everything from the climate (which does not allow for a
long high school baseball season) to economics (lacrosse, rightfully or not,
has always been associated with the upper-middle class) to professional
inclinations (so many early stars of the sport became educators and spread the
game through scholastic teams).
Ward Melville coach Joe Cuozzo, who has won seven state titles and sent
countless stars on to the college ranks, noted that some communities are more
lacrosse-minded than others because of socioeconomic factors such as the number
of college graduates in an area.
"Lacrosse is pretty much a collegiate game, and our community has a lot of
college graduates and people who played lacrosse in college," said Cuozzo, who
wasn't introduced to the sport until he was at Cortland State. "These people
work in the community to foster the lacrosse programs."
The answer, undoubtedly, lies in a combination of all those theories. Like
the elements that serendipitously converge to form the stars of the universe,
so, too, did the ingredients for lacrosse on Long Island.
Lacrosse was invented by American Indians, who played with hundreds on a
side on fields that covered acres. When European settlers began sprawling
across the continent, they found the natives playing the sport. In an attempt
to spread Christianity, French missionaries named the sport "La Crosse" because
the sticks resembled the staffs of Catholic bishops. It floated back to Europe
and returned to the Americas with the wave of immigrants in the 1800s. By some
accounts, lacrosse was almost as big as baseball in New York City in the first
decade of the 20th century, and it didn't take long before it spread to Long
Island's high schools.
Jason Stranahan was the Johnny Appleseed of lacrosse on Long Island.
Stranahan started the first high school program at Manhasset in 1933,
recruiting football players and converting baseball players to the sport with
the funny wire helmets and crooked wooden sticks. Stranahan had learned the
game in New York City and brought it to Manhasset when he became a gym teacher
A year later, two more schools, Garden City and Friends Academy, picked up
the sport. Then Sewanhaka joined in 1938. The four schools played each other,
as well as parochial schools and clubs from New York City. To this day, Long
Island stands apart from other areas of lacrosse interest by having such strong
public school programs. Most other areas, such as Baltimore and New England,
have private academies as their powers.
One of the biggest problems facing early teams was equipment. Howard
Nordhal, Sewanhaka's first coach, wrote that he found a store in Hempstead that
had two dozen lefthanded cavalry saber gauntlets that he bought for 50 cents
each. The players used woolen winter gloves to protect their right hands.
In 1950, Howdy Myers became the coach at Hofstra after winning three
national titles at Johns Hopkins. Myers spent countless hours teaching clinics
and workshops on lacrosse and lent high schools the necessary equipment to play
the sport. He also brought in top opponents for Hofstra.
Richie Moran, who went on to coach Cornell to three national titles,
remembered watching Hofstra play Army one spring day. "We learned a lot by
watching those advanced players play," he said. "Howdy Myers played a big role
in developing lacrosse on Long Island."
By the 1950s, the sport was catching on across Nassau County but it still
had failed to reach Suffolk. Huntington fielded that county's first varsity
team in 1957, using borrowed helmets from Sewanhaka and jerseys from Manhasset.
But Sewanhaka was doing more than protecting the skulls of Huntington
players at the time. It was becoming the dominant force in Long Island
lacrosse. From 1948-57, coach Bill Ritch led the Indians to 91 straight wins
and produced a crop of players who went on to star in college and returned to
Long Island as coaches themselves.
One of those players was Moran, who coached briefly at Elmont before
coaching at Cornell. Another was current New York Tech coach Jack Kaley. And
Tom Hayes, who coached at Rutgers. The list goes on.
"In those days, a lot of the players went to the Naval Academy or West
Point or RPI or Syracuse," Moran said. "They went to colleges with programs in
education and came back to Long Island to start their own programs. Those men
brought the game wherever they went and enabled more programs to be opened up
with a bona fide coach."
In the 1960s, a wave of migration hit Long Island and schools were hiring
teachers. Many of them, it turned out, had played lacrosse in college and were
more than willing to start programs for their new districts or build existing
teams into powers. Doc Dougherty at Garden City, Cuozzo at Ward Melville, Jack
Salerno at Elmont, Bob Hoppey at Brentwood, Cliff Murray at Huntington and Alan
Lowe at Manhasset are prime examples of such transition.
Bob Hartranft grew up in Oswego and went to the state college there as a
baseball player. After teaching in Virginia, he moved to Long Island in 1967
and asked about coaching the Farmingdale Junior High baseball team.
"They told me there was already a baseball coach, but he would be leaving
the following year and I should coach lacrosse for a season," Hartranft said.
"The next year, they said, 'OK, the baseball job is yours,' and I said, 'You
can keep it.' I fell in love with lacrosse. It was too great a game."
Hartranft moved up to the high school two years later and has become one of
the sport's winningest coaches, building Farmingdale into a perennial power
and source of talent.
From Jim Brown to Eamon McEneaney to Dave Pietramala to Bill Tierney, every
college lacrosse era since World War II has had a Long Islander in the lead.
Jimmy Lewis of Uniondale led Navy to three straight titles in the 1960s. Frank
Urso of Brentwood scored in the second overtime to give Maryland a 10-9 win
over Hopkins in the 1973 NCAA final. Kevin Lowe of Mineola scored in overtime
to give Princeton the 1994 NCAA championship, and B.J. Prager of Garden City
did the same in 2001 for the Tigers.
The college coaching ranks are filled with Long Islanders, including
Tierney (Levittown) at Princeton, Pietramala (Hicksville) at Hopkins, Dom
Starsia (Lynbrook) at Virginia, Greg Cannella (Lynbrook) at Massachusetts and
John Danowski (East Meadow) at Hofstra, to name a few.
There is a new generation of Long Islanders ready to step into the
spotlight. Last week's Nassau championship games at Hofstra Stadium had dozens
of college coaches scouting players. Duke coach Mike Pressler was on hand to
see four players - Garden City's Glenn Nick and Dan Flannery, Massapequa's Matt
Zash and Lynbrook's K.J. Sauer - who will be Blue Devils next spring. He also
undoubtedly was taking a peek at the recruiting class for next season.
Greg Peyser, a senior midfielder from Cold Spring Harbor, is considered the
top recruit in the nation this year and will go to Hopkins. Juniors Matt
Danowski of Farmingdale and Drew Thompson of Northport are projected to be the
nation's top recruits next year.
Where they go to college is anyone's guess right now. But they will have a
solid tradition of Long Island lacrosse behind them, and won't have any trouble
finding a familiar face away from home.