Road Trip Dad – Stranger In a Strange Land
Dan Witmer |February 25, 2019
Toto, I don’t think I’m in Upstate New York anymore.

For the past four or maybe five years I’ve turned my February pilgrimages to Florida into lacrosse-seeking journeys, and I think that, no matter what high school, college, or post-collegiate club game I went to, I ended up knowing someone – maybe a referee, a player, or coach, or a recruit’s father, etc.

But this week… this week I went to two high school games where I didn’t know a soul… and I saw some really weird stuff.

It was like Lacrosse Bizarro World. In two back-to-back nights, watching four different boys’ varsity teams, I saw things like the following:

A team warming up in nothing but t-shirts and shorts. No pads, no fancy shooting shirts. They did stick drills and warm-ups in this garb and looked like a PE class (and then they went out and won 20-6).

And yes, t-shirts were the right choice. It was 86 degrees before one 7 PM game, and 79 afterwards. Night two, it was 83 degrees pre-game and 74 after. That’s right – temps in the 70s and 80s on February 19th and 20th. Bizarro World indeed! But get this – I still saw high school girls wearing blankets in the bleachers!

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again – Florida is a strange place. Some people dress for the weather, while others dress for the calendar. In the past week I’ve seen people strolling around in tank tops and bathing suits, but I’ve also seen jeans, high boots, and even scarves.

Both high school games were at programs where varsity status is fairly new, maybe three or four years old. Both home teams had high school clubs and youth programs before they went varsity. Both impressed me with plenty of parents and fellow students wearing their school colors and lacrosse-specific swag. No lack of school spirit here!

At one game, the stadium fence at the foot of the bleachers was adorned with 11 5’x3’ banners of local advertising. I don’t know how much the sponsorships cost, or what the businesses got in return, other than this display, but I was impressed by the visible support.

At the other game, a game program made from folding an 8 1/2” x 11” sheet of paper had only the home team’s roster, but it also included the upcoming schedule – home and away games. The back cover was a “full-page” ad from Invisible Fence. Again, simple, but impressive.

Both games charged $5 for admission, which I haven’t seen in CNY (let’s hope it stays that way). Still, the bleachers were packed at both schools. Maybe Florida high school sports charge more all across the board, and besides, on the back of these printed tickets were coupons for free coffee at any 7-11 (with any purchase), and $10 off any purchase of $50 or more at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Someone at Polk County Schools is doing their homework!

Let’s see, what else did I see?

One team had their JV squad on the sideline, all in school-color t-shirts (or hoodies!) and game shorts. Maybe there had been a JV game before the varsity, maybe not. But they were involved and engaged, which is more than you can say about most JV teams during varsity games. And instead of doing rehearsed theatrics after their team’s goals, they cheered during face-offs, something I had not seen or heard before. They yelled, “Thom-as, Thom-as” – the name of their face-off guy – in the same cadence as one would yell “air-ball.” Hmmm – let’s see if that catches on…

In between the first and second quarters of one game, I saw a flag thrown for an illegal stick. Not that unusual, right? The funny thing was, the player was released at the 10:00 minute mark of the second quarter, which means he served a 2-minute penalty. As far as I know, illegal stick penalties are either 1-minute (correctable, usually deep pocket) or 3-minutes (tampered stick, too short, too long, too narrow, or the ball doesn’t roll out). Soooo, what do you have to do to get a 2-minute illegal stick call? Since personal fouls can, by rule, range from one to three minutes, maybe this was a flagrantly deep pocket. We may never know.

Truth is, the three-man crew at the first game was less than impressive. They conferenced all the time, and when they did, all three officials joined the discussion. We were told not to do that, that one official should remain away from the discussion, in good position to watch the players on the field. Fortunately for these three refs, no shenanigans ensued. This crew was also slow in everything they did. They were slow to face-off after goals, slow to make calls to the table, slow getting up and down the field, and slow with re-starts. The game did get chippy, but they didn’t start calling fouls until the second quarter. In Q1, Team A’s goalie got hit high and late (I thought) as he ran the ball out to near midfield. No call against the riding Team B. So Team A’s goalie swings his stick at the attackman, hitting him in the leg. Again, no call. Q2 turned into a flag-fest. I saw 6v4, 6v5, 5v5, and 5v4 – I’m guessing those teams hadn’t gone that deep in the EMO/MDD playbook before this game.

Team A opened up a 5-0 lead at the end of 12 minutes, but then Team B rallied. When they closed to 5-3, the PA announcer made the mistake of exclaiming, “Now we have a game!” You know what came next, and so did I. It was 9-4 at the half, 15-5 after three, and the final score was 20-6.

Not surprisingly, there was some confusion about exactly when to start the running clock. They ran it for a while after a ten-goal margin was established, then corrected their mistake. I swear they re-instituted the running clock when it got to 11, then stopped again. With about six minutes left in the game, the margin hit 12, and the clock ran (correctly) the rest of the way.

And get this – the game lasted more than two hours… with a running clock for the last six minutes! That’s how slow this officiating crew was…

Still, without taking sides too obviously, it was nice to see three-man crews working varsity games. I don’t know why CNY in particular has struggled to assign three officials for boys’ games. I am constantly amazed that “outlying” states, regions of the country that are new to the game, commit to three refs while “the hotbed” hems and haws… but I digress.

By comparison, the second night’s game was much better-officiated, but it was a worse whupping. I got to the game about 15-20 minutes late, hoping that maybejustmaybe they had gotten off to late start. But no such luck. It was 11-0 in the second quarter when I walked into the stadium. I think the entire second half used a running clock, and the visitors never scored a goal. Surprisingly, the game never got chippy at all; I think I saw just one time-served foul. And the game was over in 70 minutes (maybe a record).

Here’s another interesting fact. In two nights, I spoke with one alum (an older brother of a HS player), one player, and one coach. After I introduced myself as “an Upstate New Yorker just trying to get his lacrosse fix for the day,” I had brief conversations with all three – and all three must’ve said the phrases “Yessir” and “No sir” – respectfully and sincerely – at least five times! I was so impressed!

The home team on the second night had 28 players on their roster; the visitors, just 14. In an unusual display of sportsmanship (in my experience), at the end of the game the PA announcer said something like, “How about it folks; let’s have a hand for the visitors, playing their first year of lacrosse!” The large crowd clapped and cheered their encouragement. You don’t see that every day.

I tried to think of the last first-year program I’ve seen. It’s been a while. St. Bonaventure’s and Utah are making their D-I debuts this spring, but what’s the last new high school team in Section III, for example? Like I said, it’s been a while…

I hung around after the game long enough to chat with the losing team’s coach as he headed toward his bus. After I introduced myself and gave him my card, we agreed that “You gotta start somewhere,” and he told me that he’d only had a few weeks of practice with his small squad. He was very upbeat, very positive. He’s probably had this date circled on his calendar for a while.

I had thoughts of asking him if I could say something to his kids, but I chickened out. But if I did have the opportunity to talk with those first-year players after losing their first-ever game by a 17-0 score, I might include the following:

I played in a college game in which we lost 16-0. I’m not proud of that, but it happened. Without a running clock. Still, life goes on.

I was so impressed by their discipline and compete level. There were no unsportsmanlike penalties, no late hits, illegal checks, or slashes. No chirping. And there was no quit, either. Not the poor goalie, not the face-off man, not the d-men trying their best. I’d be sure to make a point of complimenting them on that.

I’d tell them about the doors that will open because of lacrosse, and the importance of not burning bridges. I not only played varsity lacrosse for the guy who cut me from junior high soccer, I also ended up working for him and his family summers through high school and college. He came to my wedding, and I went to one of his.

I’d tell them to hit the wall, to watch college games on TV, and to watch live lacrosse any and every chance they got.

I’d tell them about my sons – one in Denver, one in Prague – both heavily involved in the game long after college.

I’d tell them to consider reffing someday, to lend a stick to a neighbor or classmate, and to teach a younger kid how to throw and catch.

Most of all, I’d tell them to enjoy the game!

Maybe it’s not really such a strange land after all…

Drive carefully, everyone!

- Dan Witmer daniel.witmer@oswego.edu

Dan Witmer is the author of two books.  The Best of Road Trip Dad – the Laker Lacrosse Collection  is an accumulation of 45 articles written for JustLacrosseUpstate between the years 2012 and 2018, about the history and traditions, the people, and the stories of the Oswego State men’s lacrosse program. The book is available on Amazon.com, and at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, the SUNY Oswego College Store in the Marano Campus Center, The Sports Outfit on West Genesee Street in Fairmount, and Geared 2 Sports in Cortland.  ...and piles to go before I sleep - The Book of Wit  is his memoir describing his 33 year career teaching HS English and coaching at Hannibal Central School. It is available on Amazon.com and at the river's end bookstore.