The first thing you need to know about women's lacrosse is that it's a game of speed and finesse. Don't expect to see bodies crashing and bashing heads. And players don't wear helmets, gloves or pads. That's men's lacrosse. The women's game is completely different.
The second thing you should know is that the women's game -- dominated instead by stick work, cutting, dodging and passing -- is one of the nation's fastest growing intercollegiate sports. This year, 213 schools sponsored NCAA women's lacrosse, with the powerhouse teams coming out of the East. And this spring at Cal, when sticks slapped together at midfield for the opening "draw," women's lacrosse became the campus's 27th varsity sport.
Another essential point: With the addition of lacrosse, Cal women now have 14 intercollegiate sports -- one more than do the men. Women still have fewer varsity participants and receive a smaller portion of the athletics budget, but the campus has taken seriously Title IX, the 1972 federal gender equity in education legislation. Women's lacrosse is Berkeley's latest step in a concerted effort to equalize athletic opportunities for men and women.
Adding a women's intercollegiate lacrosse team, said Cal Athletic Director John Kasser, was an ideal way to respond to "a really strong interest on campus among women students in the sport." The new team, he said, also is helping the campus accomplish "our overall plan to come as close as we can to offering equitable athletic opportunities for men and women."
Calling lacrosse "a wonderful sport," Kasser believes that Cal's team can help create interest in the traditionally East Coast game at schools in the West. And that, he said, seems to be happening.
At campuses across the country, Title IX for years has tied sports and funding together as never imagined back on April 4, 1896. On that historic day, the nation's first women's intercollegiate competition was held in a rented hall in San Francisco. Stanford challenged Cal and won, 2‚1. The sport was basketball, played before the time when a field goal counted as two points, and, apparently, before either team was especially skillful at the emerging sport.
The Cal team, in blue bloomers, black stockings and white sweaters, insisted men be banned from the gym for fear, according to press reports of the day, that a "mixed audience" would have the effect of "lowering a certain standard of womanhood" by showing them sweating and competing. The Cal women reportedly played a fine first half but were woefully out of condition for the second. Today, 103 years later, the women's lacrosse team plays home matches in Memorial Stadium and eagerly invites anyone to watch. And while the players wear the sports' traditional kilt, they are not the "dainty co-eds" who paved the way. These women are serious student athletes.
Since Cal has had a women's lacrosse club for more than a dozen years, head coach Jill Malko and her 25-member squad are building on a strong tradition. In her three years as the club team's coach, Malko led the players to a 30‚4 record. Cal's strongest competitors in the Western Women's Lacrosse League are the varsity squads at Stanford and UC Davis.
Cal's women's lacrosse players also face a few challenges off the field.
Not the least of their tasks is raising the sport's profile. Long played on East Coast campuses, lacrosse remains relatively unknown in the West. The Cal team is reaching out to junior and senior high school athletes in the Bay Area through clinics and other partnerships. As for general sports fans, Malko said, after watching just one game, many are hooked. La-crosse is easy to watch and understand," she said. "And it is high scoring and fast."
Lacrosse is an ancient sport, invented by Native Americans five centuries ago. The Iroquois used a version of it as a warm-up drill for battle. Historians say as many as 300 men engaged in contests that could last three days. Maiming or disabling the opponent, rather than racking up points, was a major objective. French settlers in Quebec appropriated the game in the 1800s. They gave it its modern name, lacrosse, deciding that the Indians' long stick with the leather net at the end resembled a "crosier," a bishop's staff. The game, played by men only, remained intensely physical, but the stated objective was to score goals, not level the opposition.
About 1867, an Englishwoman visiting Canada brought the game to England where it went through yet another transformation. By the turn of the century, lacrosse was the major autumn sport at girls' schools. While still fast and free-flowing, it had been civilized.
One of the joys of lacrosse, says Malko, is that "there are not a lot of rules that prevent you from being creative. When you have the ball, you can't run over someone -- that's about it. There are not even field boundaries in our sport. What rules we have are for the safety of the players."
Here's the game at its simplest: There are 24 players on the field, 12 on each side. The positions are defense, midfield, attack and goalkeeper. The object is to work a hard rubber ball about the size of a baseball down the field and into the six-by-six-foot goal. Only the goalie can touch the ball with her hands. Everyone else must pass, catch and/or run, cradling the ball in the basket at the tip of the three-foot-long stick as the opposing team works to intercept or knock the ball loose and gain possession to attempt a goal. Unlike the men's game, women's lacrosse forbids body contact, and there are strict rules about use of the stick to capture the ball. With each goal worth one point, a typical winning team might score seven points, while the likes of the University of Maryland, the nation's top women's team, averages nearly 14 goals a game. The play-making strategy is not unlike basketball, said Malko. And, like basketball, it's handy to be tall and fast.
Malko and her players understand the breakthrough nature of going from a self-funded, student-run club team to elite and much coveted varsity status. "You can hold your head a little higher. You feel like a real athlete," says junior Jessica Garcia, who played lacrosse at Oakland's Bishop O'Dowd High School before joining the Cal club team as a freshman.
For Malko, it also means that for the first time in 22 years -- since the Berkeley native started playing lacrosse at high school in Philadelphia -- she can make a living from the game. A full-time coach comes with varsity status. So do uniforms, equipment, travel costs, time with trainers and strength and conditioning coaches, access to facilities, and the academic support such as priority registration and tutors afforded student athletes.
Despite institutional support for expanding women's opportunities, team members have sensed an undercurrent of grumbling. With limited funding for intercollegiate sports, some supporters of other varsity teams pressed for funding or facilities time understandably are reluctant to see yet another new team on the scene. Equally understandable, there are those who would prefer to have their own club sport elevated. Why not give varsity status to successful men's club volleyball? Or to men's club lacrosse, which last year won the national club championship?
"We hear it. What about the men's team? That's tough, real tough. We are women, but we are athletes, too. We work just as hard, and we care just as much," said Heather Mozdean, the team's co-captain, as she readied for practice one cold, gray afternoon on the artificial turf of Kleeberger Field. A senior majoring in physical anthropology, Mozdean grew up with Title IX, formally implemented in 1975. "My sister and I were the only girls on our T-ball team," she said, "and I was the only girl on the third-grade basketball team."
Mozdean is typical of today's woman athlete. "Most now have grown up in programs where they competed side by side with boys," said Christine Dawson, Berkeley's associate athletic director for sports programs. When they show up in the training or weight rooms and in venues such as Memorial Stadium, she said, the women--and the male athletes as well -- know they belong there.
That's a far cry from the early 1960s when Joan Parker, now executive director of Bear Backers, the fund-raising arm of Cal's self-supporting intercollegiate sports program, was a Berkeley student and, later, a physical education instructor and coach.
"It was more prestigious to be a pom-pom girl than an athlete then," said Parker, who loved being both. "You didn't admit you were an athlete. We had no uniforms and had to drive our own cars and buy our own meals. No women's team could play more than 10 competitions. The university didn't think it was good for the women to be away from their studies so much. We did have a conference, but there were no national championships.
The biggest change in the sports program at Cal came in the 1991‚92 school year when the men's and women's programs merged into one Department of Intercollegiate Athletics & Recreational Sports. "That brought dramatic improvements in funding for women's sports. For coaching salaries, facilities, the operating budget, you name it," said Dawson. The merge was undertaken not because of Title IX, she added, but because Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien "felt it was a better model to achieve athletic excellence across the board."
But the power of the federal legislation was being felt across the country at that time. Advocates of women's and girls' sports were filing civil rights lawsuits over inequitable programs and --more often than not -- they were winning.
Last winter, the National Organization for Women filed a federal civil rights complaint against St. Mary's College in Moraga alleging that its sports programs violate Title IX gender equity mandates. At the heart of the dispute is the charge that women lacrosse players have tried unsuccessfully since 1995 to have their club team upgraded to college-funded varsity status at St. Mary's while the men's athletic budget continues to grow.
Some colleges have dropped men's teams to better equalize opportunities. With its high costs and large squad, a football program, when eliminated, often has the effect of equalizing programs in one swift, if usually unpopular, move. It was the route taken by Sonoma State University and San Francisco State University.
"On our own gender equity task force (in 1993), we discussed cutting men's teams. But that doesn't expand the opportunity for women," said Dawson. "It meets the requirements of the law technically, but not the spirit of the law." Instead, Cal chose to add women's intercollegiate teams. Golf -- "we were the only Pac-10 school without women's golf," she said -- and waterpolo arrived in 1995‚96.
Women's varsity teams at Cal may now outnumber the men's, but what gets harder to accomplish is the law's requirement that the percentage of men and women varsity athletes closely resemble each group's percentage in the school's undergraduate population.
This year at Cal, participation in intercollegiate sports was expected to run 59 percent men and 41 percent women. This is significantly better than the NCAA Division I average, which in 1997 was about 35 percent participation for women. Still, Cal is fighting an uphill battle. For the first time, excluding the years during World War II, Berkeley's undergraduate women outnumber the men 51 percent to 49 percent.
This reality, along with funding constraints, dims any future chance of increasing the number of men's sports. "We are just not in a position to add men's sports because of the effect it would have on Title IX compliance," said Dawson.
But it is the game itself -- and building for a future that includes the NCAA national championships -- that is on the minds of Cal women now playing varsity lacrosse. Along with the perks, they know varsity status demands a new, far more intense level of commitment to the sport and the team.
The women say they are more than ready for it.
by Marie Felde
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