The following article has been reprinted from the 2007 NCAA Men's Lacrosse Championships Program
For more than a dozen years now, Stu Brown and a group of 40 or so lacrosse-crazy friends and family from Massachusetts have taken their love of the game on the road in May. The annual tradition begins with a road trip, and the car has always been pointed south, headed for one of the game's traditional hot spots like New York, Pennsylvania or the Baltimore-Washington area for the NCAA championships.
But with the game booming on all levels in Brown's home state and throughout New England, a recurring question started to pop into his head a few years ago, as he watched the game's best collegiate teams race and fire up and down the turf in places like Baltimore and Philadelphia. As president of the Massachusetts Bay Youth Lacrosse League, Brown has watched the sport grow by leaps and bounds from Connecticut to Maine. The biggest backer of New England lacrosse that you're likely to find anywhere, Brown couldn't help but wonder, "When are they coming to our backyard?"
Rest assured fans, with the 2007 championships upon us, we're only a year from the time when the college game's penultimate weekend is scheduled to return to the birthplace of the American Revolution. After a grassroots effort aimed at involving every level of lacrosse player from the most tentative beginners to the most seasoned experts, the NCAA Men's Lacrosse Championships will be coming to Massachusetts in 2008.
And if you think 360-some days is too early for the locals to get this excited and ready for the event at Gillette Stadium, you're off by a few years. By the time the first ball hits the turf in Foxboro, Massachusetts, on May 24, 2008, it will be more than four years since members of the local organizing committee first started planning to bid for the event. That pales in comparison to the 23 years that will have elapsed since Johns Hopkins' 11-4 win over Syracuse in the 1985 title game, played at Brown University in Providence, the last time the men's NCAA title was awarded in New England.
Take that generation-long absence, add to it the exploding numbers of kids playing lacrosse across the six-state region, and the equation had a simple sum: the time was right to bring the championships back to the home of baked beans, cranberries and the lobster roll.
"Lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in our region," said Jonathan Paris of the Massachusetts Sports Commission - the group charged with bringing major sports events to the Bay State. "So the idea for bringing the championships here came from the fact that the event had grown so much and moved into NFL stadiums."
Twenty-five miles southwest of downtown Boston, the local organizers feel they have a stadium and an experience to be had unlike any that the event has seen before. Gillette Stadium, home of football's New England Patriots and soccer's New England Revolution, features a field surrounded by nearly 69,000 seats. But perhaps more important than the sightlines and amenities inside are the 19,000 parking spaces outside the facility. For an event that's known for family gatherings, kids' events and tailgating, this corner of New England is sounding like potential nirvana for long-time attendees.
From the start, organizers decided to take the fact that Foxboro is in a rural area (as opposed to the in-city stadiums in places like Baltimore and Philadelphia that have hosted the event recently) and use the location to provide visiting fans with what organizers hope is the best of both worlds.
"When you take all of the lacrosse-only events we have planned and add them to all of the cultural and historical opportunities available in Boston, this is going to be an outstanding lacrosse venue," said Phil Buttafuoco, the tournament director for the 2008 championships. "We're thrilled to have this opportunity, and we really feel that the enthusiasm all of New England has for lacrosse is going to show."
A mere look at the numbers of participants shows how and why New England is rapidly catching up to the traditional hotbeds for the game like Upstate New York, Long Island and the Baltimore-Washington region. Buttafuoco notes that last year there were 34,000 youth lacrosse players in Maryland and Northern Virginia, and 32,000 in New England.
"The sport has really caught on fire here," said Brown, whose organization covers all the community lacrosse programs from central Massachusetts to Cape Cod. "More and more towns are adding high school lacrosse here, and that demands a youth system to feed the program. So we look at this event as a great opportunity to showcase Massachusetts lacrosse to the rest of the country."
With 7,500 kids between third and eighth grade currently playing, Brown oversees the biggest local chapter in all of U.S. Lacrosse, and they've seen 50 percent growth in the past four years. Part of that phenomenal expansion comes from the unique approach they've taken to the youth levels of the game in Massachusetts.
In sharp contrast to the high-pressure world of youth sports found all too often today, for the past 20 years, the Massachusetts Bay organization has had no tryouts, no posted standings and no playoffs for youth players. All teams are assembled with the aim for equality, and all players receive near-equal playing time. According to supporters, it creates a pressurefree environment where kids can learn the game and have fun.
With that vibrant and growing organization in the region, it's not surprising that the formal pitch that the Massachusetts Sports Commission and Gillette Stadium made to the NCAA to land the event included much more than just numbers about potential ticket buyers, corporate sponsors and on-site parking. They also submitted letters written by youth lacrosse organizers from throughout New England about what having the championships in Foxboro would signify for the game and for the kids who strive to be the collegiate stars of tomorrow.
Bob Russell, the president of the Connecticut-New York Youth Lacrosse Association wrote about what having the tournament played closer to the growing lacrosse community might mean:
"It is important to our association that the championships be played in New England ... so that our membership has an opportunity to see the world's largest lacrosse event in person. Having the NCAA championships in New England ... would be a tribute to the thousands of boys and girls, along with their parents who have worked tremendously hard to grow the game. The NCAA championships at Gillette Stadium will further our collective efforts to expose the values of college lacrosse and the NCAA to thousands of families who ordinarily are not able to travel to the championships when they are conducted in other areas."
Other letters submitted included promises by different youth lacrosse programs that they would buy thousands of tickets. Organizers admit that the presence of a regional school such as Harvard (one of the co-hosts, along with the Eastern College Athletic Conference) or Massachusetts likely would help sell a few tickets as well. But the groundswell of local support has produced confidence that tickets will be scarce no matter what the field of teams looks like next May.
"NCAA lacrosse, regardless of who's there, is a great product and will certainly sell tickets," said Massachusetts coach Greg Cannella. Under his direction, the Minutemen became the first New England team to reach the NCAA title game last spring, falling to Virginia in the final. "But for all of New England lacrosse, this will be a fun challenge to show the rest of the lacrosse world that we can support this and do it the right way."
Cannella notes that many of the successful college teams in Maryland and other states win with a roster that's dominated by home-state players, and the growth of the game in New England can only help his team and the others in the region. The 2006 Minutemen went 13-5 and were one of the last two teams standing at season's end, with a roster that featured 16 players from New England. Massachusetts reached the national semifinals with a miracle comeback at Hofstra, winning 11-10 in overtime after rallying from a four-goal deficit in the fourth quarter. In the extra session it was fitting that Brett Garber (from Avon, Connecticut) fed Jim Connolly (of North Andover, Massachusetts) for the winning goal. The coach admits that regional pride was definitely a factor during the run to the title game.
"We knew we were the first New England team going to the final, but then we get to Philadelphia and you realize right away that it's greater than that," Cannella said. "We knew we were there representing all of New England, not just the Commonwealth of Massachusetts or the University of Massachusetts but the entire region."
Upon arrival in Foxboro next year, organizers promise that the teams and their fans will like what they find, both in the stadium and nearby. Buttafuoco notes that there will be lacrosse-only lines on the turf that's normally home to Tom Brady and his teammates, and with the Patriots training facility on the premises, teams can practice on-site before their games. Parking lots will be open several hours in advance for tailgating and fans traveling from far away will have plenty of lodging options.
If one chooses to stay in Boston proper, the stadium is a 30-minute drive under optimal conditions, but Paris notes that they're making arrangements so fans can fly into Boston, stay there and still see all of the action without having to rent a car, if they so desire.
"There's a train station right on the stadium grounds, and we'll be running special event trains from Boston right to Gillette, so anyone with an event ticket can hop on board and be at the stadium in 30 minutes or so," Paris said. He added that after attending the event in other cities and getting stuck in traffic during the relatively short drive between hotel and stadium, letting someone else do the driving will likely sound like an attractive option for many.
For those who like to sleep a little closer to the center of the action, Buttafuoco notes that there are 10,000 hotel rooms within 10 miles of Gillette Stadium. As opposed to the advantages and the associated challenges that come with getting to and from a stadium in the heart of a major city, Massachusetts organizers feel that the Gillette Stadium's more rural location will make it a more convenient place to get to access for the throngs of fans they expect to come from all over the six-state region.
"There are some outstanding advantages for fans, and it's very accessible from throughout New England," Buttafuoco said. "For a regional event, this is a really great location."
For those coming from outside New England, locals point to the region's recent successful history of hosting NCAA events as more evidence that there are good things to come in May 2008. Paris notes that just in the past few years, Boston has drawn rave reviews for the 2004 Men's Frozen Four®, the 2006 Women's Final Four® (both of which were held at the TD Banknorth Garden) and the 2006 Division I Women's Lacrosse Championship, which was played at Boston University.
It's been said that students from the dozens of schools in the area add 250,000 residents to greater Boston's population when the fall semester starts, so another high-level college sporting event seems like a perfect match for the region.
"There's such a strong history of hosting NCAA events here, and there are so many colleges and universities in the region, that we knew the lacrosse championships would be a natural fit," said Paris, adding that the local organizing committee has been meeting monthly since attending the 2006 championships in Philadelphia. "We'll try to learn from the previous years and do it even better next year. Things are already kicking into high gear."
Buttafuoco spent nearly a decade with the NCAA as a senior assistant director of championships and was one of the driving forces behind creating the fan-friendly side events held in conjunction with many of the national championship weekends today. He said that the New England setting will be perfect for the family-oriented lacrosse weekend that so many have come to enjoy. As Brown noted while thinking of the thousands of youth lacrosse players who will head to Gillette Stadium that weekend, the acres of parking and the tailgating atmosphere provide "lots of room for kids to toss the ball around, and a great place to spend the day."
Near the stadium, work has begun on the new Patriots Place shopping and entertainment complex, which will not be fully opened by this time in 2008, but will be another fan destination in the future. With an eye to that future, the Massachusetts organizers have already put in bids in hopes of hosting the tournament again as early as 2009. If all goes according to their plans next year, a return to New England doesn't sound like a prospect that would bother the NCAA, or the nation's armies of collegiate lacrosse fans.
In fact, with the way the game is growing in New England, it sounds as if American lacrosse might be welcoming another regional hotbed soon.
"We will surprise many people," said Buttafuoco. "They'll be surprised with how enthused the people with New England lacrosse will be, and with the job we'll do of hosting the event."