Prep-school lacrosse sensations Hannah Keating and Dox Aitken.
Dox Aitken strolls into a conference room in the Haverford School field house. He’s wearing a blazer that can only be described as, ahem, unique. It’s a green-yellow-and-blue plaid number that, quite frankly, belongs on someone competing in a school “clash day” competition. Add a pair of striped pants and a checked tie, and we have a winner.
Aitken isn’t going for laughs, though. In fact, the jacket has tremendous significance in the Haverford lacrosse community. Each year, it’s passed down from a senior starter to a junior deemed worthy of wearing it. Aitken got it from Drew Supinski, who had the distinction in 2014-15. The recipient must be an excellent player, but the list of requirements goes well beyond mere talent. Wearing it means the young man has a powerful desire to maintain the program’s ideals. Winning, yes. But hard work, leadership and commitment to the team matter just as much. Stitched into the inside lining are the names of those who’ve earned the right to wear the jacket.
An All-American midfielder, Aitken will be attending the University of Virginia in the fall. Arguably the best high-school player in the country, he’ll play for the U.S. Under-19 team this summer.
And he loves the jacket. “It’s beautiful,” he says.
Scenes from a Haverford School practice earlier this year.
It looks almost bespoke on the 6-foot-3 Aitken. And yet, when he’s asked what happens if someone shorter were to earn the privilege of donning it next year, he responds, “It fits everyone who’s supposed to wear it.”
Athletics are full of awards and assorted rituals. Teams vie for tarnished trophies that carry more significance than a mother lode of platinum. They pass down jersey numbers as if they’re talismans capable of conferring mystical powers on those who wear them. And they honor everyone who came before, like ancient tribes venerated their elders.
In the lacrosse community, all of this is particularly important. It’s a tradition that’s getting much wider exposure than ever before. Already fertile territories for lacrosse participation, the Main Line and the surrounding region have become even more fecund, with player numbers growing, the caliber of competition increasing, and the culture changing.
It’s all part of a greater swelling of interest in the sport. According to US Lacrosse, Pennsylvania is one of the country’s fastest-growing states in terms of participation. Nationwide, there’s been a consistent increase throughout the 2000s, with a 3.5-percent surge from 2013 to 2014, the most recent statistic published by the governing body. Locally, lacrosse is experiencing an escalation at every level. Even 4- and 5-year-old boys and girls are learning to play, when in the past, they might be picking up a ball, a bat, and a baseball or softball glove.
“We’re no different than any other area,” says Malvern Prep coach John McEvoy, who’s won eight Inter-Ac titles since taking over in 2003 and whose 2014 squad was undefeated and ranked second in the nation. “There’s a crazy amount of growth across the country.”
It’s not just about numbers. The boom has also produced a higher caliber of play—so much so that this region is now on a par with Baltimore and Long Island, N.Y., two areas it historically trailed in terms of talent and performance. “It has long been a popular sport in the Philadelphia area, but it really feels like it’s exploded in the last five years,” says Radnor High School boys’ coach John Begier, who led the Raiders to the 2015 state title. “In the early 2000s, there was a lot of great high-school lacrosse in the area, but it’s gone to another level.”
Scenes from a Haverford School practice earlier this year.
With that growth comes a greater understanding of and appreciation for the sport’s personality, which is changing as quickly as its participation numbers are climbing. That garish jacket of Aitken’s may seem like a fashion catastrophe, but lax men of all allegiances will appreciate it instinctively—for its significance, yes, but for the look, too. Basketball players stand out because of their height. Football belongs to the bulky and dense. Racquet sports are the province of the lithe. Swimmers have broad shoulders and narrow waists. Want to tell if somebody wrestles? Check the ears.
Because there is no defined physical characteristic for the lax crowd, part of its identity has often come—for better or worse—from fashion and attitude, something Haverford coach John Nostrant calls “all flash and no dash.”
“That’s always been a part of it,” says Nostrant, who is entering his 25th season, having won 423 games (and counting) at the school. “It’s a subculture. You see it all the way up the ladder. You go to Lake Placid (where an annual summer tournament pits young and old against one another), and you see guys 60 years old who are still the same as they were in high school—except for ability, of course.”
The “lax bro” culture of chill dudes with righteous flows of hair cascading out the backs of their helmets and a rather casual attitude toward conventional training rules dominated the lacrosse narrative for years. Lacrosse players—especially the males—are looked at as entitled rich kids trying to be cooler than everybody else. Websites like BroBible.com celebrate the stereotype and promote a lexicon that includes terms like “brotato chips” and “brocoa puffs,” plus heroes like Broseiden, Broseph Stalin and Teddy Brosevelt—the latter recently immortalized on a Geico commercial.
In 2014, when Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman announced indictments of two top figures in the infamous “Main Line Takeover Project” drug ring, she displayed the spoils of her staff’s success: cell phones, weapons, drugs, and lacrosse sticks and gear. Turns out the young pot dealers who were involved had played the sport while in high school. The grandstanding move sought to place the sport in the forefront as an example of privilege run amok. It was a stance that angered many in the lacrosse community because it defamed the whole through the behavior of two whose actions had little to do with the sport they played. The culture’s stereotype triggered Ferman’s showboating.
In reality, lacrosse today is less about being cool and more about camaraderie and community—particularly at the youth, club and high-school levels. The players know and respect each other, for the most part. And those coaching and supporting the sport embrace a world that seems entitled and smug from the outside but is actually warm and inviting for those involved. “The real players out there aren’t anything like [the stereotype],” says McEvoy. “That’s for the pretenders. I tell our upperclassmen to form an alliance with me to purge that culture from our campus.”
Ebe Helm runs the Duke’s Lacrosse Club and its youth program, and has coached at Strath Haven, Springfield, Marple Newtown and Interboro high schools. He recognizes the allure of the “bro” ethos. But, like most coaches, he rejects it. “I played three or four sports in high school and college, and there’s no better sense of brotherhood than there is in lacrosse,” he says. “I don’t know why it is, but it is. There’s a strong closeness that transcends boundaries.”
Agnes Irwin’s girls’ lacrosse team prepares for the upcoming season.
Hannah Keating and Sarah Platt are sitting on the bleachers in the Agnes Irwin School’s two-year-old gymnasium, which features a 90-foot lacrosse wall next to the main basketball court. They’re working out together, as good teammates will. Right now, they’re trying to define the look of a girls’ lacrosse player.
“She wears [athletic] shorts that are a little longer than most girls wear,” says Keating.
“And definitely mid-calves,” Platt adds, referring to the favored socks. “If you wear low socks, you can’t play well.”
“High ponytail,” Keating says. “And when you’re younger, you wear a lot of neon and pinnies all the time.”
“And probably a little bit broader in the shoulders,” says Platt.
Girls’ lacrosse players do have some distinctive qualities. But, like the boys, there’s a bond that transcends fashion.
For Platt and Keating, talent plays a huge role, too. Platt played on the U.S. Under-19 team that competed in Scotland last summer, while Keating scored 104 goals during the 2015 season. Both were key components on an Owls team that won its first Pennsylvania Independent Schools tournament title last year, which was quite an accomplishment considering AIS was 2-18 in 2012. That was a year before Keating and Platt joined the varsity—and Jenny Duckenfield took over the program. Since then, Agnes Irwin has moved steadily forward, just as the sport has begun to gain momentum in the area and throughout the nation. With this growth has come some player characteristics that go beyond ponytails or socks.
“Lacrosse girls are confident,” says Duckenfield, who coached at Strath Haven for three years before coming to AIS. “They advocate for themselves. They know what they want on the field—and especially in the recruiting area. They know what they want goal wise.”
The rapid expansion on the girls’ side has mirrored the boys’ progress, with youth programs, club teams, recruiting showcases, and top-shelf high-school play all characterizing the sport. Granted, girls’ lacrosse doesn’t have the head start its male counterpart does. But as athletic opportunities expand for girls across the board, so too does lax grow. Conestoga High School coach Amy Orcutt—who took the Pioneers to the 2015 state title game and is entering her eighth year directing the program—didn’t start playing lacrosse until sixth grade. Now, her clinics offer instruction for girls as young as kindergarten.
Once a sport known exclusively for its players’ skills and stick work, girls’ lacrosse has become faster and more physical. “We have 25-30 girls from kindergarten to fourth grade every week in the winter,” says Orcutt. “I want the kids to love the sport.”
Younger players are excited about equipment and gear, but Orcutt and others see more than just material links to the sport. For them, camaraderie is vital—and lacrosse provides that. “The girls all know each other, and they’re all friends. They’re playing on club teams together, and they’re all texting each other. I called [Garnet Valley coach] Jenny Purvis the day after she won the state championship and told her it was a great win. It’s a game with a lot of pressures, but it’s still a game.”
One that continues to break stereotypes and attract new players.