SPRINGFIELD, Va. — Former Johns Hopkins lacrosse star Paul Rabil got right to the point. In his opening remarks at a press conference ahead of last week’s Premier Lacrosse League’s Championship Series, the league’s co-founder explained that all of his efforts were pointed at one goal.
Everything scheduled to happen over the next five days — a from-scratch pro tournament at an indoor sports complex outside Washington, D.C where the game was played in a largely unfamiliar fast-paced format called sixes while being televised by ESPN’s networks — all had to do with one thing.
Stakeholders in lacrosse, including in the sport’s hotbed of Baltimore, have been making a deliberate Olympics push for about two decades. They’re intent on growing the game’s reach (and resources) by selling lacrosse as one of the most exciting and fastest-growing sports in North America and beyond. World Lacrosse, the international federation of the men’s and women’s games, has grown to include 85 member nations.
On the right occasion, you can see lacrosse played on college campuses in Japan and fields in Uganda. And after several milestones, most notably in 2021 the International Olympic Committee (IOC) fully recognizing the game, there is a good chance lacrosse — in a new form — is included as at least a demonstration sport at the 2028 summer games in Los Angeles.
What most people don’t realize, Rabil said, is lacrosse was once actually in the Olympics, including in 1932, when the Johns Hopkins men’s team served as the U.S. squad. Men’s lacrosse was also in the 1928 and 1948 games as a demonstration sport, and as a medal event in 1904 and 1908. (Canadian teams won gold both times.) In the last 60 years, not a ton has changed competitively. The U.S. has won 10 men’s world titles and Canada the other three since 1967. The U.S. also dominates the women’s international game, having won nine of the 11 world titles contested since 1982.
If what’s still mostly known as niche sport is to return to the global athletic limelight, though, it will likely look substantially different than how it did decades ago (when, among other things, wood sticks were used) and also how most know it today. If you’re familiar with lacrosse, you’re most likely thinking of the 11-on-11 field version played in Maryland high schools, colleges and by youth teams. Up in Canada, box lacrosse — played six-on-six on converted ice rinks — is popular in the summer. The Olympic vision includes neither, as is, but a blend of both.
Over the past several years, officials behind the scenes at World Lacrosse in conjunction with other leading organizations such as Baltimore-based USA Lacrosse, the national governing body, have been developing a made-for-IOC version of the game. Why? Because 42 sports that are recognized by the IOC aren’t in the Olympics. There’s competition to get in.
This brand-new form of lacrosse is called sixes.
It’s a blend of field, box, and basketball and hockey. It’s six-on-six, played indoors or out on a smaller field than usual, with a shot clock, eight-minute quarters, no long sticks (which are typically used by defensemen), no faceoffs after goals, and change of possession when the ball goes out of bounds. It’s got the flow of basketball and the substitutions of hockey. Games take about an hour; an 11-on-11 college games generally lasts twice as long.
The product was on perhaps it’s grandest display to date last week during the PLL’s first-ever winter showcase at The St. James sports facility in Northern Virginia. Rabil — a former Team USA player, 2008 Hopkins graduate, three-time first-team All-American and two-time NCAA champ — and his brother Mike, the PLL’s co-founders, organized the four-team, 48-player event and as a way to demonstrate it to Olympic decision-makers. The games were televised or streamed on ESPN’s networks.
“What’s going to help us as a sport get into L.A. ‘28,” Rabil said, “is going to be versions of Olympic Sixes that is played by the best players in the world.”
So it went. Nine games over five days went off a at a breakneck pace. It looked as if you were watching a high-level pickup basketball game, but featuring the world’s best lacrosse players running up and down with sticks, running through 30 seconds or less of offense, and firing dozens of shots and scores on goalies per 32-minute game. Players played offense and defense and took roughly one-minute shifts. The nine games averaged 87 shots and 38 goals.
There was plenty of scoring, fit for television. This PLL version also had a 13-yard two-point line, which previous sixes versions have not included. The most obvious downsides? The games also left players – used to a slower paced game where scoring is much more difficult to come by– exhausted by the end of the tournament, and goalies’ legs bruised like we’ve never seen before.
“I know people have some really different opinions on sixes. I don’t think it’s going to replace anything, but the more lacrosse the better,” said the Atlas Lacrosse Club’s Romar Dennis, a former Loyola midfielder, who scored a tournament-high 34 points. “It’s really fun to watch. It’s fun to play.”
His sentiments capture (almost) everything about this Olympic push. For lacrosse traditionalists, sixes might look like a bastardization of the game. There is also a thorny, multi-layered cultural issue in play. The Haudensonee, more commonly known as the Native Americans of the Iroquois Confederacy, are considered the originators of the game, and they have had the world’s third-best men’s team over the past decade and arguably the world’s best pro player in Lyle Thompson. The Iroquois have been part of world lacrosse championships for decades, but neither they nor any indigenous nation are recognized by the IOC. The sticking point has already led to substantial debate about the Iroquois’ potential future in the Olympics.
That unresolved and very important point aside, for others who want to see lacrosse in the Olympics, they see sixes as their best shot. The smaller-sized, quicker game is broadcast friendly, a desire for the IOC. “In field lacrosse, when you have 12 guys on one side, six-on-six and a goalie, not every guy is typically on the picture,” Rabil said. “One of the things we get back from most fans, especially casual sports fans, is that it’s difficult to track the ball. It took me decades to listen to that since, as a player, I can track it. What we found out here is the 10 runners on the field are all on the picture, and it’s closer, so following the ball wasn’t a complaint.”
By many accounts, sixes is player friendly too.
“They’re short shifts, you’re offense, you’re defense and you’re out,” said former Maryland and Boys’ Latin attackman Colin Heacock, who won the tournament championship with the PLL’s Chrome Lacrosse Club. “You have a short time frame out there so you want to give it your all. It reminds you a lot of high school ball. You’re going out there and flying around and trying to be an athlete.”
Several coaches at the tournament said there’s not much they could do besides watch, outside of halftime and timeouts, which they saved for the end of regulation. That might not be what makes for the most strategic or nuanced game of lacrosse, but from what we saw, sixes is certainly fine enough to showcase and introduce the sport to audiences on the world stage.
“This might be a great foray for people to see lacrosse for the first time,” Rabil said. “What I’m going to spend a lot of time on now is making sure L.A. ‘28 and all the proper leaders from World Lacrosse to USA Lacrosse and Canada Lacrosse are taking this and using it as further material and presentation to make a more thoughtful bid into the games.”
A brief Top 5 stay
In the college game, a week after cracking the Top 5 of the national coaches’ rankings, the Loyola men (3-1) slipped two spots in the poll after losing at Rutgers, 10-6, on Saturday. The Greyhounds then beat Towson, 12-11, in overtime on Wednesday and open Patriot League play against Lafayette (2-3) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Ridley Athletic Complex.
Games to Watch (in College Park)
It’s a big weekend in College Park.
First up, the fourth-ranked Maryland men (3-1) welcome No. 2 Notre Dame (3-0) at 1 p.m. Saturday. Then the No. 5 Maryland women (3-2) host No. 9 Denver (4-0) at noon Sunday.
Maryland men’s coach John Tillman said on a conference call Thursday about facing the Irish, “This is going to be our toughest test so far, but that’s why we play them. They’re really, really good.”
Through three games, Notre Dame is averaging 18 goals, second nationally, and senior goalie Liam Entenmann is ninth in goals against average (8.07). Meanwhile, Maryland’s attack is full of new faces, and freshman Brian Ruppel (Catonsville) will get his second career start between the pipes for the Terps.
Ruppel made 14 saves in his first college game last week in a 11-5 win against then-No. 4 Princeton. That performance followed a start (and win against Syracuse) a week earlier by Binghamton grad student transfer Teddy Dolan, after returning starting goalie and senior Logan McNaney suffered a likely season-ending injury late in Maryland’s 12-7 loss at Loyola on Feb. 11.
In other words, the Terps had some goalie questions, but Tillman appears to have made his decision. “It will be hard to go away from Brian at this point,” Tillman said, noting the plan this season was to redshirt Ruppel, but that changed when McNaney got injured. “We feel comfortable with both [Ruppel or Dolan], but we’re pretty excited with what Brian did.”
For the Maryland women, the tilt with Denver marks their third game against a top-15 opponent in eight days, and an important marker for Cathy Reese’s bunch, too. The Terps, who graduated their leading scorer and top midfielder last spring, are going through some early-season development.
After losing big at top-5 opponent Syracuse, 20-11, two weeks ago, Maryland pulled out a last-second, 14-13 win at No. 7 Florida last weekend, but then lost on the road to No. 12 James Madison, 8-7, on Wednesday.
Corey McLaughlin is a veteran writer and editor who has covered sports in Baltimore for a decade, including for Baltimore magazine, USA Lacrosse Magazine and several other publications.