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July 24, 2021 — A critical analysis of Athletes Unlimited lacrosse

BACKGROUND: In 2019, Jon Patricof, president of New York City FC of Major League Soccer, got together with Jonathan Soros, the son of billionaire George Soros to solve a problem: why is there such a disconnect between the pop culture icon status of female athletes and a lack of support for their professional leagues?

Patricof left NYCFC and partnered with Angela Ruggiero, the former U.S. women’s ice hockey player, to create a sports business model where players would be free to run their own teams, embrace causes dear to them, and use social media to create interest in women’s sports leagues. Ruggiero joined up with a galaxy of sports stars such as Kevin Durant, Abby Wambach, and Jessica Mendoza on an advisory board for a concept which would be named Athletes Unlimited.

Athletes Unlimited began with a softball league in mid-2020 (yep, right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic), and continued with a women’s volleyball league last winter.

CURRENT STATUS: This weekend, Athletes Unlimited is embarking on its inaugural weekend of women’s lacrosse. The player pool of 56 is spending five weeks at the South Germantown Soccerplex in Boyds, Md., which is right in the heart of lacrosse country.

The hallmark of Athletes Unlimited is the fact that teams choose up sides like on the playground. A player draft is held weekly on Facebook Live, run by the four players with the most points from the previous match weekend. Players are awarded points for winning games, goals, assists, saves, caused turnovers, draws, and ground-ball pickups. Deduction of points occurs with turnovers or missed shots.

COACHES: None. The players coach themselves, but each team has a consultant to help with things like communications with technical staff and trainers, as well as assistance with the weekly draft.

PLAYERS: A lot of starpower has bought into this league, including Boston College’s Kenzie Kent, Penn State’s Katie O’Donnell, Maryland’s Taylor Cummings, Stony Brook’s Taryn Ohlmiller, and North Carolina’s Marie McCool.

While there’s a good number of star players, there are some good players who are not in the league, such as Northwestern’s Selena Lasota and USC’s Gussie Johns. Charlotte North, the current Tewaaraton Trophy holder, is not in the league because she will be returning with Boston College next spring.

TIMING: Whereas the UWLX and WPLL had games lasting an hour or more on the clock, Athletes Unlimited games are just 32 minutes. The clock, however, does not run all the time, and there are TV timeouts in the middle of each quarter. The effective playing time is a little less than it was in previous professional leagues, but it is an incremental step towards the proposed Olympic rules.

Like the WPLL, Athletes Unlimited uses a 60-second possession clock. This should ostensibly give teams an incentive to employ a ride to keep the ball from getting into the attack zone with speed, but we haven’t yet seen a team use a ride to great effect as of yet. While the clock does run pretty much freely, the clock does stop whenever there is a foul in the critical scoring area, which doesn’t rob the attack of free positions late in the possession clock.

GAME PLAY: Athletes Unlimited uses 10 players a side, with only six on attack/defense at any one time. The restraining line is the midfield stripe, just like in men’s lacrosse. And like box lacrosse, players cannot retreat over the center line once the ball has been advanced into the front half of the field.

In the attack zone, the free position apparatus is an 8-meter wedge that looks like a grapefruit sectioned by slicing off the top and bottom ends, as was the case in the WPLL. The edge of the wedge also doubles as a two-point arc.

The goal circle in AU is where the men’s crease is, making the distance between the goals 80 yards, meaning that the league is taking advantage of U.S. Lacrosse’s “unified” standard when it comes to lining the competition surface.

The one new wrinkle that Athletes Unlimited has brought to women’s lacrosse is the video referee at the scorers’ table. Each team has two challenges per game, but the challenges need to be used judiciously, since a team using both cannot get a third, no matter what the results of the first two challenges.

STRATEGY: Athletes Unlimited boasts a tremendously quick style of lacrosse. But without players using a midfield ride, there isn’t the frenetic pace of play in the attack end that you saw in the first year of the WPLL, where teams would have to rush their offensive sets in the last 30 seconds of the possession clock. Without coaches, the style of play is much more free-form with players improvising quick goals (the first goal in AU history was a gorgeous behind-the-back goal by Hallie Majorana just eight seconds from the first draw).

OVERALL AESTHETICS: If you’ve seen the men’s Premier Lacrosse League, you’ll notice some of the same traits in Athletes Unlimited. The speed of play is astounding, and the umpires seem to swallow the whistle at key junctures of the game, letting the players settle the game amongst themselves. You do not see shooting space calls, three-second calls, or empty-crosse calls. It’s a cleaner game despite some of the hard collisions.

OUTLOOK: There are two future events which are going to have an enormous impact on this league. One is the expected debut of Charlotte North. The second is the 2028 Olympics, which will offer the 6-v-6 international version of the game. I’ll be interesting to see if Athletes Unlimited will go with the short-sided game and have, say, 10 or 12 teams playing each match weekend rather than the current model of four 14-player teams.

July 23, 2021 — The Final Lacrosse Top 50 for 2021

These Top 50 listings are never easy. Throw in a global pandemic which cut down the number of games as well as cutting out some competitions altogether, and the job got a far sight harder.

Fortunately, thanks to copious glasses of water and a slice or two of turtle cheesecake, we were able to come up with a Top 50 girls’ lacrosse list:

1. Northport (N.Y.) 18-0
2. Brooklandville St. Paul’s (Md.) 15-1
3. Delray American Heritage (Fla.) 16-1
4. Summit Oak Knoll (N.J.) 21-1
5. Bayport-Blue Point (N.Y.) 17-0
6. Radnor (Pa.) 21-2
7. Milton (Ga.) 21-0
8. Darien (Conn.) 18-3
9. Westwood (Mass.) 24-0
10. East Chapel Hill (N.C.) 13-0
11. Wilmette Loyola Academy (Ill.) 25-0
12. Owings Mills McDonogh (Md.) 13-3
13. Moorestown (N.J.) 18-3

14. Annapolis Broadneck (Md.) 13-0
15. Towson Notre Dame Prep (Md.) 13-2
16. Canandaigua (N.Y.) Academy 17-2
17. Manhasset (N.Y.) 13-3
18. San Diego Scripps Ranch (Calif.) 17-0
19. Louisville Kentucky Country Day School (Ky.) 25-0
20. New Canaan (Conn.) 20-1
21. Orlando Lake Highland Prep (Fla.) 20-1
22. Langley (Va.) 16-0
23. Dublin Coffman (Ohio) 18-5
24. Garden City (N.Y.) 14-2
25. Rosemont Agnes Irwin (Pa.) 15-4
26. Franklin (Mass.) 18-1
27. Denver Colorado Academy (Colo.) 11-0
28. Cicero-North Syracuse (N.Y.) 13-5
29. Lewes Cape Henlopen (Del.) 17-1

30. Marriottsville Marriott’s Ridge (Md.) 10-1
31. Fort Covington Salmon River (N.Y.) 16-0
32. Radnor Archbishop Carroll (Pa.) 20-4
33. Park City (Utah) 19-0
34. Washington Georgetown Visitation (D.C.) 4-2
35. West Babylon (N.Y.) 13-5
36. South Huntington St. Anthony’s (N.Y.) 12-0
37. Dover-Sherborne (Mass.) 19-1
38. Alexandria St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes (Va.) 10-3
39. Kennebunk (Maine) 16-0

40. Aurora Evergreen (Colo.) 11-2
41. Fairfield Ludlowe (Conn.) 17-4
42. Cincinnati Mariemont (Ohio) 19-3
43. St. Louis Mary Institute-Country Day School (Mo.) 16-0
44. Bethesda Stone Ridge (Md.) 8-2
45. Richmond Douglas S. Freeman (Va.) 12-1
46. Columbia Bishop England (S.C.) 18-0
47. Olney Good Counsel (Md.) 7-1
48. Nashua Bishop Guertin (N.H.) 18-0
49. Corona Del Mar (Calif.) 17-5
50. South Burlington (Vt.) 14-2

July 22, 2021 — Olympic preview: women’s field hockey

AL’S FEARLESS PODIUM

Netherlands
Germany
Argentina

The Netherlands, coming off a cycle in which they have dominated FIH Pro League play and won the 2018 World Cup, is, I think, a team which is confident and with plenty of swagger. They are a heavy favorite for gold, and they know it. Even without some all-time scorers in the lineup, the Oranje are a loaded squad. Fullback Caia van Maasakker is a deadly sniper on penalty corners, and forward Lidewij Welten is in her fourth Olympics.

But Holland’s last game in pool play, on August 1, is against Germany. I think Die Danas are a team which could send a real message to the Dutch in this situation. Germany will be led by former Maryland star Nike Lorenz, who captained the side in the most recent Eurohockey Nations League championship. Franzisca Hauke, whose brother Tobias won Olympic gold in Beijing and London, is a player to watch.

A star-crossed team, at least when it comes to the Olympics, is Argentina. The Albicelestes, despite winning World Cups, the FIH World League, and multiple Champions Trophies down the years, have never won an Olympic gold medal. The Leonas are going to be looking to all-time leading scorer Noel Barrionuevo, veteran goalkeeper Belen Succi, and forwards Delfina Marino, Victoria Granato, and Maria Jose Granato in order to gain success. As is the case in many years, Argentina usually looks to a single talismanic attacker in order to haul the load, but can the Leonas run a three-pronged attack?

The wild card in this tournament is Australia. The Hockeyroos have been a team in both transition and turmoil the last five years. Australia failed to medal at Rio 2016 and at the FIH Women’s World Cup of 2018, and a number of players such as Georgie Morgan and Rachael Lynch were left off the roster, even as a number of administrative personnel and coaches have been replaced in a widening bullying scandal. Lynch won her appeal to be reinstated to the national team, and she will lead a very young defense. Attacker Emily Chalker will have to have the tournament of her life in order to bring Oz to the medal stand.

I also think host Japan could represent a threat to the podium. The Cherry Blossoms are a quick and skilled side which also has won the most recent Asian Cup. Interestingly, their recent run of form started under head coach Anthony Farry, who jumped ship before the Olympics to coach the United States. The Sakura, however, could not manage a single corner in a recent friendly against Holland, which means that they need to make a quick jump up in class to compete here.

July 21, 2021 — Olympic preview: men’s field hockey

AL’S FEARLESS PODIUM

Netherlands
Australia
Argentina

The 2021 Olympics may have jumbled world rankings on the lead-in to Tokyo, but a Netherlands team which finished out of the medals in Rio are focused and motivated to win. And think of this: the Oranje will have to open the Olympics against the very team that beat them in the finals of the 2018 FIH men’s World Cup, Belgium. I think that the Dutch will have the goods this time. Veteran forward Jason Hertzberger will have to be at his best, and I think Billy Bakker will tie together the offense and defense nicely.

Vying for top honors will be Australia. The Kookaburras will be led by all-rounder Eddie Ockenden, who has played all positions in his career. Much will be asked of attacker Jake Whetton and goalkeeper Andrew Charter.

Defending Olympic champion Argentina has two members of the 300-cap club, captain Pedro Ibarra and full back Juan Martin Lopez. The Lions, however, are going to have a lot of young players in key positions. Midfielder Thomas Habif, whose older sisters Florencia and Agustina have represented Argentina in world-level competition, has just seven caps coming into the Games.

You can’t have a discussion about the medals table without Belgium, your defending World Cup champions as well as the top team in the current FIH Pro League. Midfielder John-John Dohmen has more than 400 caps for the Red Devils, and forward Tom Boon has more than 300. Boon is going to be the barometer for the team.

The dark-horse team in this tournament, I think, is Germany. However, veteran defenders Tobias Hauke and Martin Haner are going to have to do yeoman’s work in front of goalkeeper Alex Stadler, who has just 10 caps to his name coming into Tokyo. If the Germans can find the goals, watch out.

July 20, 2021 — Final lacrosse Statwatch for 2021

With the latest lacrosse season seen in at least a quarter-century having finished, we can finally bring you our annual soup of lacrosse statistics, numbers which connect the past to the present.

Below are stats which have been culled from a number of places, including MaxPreps.com, NJ Advance Media, The Harrisburg Patriot-News, The Providence Journal, The Albany Times-Union, Long Island Newsday, The Worcester Telegram, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, MassLive.com, the Denver Post, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Philly Lacrosse, MSG Varsity, the Ann-Arbor News, and The Washington Post.

I encourage you to keep convincing your teams, your schools, leagues, or state governing bodies to adopt the easy-to-use MaxPreps.com platform, and we encourage you to get your fellow teams to enter their information there as well as whichever is your local news site, so that we can aim for as complete a statistical picture of the country as possible.

INDIVIDUAL GOALS, SEASON
191 Francesca Frieri, Lockport (Ill.)
145 Cassidy Jones, Memphis White Station (Tenn.)
143 Jamieson Meyer, Sandy Waterford (Utah)
137 Alexis Ashton, Blairstown North Warren (N.J.)
133 Alexis Lauricella, Holmdel St. John Vianney (N.J.)
128 Isabella Caporuscio, Mountain Top Crestwood (Pa.)
127 Karly Keating, Lisle Benet Academy (Ill.)
125 Izzy Szejk, Mechanicsburg (Pa.)
121 Ryann Frechette, St. John’s Bartram Trail (Fla.)

INDIVIDUAL ASSISTS, SEASON
93 Elizabeth Tausig, Charleston Bishop England (S.C.)
84 Emily Phillips, Wake Forest (N.C.)
77 Sadie Salazar, Chapin (S.C.)
77 Caroline Mullahy, Raleigh Cardinal Gibbons (N.C.)
77 Bella Mims, Clermont East Ridge (Fla.)
75 Shoshona Henderson, Princeton (N.J.)
73 Ella Linthicum, York (Pa.) Catholic
73 Bridget Longsinger, Verona (N.J.)
71 Taylor McClain, Fort Lauderdale Pine Crest (Fla.)
71 Sydney Sventy, Mount Holly Rancocas Valley (N.J.)

CONSECUTIVE WINS
58 Denver Colorado Academy (Colo.)

COACHING WINS
812 Kathy Jenkins, Alexandria St. Stephen’s/St. Agnes (Va.)

Thanks for reading our lacrosse stats for the season just past, and we’ll see you in the spring.

June 19, 2021 — The puzzling marketing strategy of Athletes Unlimited

If you’ve jumped onto the ticketing portion of the Athletes Unlimited website over the last few weeks, you’ll notice something odd. It’s impossible to buy tickets not only for Friday’s opening doubleheader, but for 20 of the 30 games that are being held over the next five weekends.

Today, I’ve noticed that, on the 20 games which aren’t being ticketed through the AU website have two words written in red on the logos for the games: “LIMITED ACCESS.”

The home of Athletes Unlimited lacrosse is to be Maureen Hendricks Field, which seats some 5,000 people and has been known to fill up for events such as U.S. Open Cup games involving D.C. United and Washington Spirit home matches.

While one can surmise that the fact that the 20 games with limited access are already sold out (which would be absolutely marvelous), it does call into question whether the limited access is for health and safety. The nation and the world are experiencing an uptick in COVID-19 thanks to the Delta Variant, and large crowds, including those with unvaccinated youth lacrosse players, could lead to an enormous spike amongst unvaccinated people.

Thing is, a couple of the bigger youth lacrosse tournaments on the summer schedule, the World Series of Lacrosse and the IWLCA Champions Cup, have already taken place, and other events are taking place all over the Eastern seaboard, but a good distance away from the Maryland Soccerplex.

Where, I wonder, is Athletes Unlimited going to get the people to fill the seats?

July 18, 2021 — Is the NCAA about to implode?

I wrote this blog entry eight years ago.

The day may be coming for a top-to-bottom reformation of college athletics. And it may be coming quicker than you think.

Last week, Mark Emmert made some remarks in front of a small group of reporters that are going to be poked at like statements from either the Supreme Court or the Federal Reserve Board. And with good reason: the NCAA should be flush with as much optimism as it is with cash.

However, the name, likeness, and image (NLI) rules which are now the supreme law of the land have promoted Emmert to re-evaluate the landscape of college athletics.

“I think this is a really, really propitious moment to sit back and look at a lot of the core assumptions and say, ‘You know, if we were going to build college sports again, and in 2020 instead of 1920, what would that look like?’” Emmert said. “What would we change? What would we expect or want to be different in the way we manage it. And this is good. This is the right time.”

One of the major changes would be allowing existing national governing bodies of sport, such as USA Field Hockey, to administer national competitions like they did in the 1970s.

“We need to reconsider delegation of a lot of the things that are now done at the national level,” Emmert said. “When you have an environment like that, it just forces us to think more about what constraints should be put in place ever on college athletes. And it should be the bare minimum.”

A deregulation of college sports would see the abolition of an NCAA rule book which has been seen as cumbersome, anti-competitive, and sometimes contradictory in terms of the rules inscribed therein.

Emmert mentioned a number of single-gender sports which are likely to have to decouple from the rest of college athletics at large.

“We need to be ready to say, ‘Yeah, you know, for field hockey, field hockey is different than football. Wrestling is different than lacrosse,’ and not get so hung up on having everything be the same,” he said.

This site has been tracking these things since the O’Bannon decision came down, and now that revenue streams outside of sneaker companies, ladder companies, and television networks are being identified, I find it interesting that the NCAA is ready to spin off just about every sport that loses money and are looking to maximize profit.

We’ll see what happens when or if the football golden goose is killed by way of head injuries and parents pulling their children from the sport.

July 17, 2021 — More than your typical “opt out”

Yesterday, in what could be a seismic shift in women’s basketball universe, Liz Cambage, the leading scorer in the Rio Olympics and a key player for the No. 2-ranked Australian women, decided to opt out of the Tokyo Olympics.

Cambage cited both physical and mental health as reasons for her to miss the Olympics. But given her behavior in the last few days, you wonder if this is an athlete who is close to an inglorious exit from her sport.

It was reported that Cambage got into a physical and verbal altercation during a closed-door scrimmage a few days ago against Nigeria, the country of her birth father.

Too, she was reported to have left the confines of the Australian national team’s health and safety protocols and was enjoying the sights of Las Vegas, where the Opals have been training. It is an allegation Cambage denied this morning on Instagram

I think there’s more to this. She has had a lot of pressure put on her ever since she was identified as a U-20 player on the world scene. She once had an issue playing for the Tulsa Shock of the WNBA, leaving the American professional circuit for five years before coming back to play for Dallas and Las Vegas in recent years. She has also complained about the lack of aboriginal and minority representation on Australian Olympic advertising, and has even pushed for the aboriginal national flag to be displayed on the Opals’ uniforms.

The off-court distractions, I think, have made an impact. And not necessarily a positive one.

It’s a shame because this is a good Opals team, one which beat a stacked U.S. team yesterday in a pre-tournament friendly in Las Vegas. Imagine what the Aussies could do with her at center.

July 16, 2021 — Game of the Year for lacrosse, 2021

The pandemic girls’ lacrosse season has changed the available pool of matches to consider for the best one of the season just past.

There were almost no interstate games this past spring. There were also very few interconference matches of note. And even in the postseason, you didn’t see quality competition in many states. Indeed, the semifinal and final rounds in Colorado had five of six games going to the running clock.

Indeed, it took all the way until the penultimate day of the domestic season until we saw the one game which had storylines, top players, and a thrilling finish

1. Westwood (Mass.) 6, Franklin (Mass.) 5
July 1, 2021
MIAA Division 1 final
So, let’s set the scene. Westwood is a team of great championship lineage, having won eight state championships. The Wolverine program has sent a number of players to Division I, such as Tewaaraton Award-winner Kristen Kjellman, Alex Frank, and Ela Hazar. The Wolverines, however, have not had a state championship since Margot Spatola took over for the legendary Leslie Frank five years ago.

About 15 miles away, Franklin (Mass.) has been on the front foot because of head coach Kristin Igoe, who has played with distinction for Boston College, the United States, and in pro lacrosse with the Boston Storm and the New England Command. Franklin was looking for its first state championship in 2021.

As it turns out, Spatola and Igoe were teammates at Boston College. Both Franklin and Westwood are located in Norfolk County, Massachusetts, just southwest of Boston. They were, however, seeded in different divisions for the state championship. The MIAA put Franklin in MIAA Division 1 East, and Westwood in MIAA Division I South. The tournament, because of the pandemic, took place in the last half of June and was to finish off the first weekend of July, the latest state championship final in girls’ lacrosse in at least 25 years.

Westwood, as is its wont, stamped its authority on the contest in the first 23 minutes, racing out to a 4-0 lead. But under volatile skies in the early summer, Franklin started a comeback, which culminated in Jamie Tanner’s game-tying goal with eight and a half minutes to go.

In a game played without a possession clock, draw controls and ball security were imperative. As if on cue, the heavens opened, pouring water on the Franklin home turf, the players, and spectators.

The teams played on. Westwood had the first good chance with a pass into the fan, but the ball was saved, and the rebound was shot wide. On the ground-ball pickup, Franklin drew a two-minute yellow card with 5:44 remaining.

Westwood had a chance on the man-up situation about halfway through the penalty, but the shot found the goalie stick of Brigid Earley. Franklin, off a timeout, gave up the ball deep in its third, which allowed Westwood to work the attack once more. Earley made a stop, whereupon Franklin saw out the penalty.

Franklin then had a chance to run out the clock to allow Westwood little to no opportunity to respond to a late goal. However, the Panthers went to goal within 30 seconds of getting the ball. Westwood then held the ball, allowing time to tick off the clock. The Wolverines’ Ava Connaughton, a sophomore, made an ill-advised pass into double-coverage, leading to a ground-ball pickup for Franklin. However, Franklin, in circling behind the goal cage, lost the ball. Connaughton, who was still following the play, caught the ball and saw that the Franklin goalie had left her crease to help with the clear.

Seizing her moment, Connaughton rounded the cage, sprawled to the ground, and shoveled a backhander past a closing Earley. There were 12 seconds on the clock, and the Wolverines had a 6-5 lead, which they were able to maintain after winning the final center draw.

This championship match, featuring a pair of neighborhood rivals and two coaches very familiar with each other, had everything you wanted in a game. It is therefore the TopOfTheCircle.com Game of the Year for 2021.

July 15, 2021 — Has the Ivy League become an igloo in the middle of a heat wave?

The Ivy League will be making a sporting comeback, albeit a cautious one, after an entire academic year away from the athletic field, courts, and pools of America.

Being an Ivy League coach is tough enough, with restrictions on recruiting budgets, lengths of season, and the postseason which are not found in any other college conferences across America. But the pandemic has thrown obstacles, dilemmas, and Kafka-esque situations at the Ancient Eight that are unprecented.

One major result has been that a number of Ivy League student-athletes have withdrawn from school — sometimes for a year, but on other occasions, making a transfer to another school. This is because the Ivy League has not allowed current student-athletes a fifth year of eligibility, which has led to students seeking other options.

Today came news of two recent transfers from Penn’s field hockey team to that of Duke — goalkeeper Grace Brightbill and outfielder Marykate Neff. They join a number of other former Ivy League athletes to move to other sides, which include Maryland’s Juliana Tornetta and Northwestern’s Maddie Bacskai.

These are game-changing players, and could very well shift the balance of power in field hockey the same way that Charlotte North did when she transferred from Duke to Boston College, where she won a national championship and a Tewaaraton Trophy.

But think of this from a coach’s perspective. You’re trying to fill out your roster, a fourth of which (theoretically) graduates every year, but your own conference rules do not allow any leeway for an event which is out of your control.

Perhaps the regulations regarding graduate-student play in the Ivy League were a mistake.