By Aaron Lommers Herald Writer
When it comes to certain sports — basketball and football, for example — I have always been able to hold my own. And when I say hold my own, I basically mean I don’t embarrass myself.
That’s not true for a multitude of other athletic pursuits, including baseball, soccer and golf, all of which I tried, and abandoned, in my youth.
So when the Washington Stealth’s vice president of communications, Mike McQuaid, approached me about the possibility of taking part in one of the National Lacrosse League team’s practices, my first reaction was fear. After all, I literally had never played the game.
But my second reaction was excitement.
I have been The Herald’s Stealth beat writer for nearly two years now and have grown to love the sport. The thought of being on the field with some of the best lacrosse players in the world sounded like fun.
So even though it went against my Cardinal Rule of not only sports, but of life — avoid embarrassment at all costs — I agreed to give it a shot.
Video of Aaron Lommers tries lacrosse: http://youtu.be/2J7us1JAFTE
Before going any further, the idea had to be OK’d by head coach Chris Hall, who, to my surprise, was actually quite open to the idea.
“Do you know how to throw or catch?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “I’ve never picked up a stick in my whole life.”
Hall burst into laughter.
Yep, embarrassment was inevitable.
Immediately Hall’s coaching instincts kicked in. He explained to me that he would make me a defensive player because it would be much easier to teach a person who didn’t know how to throw or catch — much less pick up the ball — to play defense rather than offense.
The coaching staff wanted me to experience things as much like a regular player as possible. I was told to get to Comcast Arena before practice on Jan. 19, about 21/2 hours early to get fitted for my gear and start learning how to handle a stick.
The Stealth’s operations/equipment manager, Brad Hock, helped me find gear my size. Everything fit perfectly except for the helmet. Apparently I have a larger than normal head. The helmet was, well. snug.
Hock asked me to take off my glasses to get the helmet on and informed me that I probably wouldn’t be able to get my glasses on under the helmet. I was going to have to prove Hock wrong on that one. I can’t see 10 feet in front of my face without my glasses, and I wasn’t going to go into a sport I didn’t know how to play blind — literally.
Then Hock gave me a crash course in how to handle a lacrosse stick. He showed me how to throw, catch and scoop up a loose ball. It looked simple enough. Then I made my first attempt. My first throw was a laser — straight down. The ball literally landed five feet in front of me.
Catching proved to be an even bigger problem. I attempted to play catch in the locker room with fellow Herald writer David Krueger for about an hour and a half, spending just as much time chasing the ball as I did actually throwing and catching.
Soon the real players began to make their way into the locker room and McQuaid informed them who I was and what I doing there. The smiles on all their faces convinced me I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Team captain Kyle Sorensen asked me if I had any questions. In hindsight I had about a million questions, but I knew Sorensen didn’t have the time to answer all of them. So I just thanked him for the offer and went back to trying to squeeze my head into my helmet.
Before I hit the floor, I got my left ankle taped. I didn’t necessarily need to get my ankle taped, but I thought, “Hey, might as well experience it all.”
After getting my shoe laced back up, practice was set to begin. The team met at the faceoff circle. Assistant coach Art Webster introduced me to the team as a new player to a rousing set of cheers — and some laughter.
We started practice with two laps around the outside of the floor at Comcast Arena. I remember thinking how much bigger the floor looked down here than it does from the press box. After the two laps, I was actually a bit winded.
Next came about 10 minutes of stretching. I jumped to the end of one of about six lines of players and tried to emulate what they were doing as best I could.
Then actual lacrosse practice began. We started with a 3-on-2 drill, with a trailing defender coming in late. After the defense stops the offense, the original two defenders and the trailer go back the other direction in another 3-on-2 attempt. I wasn’t too uncomfortable because I recognized the concept from basketball.
I ran through three rotations. In two of them, after coming in as the trailing defender then turning around and going the other way. I was just getting to the faceoff circle as the other two players were already down at the goal finishing the play. Safe to say I was irrelevant for most of that drill.
It was at that point that I realized just how fast these players are. This is not a sport for the common man such as myself.
I was wearing a white jersey, which signified me as a defensive player, but after finishing the 3-on-2 drill, one of the players wearing a black jersey asked me to trade because he needed a white. Hall obviously didn’t see the exchange take place.
The teams were splitting up into offensive and defensive drills. Because I now had a black jersey, I figured that meant I had to go with the offensive players. They started with a three-man weave. I watched from the outside for a few minutes. Krueger and Herald photographer Genna Martin encouraged me to get involved in the drill, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to catch and throw and would just hold up practice. It was at about that time that Hall noticed I had a black jersey on.
“Who gave you a black jersey?” he asked.
“One of the guys said he needed my white and asked me to trade.”
“Oh no, no, no,” Hall said. “I don’t want you down here. You can’t do this. I want you on defense in a white jersey.”
It’s never a good feeling to be told you can’t do something, but, in this case, I admit I was relieved.
Hall got me back in a white jersey and gave me a crash course on the team’s defensive philosophy. All of this was starting to feel like cramming the night before for a big test. In this case, I was cramming about five minutes before the big test.
Most of what Hall said went over my abnormally large head, though I was able to relate some of the concepts to basketball.
“So it’s kind of like help-side in basketball?” I asked.
“That’s it, it’s exactly like help-side, you got it,” Hall said.
I was certain I didn’t have it, but I appreciated his encouragement.
Again I was kind of lingering on the outside of the drill, just watching. Hall and Webster noticed my apprehension and Webster took charge.
“Lommers,” he said, “you’re up next.”
I didn’t have a choice anymore. You’ve got to listen to the coach.
So I played defense for a couple of possessions. Everything Hall had just explained I immediately forgot. The first possession ended without much action for me. The second was a different story. Near the end of the possession I found myself one-on-one with the player who had the ball and he was charging the goal. I panicked, so I raised my stick in an effort to check my man. I made contact with him and to my surprise I got another rousing set of cheers from my new teammates and even a few fist bumps.
They obviously didn’t know that it was just a defense reaction because I thought I was going to get run over. Still, it was my finest moment of my day
Later, Hall, Webster and defenseman Justin Salt critiqued my play. Krueger asked what I needed to work on?
“His catching,” Salt said. “He picked up his guys on D, though, so that was good.”
Hall also thought my defensive effort was the bright spot of my game.
“He wasn’t completely lost on defense,” Hall said. “He held his position down low and that was good. You want to do one thing and concentrate on it and do a great job of it. He did that well.”
A few minutes after my shining moment, I went back in. This time on the offensive side of things. It was a disaster. I only caught the ball cleanly once and every time I dropped it I had to pick the ball up with my hand, which is blatantly illegal in lacrosse and drew some chastising from the other players.
I did, however, get off one pass that was easily handled by my teammate. It was easily the second-finest moment of my day.
Next we split into teams and it was time to run actual shifts. This was it. It was as close to playing professional lacrosse as I was going to get.
So naturally I tried to hide.
Webster took charge again. He moved me to the front of the line and told me I was going in next. Then I looked down and saw my shoe was untied. Tying my shoe with all that gear on proved to be a huge challenge, so I missed my shift.
Webster made sure I was on the next one.
“I asked Artie, ‘Where is Lommers?’” Hall said after practice. “‘It’s his shift he’s got to come out. And he said, ‘OK’ and then I asked Artie again, ‘Well, where is he.’ And Artie said, ‘His shoelaces aren’t tied up.”
It was nice to see Webster and Hall enjoy a laugh at my expense.
Webster, who noticed that I was shying away from some of the drills, called me out after practice.
“I will tell you one thing,” Webster said. “He needs to straighten out. He can’t hide himself on the bench. When his shift is ready to come up, he has to be there and ready to go and not moving himself the other way down the bench. He needs to be moving in the right direction.”
I finally ran my shift, the memory of which is a blur, and with that my day came to an end.
I joked with Hall before practice that I had already said my goodbyes to friends and family in case things didn’t go well, but I came out of the practice largely unscathed. My only injury to speak of was a blister on my left hand from handling the lacrosse stick. I also had a little trouble getting out of bed the next couple of days.
And my only regret? I never got to take a shot.
After watching these guys for two years, I respected how great of athletes they are and that appreciation has only grown after a little over an hour of being on the floor with them.
But judging from Hall and Webster’s comments after practice, I don’t think I will be offered a contract any time soon.
“He was terrible,” Hall said with a great laugh.
Webster’s advice to me if I wanted to pursue a career in lacrosse: “Pick up maybe bowling.”
I think Webster’s right.
The players and the coaches were great sports about the whole thing. My favorite comment came from one of the players the next day after the Stealth’s 18-10 loss to the Rush when he approached me outside the Stealth’s locker room.
“We could have used you out there today,” he said.
The Stealth made my dream of being a professional athlete come true, albeit for one day, so for that I’m thankful.
But after one practice as a pro — well, half of a practice — I’m officially announcing my retirement.
Aaron Lommers covers the Washington Stealth for The Herald. Follow him on twitter @aaronlommers and contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.