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Girls' lacrosse has a concussion quandary

By DAVID LA VAQUE, Star Tribune, 04/20/15, 9:16PM CDT


Mandatory headgear would change the game too much, state coaches say

Anna Guettler (6) of Hopkins was defended by Hannah Brink of Eden Prairie (16) in the first half. ] CARLOS GONZALEZ cgonzalez@startribune.com, April 16, 2015, Eden Prairie, MN, Girls lacrosse game. Hopkins at Eden Prairie High School, Prep

Delighted by the rapid growth in high school girls’ lacrosse, national officials and local coaches are much less psyched about altering their game amid questions about its safety.

Florida recently became the first state to mandate that high school girls’ lacrosse players don soft protective headgear, a response to concussion and traumatic injury concerns in a sport in which players carry sticks and launch hard balls.

Girls’ lacrosse has the fifth-highest rate of concussions among all high school sports, national figures show. Football leads the way, followed by boys’ hockey, boys’ lacrosse and girls’ soccer.

Coaches in Minnesota, while acknowledging issues with rough and dangerous play, are wary of becoming a headgear state. That view is shared nationally by US Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body.

Ann Kitt Carpenetti, the national group’s vice president of lacrosse operations, said additional protective gear will have an opposite effect, where the need for less care equals more contact and the sport loses its essential elements of skill and speed. Hard helmets, shoulder pads, elbow pads and gloves are required for playing the more physical boys’ game. Female players wear only eye protection. Goalies in both sports always have worn helmets.

“I’m not saying there’s no way any additional protection can increase safety,” Kitt Carpenetti said. “But I still don’t feel that’s the silver bullet.”

Stillwater coach Rick Reidt said he believes that rather than adding equipment, coaches “need to take responsibility and teach correct technique and the officials need to officiate to the rule book” to ensure a safer game.

Nationally, lacrosse ranks as the fastest-growing sport at the high-school level, with 290,046 players competing in 2013. From 2008 to 2013, 621 schools added boys’ teams and 588 added girls’ teams, according to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations. Minnesota recently expanded its state tournament to eight teams in recognition of similar growth.

The increase in the number of players has brought more concussions.

“We’ve had probably on average in the past eight years one concussion per year,” Reidt said.

In 13 years as a lacrosse player or coach, Apple Valley coach Alexandra Ross has seen three concussions, one caused by a ball and one by a stick.

Eden Prairie’s Judy Baxter, one of the state’s longest-tenured and most successful coaches, said she can think of “very few, if any” concussions among her players.

“I see more from summer soccer,” said Baxter, a member of a US Lacrosse safety education subcommittee.

R.J. New, in his eighth year coaching girls’ lacrosse at Holy Family, said he has experienced “multiple season-ending injuries, including concussions, from other sports, but have had no concussions” caused by lacrosse participation.

Chanhassen coach Rachel Aiken, president of the state’s coaches association, said two of her players suffered concussions in her eight seasons. One was a goalie who took a ball to the helmet. The other was a collision.

Aiken said a recent coaches association board meeting addressed “how we can promote safety and not get to the point where Florida is. None of us want helmets.”

If coaches and officials use their heads, purists maintain, players won’t require extra protection for theirs.

“There’s not a sport being played where you can’t get a concussion,” Aiken said. “We have to focus on what we can control.”

A recent coaching clinic attracted 65 coaches and officials, Aiken said. And an August clinic will feature college coaches offering ideas and perspectives for what Aiken said is “an abundance of newer high school coaches, some of whom never played.”

New players, many of whom join lacrosse after playing more physical sports such as basketball, hockey and soccer, often need additional guidance when it comes to the lacrosse rule book. For example, Baxter said, lacrosse players only defend on the ball or outside the shooting arc — often against the nature of what hockey and soccer players are taught about blocking shots.

“I told my parents at a meeting last Monday: Safety comes first,” Baxter said. “But headgear is not in the interest of safety of the players or integrity of the game.”

Current US Lacrosse rules allow for soft headgear if needed or desired. The sport’s governing body is developing an equipment standard for headgear, Kitt Carpenetti said, but wants the use to remain optional.

Olivia Nolan, leading goal scorer for Blake and a member of the Minnesota State High School League all-tournament team last season, said isolated incidents on the field shouldn’t warrant a safety mandate.

“You definitely get hit with the ball or a stick sometimes and it can hurt, but it doesn’t happen that much,” Nolan said. “I don’t think we need all of the padding that the boys have. We don’t check and hit like the boys do. And I don’t think I’d feel comfortable wearing all of those pads. It would take away from my game. It seems pretty restricting.”

Said Nolan’s coach, Linda Hokr: “If the game is officiated and coached correctly, it’s a safe game. I don’t think we need to put helmets on these kids.”


Staff writer Jim Paulsen contributed to this report.

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