College club lacrosse is no Club Med

April 26, 2010

This article is originally from AJC.

By Ray Glier

Kennesaw State’s Mark Tortorello held out his left arm, then his left leg, as proof club lacrosse is not a simply a recreational sport, but serious business.

His skin was tattooed with bruises and scrapes from opponents’ sticks that had hammered his body. There was a particularly nasty red mark under the pad that was supposed to protect his elbow.

He paid $600 for the expressed pleasure of being whacked with a stick -- the rules call it "checking" -- or tripped to the turf and then stepped on. They don’t wheel out the keg of beer on the sidelines like the old days of club lacrosse, lesser the chance to dull the pain.

“You get hit with a stick and it hurts just as much as varsity lacrosse,” said Tortorello, a sophomore midfielder from Etowah. “It’s a ‘play-on' type deal. There’s no sympathy. You stay out there.”

Indeed, the culture of college club lacrosse matches up pretty well with the culture of the varsity scholarship lacrosse played by the Division I behemoths at Syracuse, Johns Hopkins, Princeton and Virginia. The collisions and sacrifice -- Kennesaw State practices five days a week -- are the same as the scholarship schools.

“The only thing different,” said Scott Schulze, a junior attackman for Kennesaw State, “is the money.”

The Division I schools grant scholarships while the club schools give a pat on the back with one hand and extend the other hand for the student's check for the honor of playing. The students who play club lacrosse pay anywhere from $600 to $1,000 per season and then have to do fund-raising events to help with costs, such as travel and equipment.

Coaches work for free. Ken Byers, the Kennesaw State coach, is a battalion chief for the Atlanta Fire Department. Ken Lovic, the Georgia Tech coach who is retiring after 15 seasons, is the Sport Clubs director at Georgia Tech.

“A lot of times when that brand ‘club lacrosse’ gets put out there, people don’t consider it as serious and competitive as an NCAA program,” Byers said. “Believe me, we have kids out here who break bones. We practice five days a week and we’re disciplined.

“I have a million-dollar Astro Turf field lined for men’s and women’s lacrosse. You can’t say we’re not serious.”

Adds Tortorello, who is one of Byer’s star players, “We practice a lot harder than the varsity baseball team.”

The Owls (15-4) made it to the Division II championship game of the South Eastern Lacrosse Conference (SELC) on Sunday, where they lost to Elon, 12-10, at Northview High School. KSU will find out next Sunday if it gets an at-large berth to the national tournament in Denver, which starts May 11.

Georgia Tech made it the semifinals of the Division I SELC Tournament on Saturday before it was eliminated by Virginia Tech.

There are 262 men's lacrosse teams sanctioned by the NCAA. The Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association (MCLA) sanctions 213 club teams.

Lovic, the Georgia Tech coach, said his program has a budget of a little more than $60,000. The program gets $15,000 from the school (via student fees), but the rest has to be dug out of pockets. The players contribute $800 each and the rest is raised through the sold-out Tech lacrosse camp and a fall tournament.

“Fifteen years ago when I first started, there was the keg on the sideline and we wanted to change that image,” Lovic said. “I think we have made the school proud of us and our players are proud as heck that they get to wear the school colors.”

There is an ever-expanding pipeline for the state's club teams, which include Georgia, Georgia State, Georgia Southern, Reinhardt, Emory and Savannah College of Art and Design, among others. According to the GHSA, there are 59 boys high school teams and 60 girls teams competing this school year and 67 boys teams and 65 girls teams planned for 2010-11.

The club lacrosse teams travel -- Tech, for instance, played five out-of-state games -- but it is not the first-class bonanza afforded varsity sports. Asked how Kennesaw State paid for its plane trip for a three-game swing through Texas in March, Tortorello just scoffed.

“Plane?” Tortorello asked. “We went to Texas by bus. We got to know each other real well on that trip. It was long.”

Kennesaw State players not only pay their own way, they worked during the season for gas money for the bus for road trips. They were ushers at basketball games, which paid $8 an hour, and they refereed a dodge ball tournament on campus.

“If we get an at-large bid to the national tournament in Colorado, I’m not sure how we’ll pay for it,” Tortorello said. “Yeah, maybe we’ll be standing at the traffic lights holding a bucket for people to throw money into.”