May 23, 2011

Monday Morning Midfielder: ESPN's Playoff Coverage Legitimizes Lacrosse

by Matt DaSilva | LaxMagazine.com


ESPN unveiled the cable-suspended SkyCam for lacrosse broadcasts during the 2008 NCAA championships at Gillette Stadium. TV crews' increased familiarity with the gadget and the sport have given viewers the best vantage point of a six-on-six possession from above and behind the cage.

© Kevin P. Tucker

Watching these NCAA college lacrosse playoffs unfold on television has affirmed for me what advocates have long contended: TV legitimizes this sport.

Whether they were on the flat screen in my man cave or streamed to the laptop perched on my Baltimore rooftop deck -- M&T Bank Stadium just off in the horizon -- all eight Division I men's first-round games and all four quarterfinals found their way into my humble abode.

You can't help but get a March Madness feeling when ESPN -- be it on the U, the Deuce or the Flagship -- cuts to the studio between games for a continuous gorge on lacrosse. The Worldwide Leader really steps up its game this time of year.

Instead of the awkward and redundant pre-taped Warrior pro sessions, we get insightful analysis and vivid touch-screen graphics. They have helped build a narrative around this unpredictable NCAA tournament in which each of the top four seeds has fallen.

Instead of unsightly faraway feeds, we get high definition and the SkyCam, a cable-suspended camera system that gives us the best view of six-on-six possessions from above and behind the cage. (It took a while for lacrosse crews to learn when and where this gadget should be utilized. But they've got it down now, and it's terrific.)

Instead of Quint Kessenich ad nauseum, we get a variety of voices in the discourse. Kessenich remains the authority. Lacrosse Magazine labeled him the "voice of the game" in its April 2007 edition. But several additions to ESPN's stable of lacrosse talent for the big games have kept him honest.

Eamon McAnaney has become the top play-by-play man for lacrosse broadcasts. Former Tewaaraton Trophy winner and Virginia standout Matt Ward moonlights in the booth with an obvious understanding of the sport's mechanics.

Mark Dixon, a go-to guy in the Baltimore area for the ESPN-simulcast ABC2-WMAR TV games, joined the national team as a sideline reporter for the NCAA quarterfinals. As a former player and current official, he makes sense of the chaos inside team huddles and from the penalty box. Paul Carcaterra, the former Syracuse All-American midfielder, brought his professional touch from CBS College Sports. (For my money, I prefer Carcaterra in the booth and Kessenich in the studio.)

Even broadcast neophyte Stephen McElduff, the former stud defenseman for North Carolina, did a bang-up job providing color commentary from the Penn-Notre Dame first-round tilt, leaning a lot on his experience playing against the Irish just a few years ago.

If there's one criticism of these guys, it's that their sometimes-provincial references might get lost on the casual fan. I cringe when I see a midfielder slice through the heart of the defense to shoot and hear that it's a shot coming "from Montauk" (quarterfinals on Long Island) or "right down Charles Street" (Johns Hopkins games). Or when references are made to players' high schools. ("It's Loyola vs. Landon.") Or that a ball carrier killing the clock is "running for Baltimore," because it's "time to get on a bus and head down I-95."

Even the sport-specific clichés -- a dodger from behind needing to "take one more step to greatness" to get topside and score, for instance -- have worn out their welcome.

But on the whole, the ESPN talent provides proof in preparation. Kessenich does his homework, so we get to hear that St. Ignatius (Calif.) high school coach Chris Packard made the cross-country trip to see NorCal wonders Rob Emery of Virginia and Roy Lang of Cornell clash in an NCAA quarterfinal. Or that Virginia captain Bray Malphrus told his teammates that with respect to Yeardley Love, they must change the team's image and how players behave on and off campus. Or that Denver defensive coordinator Trevor Tierney, a psychology major who practices yoga, provides the yin to his dad's old-school yang.

McAnaney might have ruined that last reference with his awkward transition back to the game -- "Right now the downward dog is working for Coach Tierney and the Pioneers with 3:34 to play" made us all giggle -- but by and large these guys get it right.

Personally, I'm a little jaded about rejoining the print and web media throng this weekend at M&T Bank Stadium, trading insightful commentary for nerdy press box banter and the musings of wannabe lax bros who think they're cooler than you because they know someone who knows Paul Rabil's sister.

That's OK, though. With consistent TV coverage of the quality we have seen these last couple of weeks, it will soon weed out the riff-raff and help legitimize this great game in the public eye.


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