Vail Lacrosse Shootout an Annual Summer Destination
41st edition begins Saturday; Elite play starts July 4
|The 41st Vail Lacrosse Shootout
begins Saturday and will include play in eight divisions over nine
days along a 13-mile stretch of Interstate-70 in the Rocky
Mountains west of Denver.
What started in 1973 as an excuse for a small group of local lacrosse players to "just keep playing," as Vail Lacrosse Shootout co-founder Jim Soran says, has grown into just that for many more.
The 41st Vail Lacrosse Shootout begins Saturday. Over nine days and on fields located along a 13-mile stretch of Interstate-70 in the Rocky Mountains west of Denver, play will go on in eight divisions, ranging from boys' chumash (grades four through eight), under-19 high school girls, to men's Grandmasters (age 50 and over).
The crown jewel of the event is the men's elite division, which annually attracts some of the top college and post-collegiate talent in the country. This year's 20-team field is expected to include LXM Pro Tour players Kyle Harrison and Sam Bradman, and current college stars Austin Kaut (Penn State), Goran Murray (Maryland), Kieran McArdle (St. John's), Ty Thompson (Albany), Wells Stanwick (Johns Hopkins), Ryan LaPlante (Denver) and more. All but Thompson and LaPlante are set to play for Lacrossewear, the early favorite for this year after winning the event in 2011 and finishing second last summer. Elite play, including the 12-team women's field, runs July 4-7.
Vail is now considered one of the most prestigious lacrosse events in the country, but it came from humble beginnings. Six years after Denver-area players originally gathered in Aspen — a group called the Aspen Stickmen was looking for some competition — for what's counted as the first Shootout, Soran and co-founder Flip Naumburg were among those to play for the first time in Vail over the Fourth of July weekend. The former Colorado College teammates drove in Naumburg's truck, with lacrosse goals strapped to the top as they traveled through Independence Pass — 12,095 feet above sea level on the continental divide. "That was a scary moment," Soran said.
The commute from Denver, the nearest population center, was about two hours shorter to Vail than Aspen, and the number of fields available in Vail outnumbered their then-home, helping spur the tournament's growth over the years. Now it's a summer destination for the lacrosse community. The event uses fields in Vail, Avon and Edwards, Colorado.
"We never really foresaw the tournament growing the way it did, or the sport growing the way it did," Soran said. "We just knew we liked to play and we were trying to get another game in."
That's why, after starting the original event, the tournament began adding new senior divisions like the Masters, which is for players 30 years old and older. "We figured you can't run with the 21-year-olds anymore," Soran said of that decision.
This year there are eight Masters teams. Supermasters, with 10 teams, is for players 40 and over and Grandmasters, with nine teams, is 50 and over. Next year those three divisions will not be played at Vail, but at the Federation of International Lacrosse (FIL) Men's World Championships in Denver, hosted by US Lacrosse July 10-19, 2014, at Dick's Sporting Goods Park.
"It didn't seem right to compete with one another on the Masters, the Supermasters and Grandmasters. We felt that the focus should be on the festival at the World Games," Soran said. "Our goal is to take a one-year sabbatical with those groups and get back even bigger and stronger afterwards. We'll try to focus more on the elite divisions next year, both men and women. We'd like to get to 20 teams or more with the women. It's an ideal opportunity to work that side of the tournament."
Some international men's teams have already reached out about possibly playing in Vail before the World Championships begin.
There is also play at the boys' chumash level (3-on-3 play for grades four through eight) and under-19 boys and girls. As part of the U19 boys' play, US Lacrosse will hold a Level 3 LAREDO (Lacrosse Referee Development) program designed to teach 3-man mechanics to officials. The LAREDO program, which has spread across the United States, traces its roots to the Vail tournament.
US Lacrosse's "Keeper of Lacrosse Project" also has a presence at the event, with one player from each division honored with the Keeper of Lacrosse Award at the end of the tournament.
The Vail tournament was ahead of its time in more ways than one. About 10 years ago, Soran said, the men's elite division established a 30-second shot clock. Major League Lacrosse started off in 2001 using a 45-second shot clock and has used a 60-second timer since 2005, but the NCAA only enacted a form of a shot clock this last season: a 30-second timer after a stall warning.
"There was some resistance," Soran said of enacting a shot clock at the time. "But by the end of the four days, some of the fears had fell by the wayside. The 30 seconds is just about plenty of time to get things set up. You still see on occasion a forced shot or something like that, but the overall impact on the game is very positive."
"It's a much more exciting game to watch. Lacrosse can be so dynamic. That's what draws players to it to begin with, and fans, too. If it's just a situation where they're taking the air out of the ball all the time, it gets hard to watch."
That's not the case in Vail.
"I try to keep my ear to the ground to hear who's playing well so I can go try to catch some of that action. Every year there is somebody that surprises you," Soran said. "It's always exciting to get up there. You get to see a lot of old friends, as far as the Masters, Grandmasters and the Supermasters. Then for me, it's just a personal treat to see the caliber of play in the elite division. It's a lot of work to get there, but once you do, it's well worth it."