Lacrosse 101: Learn the game from Las Vegas’ newest pro sports team
Saturday, January 14, 2023 | 2 in the morning
Just 1 minute and 20 seconds pass before Connor Kirst has a breakaway opportunity.
Kirst takes the pass from forward Reid Reinholdt and he has a breakaway opportunity. He slides in, picks his spot and scores a goal.
There are empty seats at Michelob Ultra Arena on Jan. 6, but the cheers were loud and clear as the Las Vegas Desert Dogs took a 1-0 lead over the Philadelphia Wings.
No, it wasn’t hockey. Although it sounds like it, this was a performance by the Desert Dogs, the newest team in the National Lacrosse League and the city’s newest professional sports team.
If you’ve ever seen a lacrosse game, the initial thought is that it’s like hockey, but on the field. But when you analyze sports, a combination of many sports is involved. Two that come to mind are hockey and basketball.
“I’ve always played other sports, but something about the team aspect of lacrosse made me fall in love with it,” Kirst said.
The Desert Dogs are 0-3 to start their inaugural season, the latest result being a 14-9 loss to the Wings on that early January night. Next up is a home-and-home against the Vancouver Warriors, starting tonight at Rogers Arena (7 p.m., MyLVTV) in Vancouver before moving to Las Vegas at 7:30 p.m. on January 20.
The franchise estimates about 7,000 fans attended the Dec. 16 home opener against the Panther City Lacrosse Club. Despite the 9-3 loss, it was the Desert Dogs’ first chance to introduce lacrosse to a new legion of fans.
“We had a season ticket holder event over the summer with about 400 people. I would say 99% didn’t know anything about lacrosse,” said transition player Erik Turner. “They were just excited to have another professional sports team in Vegas.”
If you’re thinking of going to Mandalay Bay to see Desert Dogs and aren’t sure what’s going on, you’re in luck. Here’s your crash course:
What is Box Lacrosse?
You likely came across a lacrosse game while channel surfing through ESPN on a spring Saturday afternoon. More than any, it’s college lacrosse and it’s played on the field.
Box lacrosse is the indoor version of the sport on which the National Lacrosse League is based. Its field content is remarkably similar to a hockey rink. Imagine T-Mobile Arena, but with grass. This is the playing field on which the Desert Dogs play.
Lacrosse itself dates back to 1100 AD, first played by the Iroquois people.
“I’ve never played box lacrosse,” said Kirst, who was an expansion draft pick by the Georgia Swarm. “I played it a few times growing up just in the occasional tournament, but I only played on the court.”
Being in a small, compact area requires a fast-paced, fast-paced game, especially when you consider the rules.
Box Lacrosse Basics
The addition of the Desert Dogs puts the National Lacrosse League at 15 teams. Eight teams will qualify for the playoffs at the end of an 18-game season.
Each team has a roster of 21 players and 19 players dressed per game: 17 runners (forwards, defenders and pass players) and two goalkeepers. Like hockey, lacrosse features six players on the field: five runners and a goalie.
Each player carries a stick attached to a net, which is how they keep possession of the rubber ball.
There are four 15-minute quarters with a two-minute break in between, as well as a portion of the 15-minute half. Teams are allowed only one 45-second timeout per half.
Also like hockey, possession is determined by a faceoff at the start of each quarter and each goal. Two runners are positioned in the center of the court, while the other three from each team stand behind what would be the hockey equivalent of the blue line. After the ball is dropped, the runners converge on the middle of the field.
Similar to line changes in hockey, lacrosse has substitutions during the game to get a new set of runners on the field.
And while this all sounds very similar to hockey, Kirst and Turner agreed that the nuances of lacrosse are heavily influenced by basketball, both in rules and strategy.
There is a 30-second shot clock that starts once a team has possession of the ball. Like a shot clock violation in basketball, if the ball doesn’t touch the goalie or hit the posts, it’s a turnover.
An 8-second violation is also part of the game if a team does not cross midfield in the allotted time.
Strategy on the field
The on-court aspect of box lacrosse is a combination of the strategy of basketball and the physicality of hockey.
It’s like running plays in a half-court basketball offense. Players run through it to find the open man and try to score in a goal 4 feet high and 4 feet wide.
When operating in the offensive zone, box lacrosse is heavy. There are a lot of two-player games, except the difference is that there aren’t many pole passes for the easy score. The player in possession of the ball will mostly go around the screen and look for a better shot himself.
This is an easy adjustment for someone like Kirst, who played basketball a lot growing up.
“A big part of our game is the pick-and-roll, and that’s where you try to set yourself up on offense; that space where you’ve got the other three guys taking the other side,” Kirst said. “You’ve started that two-player game.”
Once possession approaches the tables, it becomes a free-for-all in the physics department. Players can check opponents on the boards, check them (there are legal and illegal versions of cross-checking) in order to gain possession.
And if it gets too intense, yes, there is a fight involved.
Scoring in box lacrosse is similar to field lacrosse, Turner said, because of the high number of scoring opportunities. Both teams could see more than 50 shots on goal and a game could feature anywhere from 20-25 goals. The Desert Dogs’ inaugural game against Panther City was a 13-11 final.
“The pace of the game is really high and there are a lot of scoring chances,” Turner said. “The guys are so skilled and have such a tight space that once they get into the offensive zone, there are good shooting opportunities.”
Punishment and power games
If you take a penalty in box lacrosse, you are sent to the penalty box. Like hockey, lacrosse features two-minute minor penalties and five-minute major fouls.
The team that draws the penalty goes on a power play with a chance to score on the man advantage. Some minor penalties include delay of game, holding, slashing and hitting.
The lacrosse version of a major penalty would have helped the Golden Knights in Game 7 of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs in San Jose. Instead of running the entire five minutes to score as many goals as possible, a maximum of two goals can be scored before the penalized team returns to full strength.
Some major penalties include the face mask, high climb, boarding and spearing.
Goalkeepers are very protective
If you think hockey goalies wear a lot of protective gear, double or triple that with lacrosse goalies.
Compared to field lacrosse goalies, who only wear a chest protector and hand-eye coordination to stop a shot, box lacrosse goalies play a more hockey-style goalie. They won’t use their stick as often to make a save, but will move side to side in the crease to make the stop.
Shot attempts can reach up to 100 miles per hour in some cases. Unlike field lacrosse, that extra padding removes any risk to the body.
The next time you’re wondering why the goalies seem to have added four Serta pads to their padding, you’ll understand.
Getting new eyes on the sport
Lacrosse is a new sport in the Las Vegas Valley and the Desert Dogs have already made a mark in getting into the community, especially with the youth.
The Desert Dogs recently donated goals and about 500 sticks to 10 donor schools in Las Vegas. Turner has also been involved in coaching several youth lacrosse teams and hosting children’s clinics.
Hockey is king in Canada, and Turner played a lot of it growing up in St. Louis. Albert, Alberta. More than 90% of the Desert Dogs roster is from Canada, and their experience getting into lacrosse was much the same: when the summer months rolled around, the hockey rinks would be replaced with indoor lacrosse fields.
Turner started lacrosse at age 11, and while he played both sports, the team aspects drew him to the sport full-time as he got older.
“Once I started playing and realized that lacrosse was this perfect combination of all the things I love to do in sports, including hockey,” Turner said, “I quickly turned my attention more exclusively to lacrosse at the highest level. “
Lacrosse can also be seen as a more economical alternative to hockey. According to playgroundequipment.com, lacrosse is the fifth most expensive sport on average annually for children ages 1-18 at $1,289, while hockey is double that.
Desert Dogs are the new kids on the block. They share the same building with the Aces, who just brought the city’s first major professional championship last year.
While this is a fun pressure to think about, it’s a step-by-step approach for Desert Dogs. They just want people to get excited.
“The more we can educate people about the sport and make them understand what’s going on,” Turner said, “the raw excitement of it will really help get them excited more and get them out into the games.”
Danny Webster can be reached at 702-259-8814 or [email protected]. Follow Danny on Twitter at twitter.com/DannyWebster21.