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National All-Star Games put a different spin on lacrosse showcases
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National All-Star Games put a different spin on lacrosse showcases

Ryan McClernan has always been a pioneer in lacrosse, founding the first boys club team in Maryland in 2002-2003. Now he sees fit to pay tribute to the juniors before they go to university.

Friday night at 7 p.m. at William G. Tierney Field at USA Lacrosse headquarters in Sparks, McClernan will kick off the fourth annual National All-Star Games, pitting some of the nation’s top underclassmen against each other. The featured attraction is Friday’s National Senior All-American Game, featuring 46 of the nation’s top high school players.

McClernan’s Maryland Crabs teams are part of the club phenomenon that dominates the sport and has as much folklore as older club teams like the Long Island Express and Tri-State in Hightstown, New Jersey.

“So being in the game for so long, it’s an opportunity to give back,” said McClernan, 57, the group’s executive director. “It’s a way to recognize some of these guys. I’ve seen some of them play since they were in seventh grade. I think it is good to recognize club lacrosse players as they complete their high school careers. I’ve been in the club game for a long time and when you think about it, I’m lucky.”

Friday night’s All-American Game is packed with talent, including some local players such as Loyola Blakefield defender Pete Laake, Boys’ Latin forward Spencer Ford, McDonogh midfielder Ben Firlie and Severn faceoff specialist Reid Gills. There are players coming from all over the country, such as forward Austin Hicks (California), forward Kyle Colsey (Connecticut) and defenseman Ben Fox (New York).

Lacrosse is still strong in some regions, but the sport has spread nationwide. Fourteen states will be represented on Friday, as well as the District of Columbia.

“It’s a great honor to play in this game,” Ford said. “You get to play in two All-Star tournaments and this is an opportunity to play against the best in the country while representing your school and club team. These are not only very good players, but also great people.”

Friday’s All-American Game is packed with top players, and all the major college powers like Duke, Notre Dame, Virginia and Maryland will have representatives on the field.

Last season, the game was played at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, a 34,000-seat venue in Annapolis. But McClernan wanted a more intimate environment, so it was moved to USA Lacrosse headquarters. About 1,000 people are expected for Friday’s match.

Sparks, Md--5/13/2017--The bronze statue The Creator's Game by Jud Hartmann stands outside the USA Lacrosse Headquarters in Sparks.  Kim Hairston/Baltimore Sun Staff.
The bronze statue of Jud Hartmann’s Creator’s Game sits outside the USA Lacrosse headquarters in Sparks. (Kim Hairston/Staff)

The National All-Star Games are different from other events. Many of the tryouts were held at different times of the year. Florida has its tryouts in December, while California started in January and Maryland a month later. Nearly 2,000 players participated.

The teams are chosen through a draft by the captains and coached by college players. Last year, Terps midfielder Daniel Kelly and defender Ajax Zappitello coached a team. Some college coaches are involved in the general selection process, but that is supposed to remain secret.

The final 46 players are placed into two teams, the Nationals and the Americans.

“So we thought it would be fun instead of using some old high school coaches,” McClernan said of having active college players on the sidelines. “It’s just two teams and we split them up. We do something fun. We choose captains and those captains will draw up a tour. So we go online and we do a draft night and the captains select their starters.

“So the kids pick their starting ten and then we assign the remaining 20 kids to the two teams to try to keep the balance. So there is no North-South or East-West. It’s just the two captains of each team.”

Each team has a walk-through practice before the game, but there is no magic formula. It is the basis of a 2-2-2 attack, as opposed to a 2-3-1 with movement or playing zone versus man-to-man. It is difficult to become refined in a short time.

However, McClernan sees a need for more local players. Part of the problem is that private schools lure the best talent away from public schools. Also, local recreation groups have seen a decline in player involvement due to the growth of club lacrosse.

“I think this is an unintended consequence because I think the numbers are lower overall,” McClernan said. “If you look at the MIAA and their rosters, I mean they’re all bringing in kids from all over the state and out of state now to continue to be powerhouses. I think there will be more Maryland guys next year. So the class of 2025 in Maryland is going to be stronger than the class of 2024.”