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Examining all the ins and outs of women’s lacrosse heading into Northwestern’s first round matchup

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Get yourself ready to watch one of the nation’s best teams start their postseason this Sunday with this rules-heavy rundown.

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I had never watched women’s lacrosse until I watched Northwestern’s team beat Maryland in the Big Ten championship this year. I played lacrosse for two years in elementary and middle school because my parents encouraged me to try a bunch of sports and that was the one my friends were playing. I wasn’t particularly good at lacrosse, but I thought I would remember most of the rules and be able to follow along with the championship game.

I forgot, of course, that women’s lacrosse is a very different game than men’s lacrosse. I suppose the closest comparison is baseball and softball, but the differences between men’s and women’s lacrosse are larger in scope and size. However, despite barely understanding the rules, I still found the match super enjoyable to watch and am definitely planning on tuning in to the NCAA championships matches. Northwestern’s team is incredible this year and you’d be doing yourself an injustice not to watch them.

If you’re like me and are coming to the sport of women’s lacrosse with little to no knowledge about the game, have no fear. I’ve done the research, watched more games and am going to break down the basic rules of women’s lacrosse so you don’t end up watching in a confused fashion like I did. But first...

What is Lacrosse?

Lacrosse is a game that was played by Native American tribes across the eastern United States, from the Ojibwe in Canada and the northern midwest United State, to the Choctaw that originally lived on the gulf coast from Louisiana to Florida. Lacrosse has an amazing history that deserves way more time than I can give it, but very briefly, the French discovered the Native Americans playing this game and called it La Crosse — after the sticks the Native Americans used to play the game. It was played almost exclusively by the Native Americans until about the 1850s or 1860s, when the first lacrosse clubs were founded in Canada. The sport slowly spread into the United States, starting in upstate New York, and making its way across the continent from there. While women and men originally played under the same set of rules, they were split when the U.S. Women’s Lacrosse Association was founded in 1931.

The Goal of the Game

Women’s lacrosse is a non-contact sport played using a hard rubber ball and a stick. The players carry the ball in the stick as they move the ball downfield and attempt to shoot the ball into their opponent’s goal. The game is played in two 30-minute halves, and the team with the most goals at the end wins.

Players and Protection

Each team consists of 12 players. This is traditionally thought of as three attackers, five midfielders, three defenders and one goalkeeper. Each non-goalkeeper player is required to wear eye goggles and a mouthguard, and the goalkeeper wears a full helmet, gloves and body protection (side note: that hard rubber ball hurts). The goalkeeper is also entitled to a much bigger net on their stick. It’s not going to help much if the ball just hits your upper thigh, but it is good for saving goals.

The Field

If you’ve watched ice hockey before, this might sound familiar to you. Around each goal is a circle called the crease. The only player allowed to have possession of the ball within the crease is the goalie. In addition, there are two restraining lines for offsides penalties, similar to the blue lines on an ice hockey rink. Beyond that restraining line, the attacking team is only allowed seven players and the defending team is only allowed seven defenders plus the goalie.

Around each goal are the 8-meter arc and the 12-meter fan. You can think of these like a penalty box in soccer. They’re important whenever a foul happens, which will soon be discussed later in this piece.

In the middle of the field is the center circle, which is used for draws (also soon to be discussed), and off to the side is the substitution box.

Let’s play

Each half starts with a draw. One player from each team is on the center line, with the nets of their sticks back to back and the ball in between the nets. On the whistle, the players pull their sticks away and fling the ball into the air and above their head. In addition to the two players drawing, there are more players standing outside the center circle waiting to rush in and get possession of the ball for their team.

So now that one team has the ball, they can move the ball downfield by running with the ball in their stick and passing it to teammates. If they score a goal, great! The ball gets brought back to the center line and you do another draw. This is something that’s super unique to lacrosse — both teams have the same chance to get possession of the ball regardless of who just scored.

Fouls

One of the main differences between the women’s and men’s game is the contact difference. Men’s lacrosse is full contact, which is probably why sixth grade me (incredibly skinny with no muscle mass and could not box someone out to save his life) hated it. Women’s lacrosse, on the other hand, is non-contact. This becomes a problem when you realize that you’ve given players very little protection from the hard rubber ball that can incredibly high speeds and also the big metal sticks you’ve given them to hold the ball.

Like soccer, when a ref whistles for a foul, a team doesn’t have to stop play immediately. But if play does stop, the defending player gives the offense what’s called free position — they must be 4 meters away when play resumes, and the player with the ball can proceed as usual. The offensive player is also allowed to shoot out of this situation.

There are two levels of fouls — minor and major, with a minor foul obviously being less serious. A minor foul moves the defending player back to the circle in whatever direction they came from, but a major foul moves them 4 meters behind the player with the ball.

There are a few really important fouls. First — like men’s lacrosse, you can actually hit your opponent’s stick with your own to make them lose the ball. This is called a check, and it’s incredibly common in men’s lacrosse, but it needs to be done cleanly in women’s lacrosse (no body contact and away from the head) to not draw a foul.

Another important foul is shooting space. When you have the ball and you’re about to shoot, someone can’t jump up and body block you. A lot of the fouls in women’s lacrosse are attempts to prevent bodily harm.

When your team is on offense and within 15 meters of the goal (within 9 meters if you’re behind the goal), there are a lot more rules. This box is officially called the critical scoring area, but it’s not marked on the field.

First, because you’re close to shooting the ball, the opposing team has to allow you free space — unless you’re closely marking someone, you can’t be between the player with the ball and the goal circle. Not doing so is the shooting space foul I already mentioned.

Second, if a defensive foul is called within the critical scoring area, the attacking team gets free position and a penalty lane — you clear a path from the penalty spot to the goal.

If a foul happens within the 12-meter fan, a minor defensive foul will move the player to the fan and give them indirect free position, meaning they can do everything but shoot. A major foul in the 12-meter fan is treated just like any other major foul.

It’s the 8-meter arc where things get interesting. A major defensive foul within the arc earns the team a free shot. The player fouled backs up to the nearest hash mark on the arc, with the 4-meter circle in effect. It’s reminiscent of a penalty kick in soccer, only that it occurs far more often in lacrosse. Also, should the defense be fast enough, they can get in and stop the shot.

One final note about fouls — just like in soccer, there are penalty cards. A green card is a team foul that’s generally “logistics based,” if you will. Violations such as a delay of game or improper use of equipment get a green card. A player with a green card sits one minute in the penalty box, giving the opposing team a one-minute numbers advantage. A yellow card makes the player sit two minutes in the penalty box. Agains similar to soccer, a red card results in an ejection. Penalty cards are given at the referee’s discretion.

Conclusion

That’s the basics of women’s lacrosse! If you feel like that was a lot to take in, don’t worry! You’ll pick it up as you go along.

Before you go, here’s a reminder that the Northwestern women’s lacrosse team plays their first game in the NCAA tournament tomorrow at 12 PM CDT on ESPN3 against the Big East champion Denver Pioneers. It might be the start of a potential national title run for the No. 2 seeded Wildcats, so if you’ve never gotten much into the sport of lacrosse, tomorrow afternoon is a great time to get started.