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The Daily Tar Heel

Offense Focus of Outdoor Lacrosse League

A 45-second shot clock is just one of the changes designed to create exciting, high-scoring contests.

The pay isn't great, either. It's more of a decent income supplement and a way to have fun in the summer than it is a career-builder.

The sport itself has been trying to force its way out of its traditional hotbeds of Baltimore and Long Island, N.Y., for years with moderate success.

But, armed with new rules, plenty of backing from sponsors and loads of expectations, Major League Lacrosse is set to make its debut this summer as the first outdoor professional lacrosse league.

The brainchild of Jake Steinfeld, Chairman of Body By Jake Enterprises, MLL will feature six teams in six cities: the Baltimore Bayhawks, the Boston Cannons, the Bridgeport (Conn.) Barrage, the (Somerset) New Jersey Pride, the Long Island Lizards and the Rochester (N.Y.) Rattlers.

Practices for the league open Saturday.

"Everyone's pretty fired up," said Boston goalie Bill Daye, who played for UNC from 1990 to '93. "Everyone's excited because we lacrosse players, we haven't had this opportunity before."

Each team will play 14 games, with action beginning June 7 and concluding with the Championship game on Aug. 13. Five games will be televised nationally on FOX Sports Net: the inaugural game between Baltimore and Long Island, a midseason All-Star game on July 7, both playoff semifinals and the title game.

This type of exposure is unprecedented for a lacrosse league in the United States and is making people optimistic of the sport's future.

"I hope it picks up because we need to try to do something to get it more popular," said UNC senior attackman Jeff Sonke, who will not play in the league this summer but is considering it for sometime in the future.

"So I hope it works out, and it's not another couple year thing. But they've got the funding, they've got all the big names, so I assume it's going to be able to stick around. I think it's good because it lets kids strive to achieve to make it."

Chris Hutchins, partial owner of the Baltimore Bayhawks, president of specialty lacrosse supplier Bacharach-Rasin and a 1979 North Carolina graduate, said the league salary cap is $350,000. The average player salary is $15,000, with the premiere players receiving about $22,000.

But the real talk of Major League Lacrosse are the rule changes -- changes that might ruffle the feathers of lacrosse purists and, some fear, threaten the rich tradition of the game. The rules all have the same objective: to speed up the game and make it more exciting for the fans.

A 45-second shot clock has been added. A two-point line will sit 15 yards from the goal. Only three long-sticks are allowed on the field per team at once, as opposed to the four in collegiate lacrosse.

The restraining box has been eliminated, and midfielders are immediately released on face-offs. Teams must get the ball past midfield after 10 seconds.

Chad Watson, who played lacrosse for the Tar Heels in 1986, '87 and '89 and is currently president of Great Atlantic Lacrosse Company, is on the seven-member League Advisory Committee, which had a hand in guiding the rules.

The changes are sure to draw a larger audience to the sport, he said.

"I think it's going to make it more exciting," Watson said. "So I think they're going to appeal to a wider audience that might otherwise change the channel. They don't want to have to change the game. They just want to make it more exciting."

But that doesn't mean that MLL will win everyone over.

After watching the top college players during the spring, the prospect for a fan of having to get in the car and drive to see a bunch of 20-somethings play the game might not be quite so appealing.

"I'm a big believer in the college game," UNC coach John Haus said. "I just think for a fan to be able to go out and watch the University of North Carolina play Maryland on a Saturday is much more enjoyable in my eyes than it is to go out and watch graduates play on a Saturday afternoon or a Saturday night."

Others surely share Haus' view.

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But, Hutchins said, especially in a place such as Baltimore, the hunger among fans for the game is so intense that MLL will only whet their appetites more.

"If you put out great lacrosse, if you show that there is a level better than the final four, then they'll come because they want to see that higher level and because they are educated lacrosse fans," Hutchins said.

But not all the areas are as lacrosse-crazed as Baltimore and Long Island. The teams in New Jersey, Bridgeport, Rochester and Boston are banking on burgeoning local interest in lacrosse to support their new venture. The future growth of the sport could depend on their success.

"MLL is great for the game of lacrosse," Daye said. "If kids can look forward to an outdoor professional league as they're coming up, that's outstanding."

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