FARMINGTON, Conn. — The Middlesex Bears had waited for months to compete in the New England Cup, an elite recruiting showcase for high school girls’ lacrosse players. Already, the coronavirus pandemic had forced a postponement to late July from June and a change of venue. Then a legal battle between the women’s collegiate lacrosse coaching association and the cup’s organizers had threatened to cancel the showcase at the last minute.
But here were the Bears, outside the Farmington Sports Arena, streaking down the field, sticks high. The masks they wore between games were wrapped around their biceps, hanging on their necks or stuffed into their pockets. For many of the girls, this was the first game they had played since the fall.
“When they canceled our town league in the spring, I was so depressed,” Grace Reilly, 16, said.
As it has with almost every sport, the pandemic has wreaked havoc on lacrosse. Major League Lacrosse condensed its season into an eight-day tournament in Annapolis, Md., in late July, only to lose two semifinal teams when they withdrew after players tested positive. The Boston Cannons won the championship, but were short five players who had prematurely left the so-called bubble meant to reduce risks to participants, according to The Capital Gazette.
But the most visible impact of the coronavirus has been on girls’ lacrosse during what is usually a fevered recruiting period. Players have tested positive. A number of showcases and tournaments have been canceled, postponed or reduced in size. And a national coaches association that runs several major recruiting showcases filed a lawsuit against the company that organizes them, arguing it was still unsafe to play.
At the same time, the politics of the sport have come to resemble the tense and divided national response to the pandemic itself, said Danielle Gallagher, a member of the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and the founder and director of a prominent travel team, Long Island Liberty Lacrosse.
“Some wear masks, some don’t; some think it’s a farce, some don’t,” Gallagher said, speaking in general of those who participate, organize and follow the sport.
While pro leagues like the N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. are attempting to complete their seasons in a restricted environment, and universities and high schools are deciding whether it is safe to play at all, club teams and travel teams in sports like lacrosse, soccer, baseball and softball have operated during this chaotic summer in a gray area with little formal regulation.
In interviews, some girls’ lacrosse parents said they felt pressure for their daughters to attend showcases in order to remain visible, either in person or on video, to college recruiters. Some coaches and parents complained that they had received confusing, or conflicting, information from government officials about rules regarding permissible travel and play. But some club and travel teams also seem to have openly flouted restrictions, and at tournaments, parents and coaches reported, there has been uneven adherence to safety precautions and recommended social distancing.
Alyssa Murray, a former all-American at Syracuse who is a director of the Iron Horse club in Austin, Texas, recently wrote an anguished essay on Inside Lacrosse in which she said that “so many youth tournaments are pressing forward holding their events of several hundred people without much thought of the potential risks and pressure that it will put on players to attend.”
Twenty of the 100 summer events for girls and boys sanctioned by U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, were canceled. U.S. Lacrosse also withdrew its endorsement of tournaments in Florida, Texas, California and other states where coronavirus cases were increasing, and issued recommendations about return-to-play protocols. In them, officials called for masks, social distancing and adherence to local rules, even as they acknowledged those rules — and public support for them — varied widely.
“It’s all over the place because the return guidance and what you are allowed to do in each state is so different,” said Ann Kitt Carpenetti, vice president for lacrosse operations at U.S. Lacrosse. “We’re trying to balance the desires of families to go back to play with what’s safe for the kids and the community alike.”
In April, the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association, known as the I.W.L.C.A., canceled its six recruiting tournaments for 2020, including the New England Cup. The association said it did not feel it could hold events and sufficiently protect the health of 3,000 to 14,000 players, parents and coaches who were expected to attend each showcase.
After a coronavirus outbreak in Louisiana had been linked to Mardi Gras celebrations, Liz Robertshaw, the executive director of the coaches association, said the organization felt “we can’t be the next New Orleans.”
The association directed Corrigan Sports Enterprises, the company that organized its showcases, to refund $1,700 of the $1,800 entry fee that each team had paid to participate. Instead, Corrigan decided to proceed with the showcases on its own. The I.W.L.C.A. sued, but even as the case is being contested in federal court in North Carolina, some games, including the ones in Connecticut, have gone ahead.
“What went wrong was similar to hiring a contractor to build a beautiful house and they want to stay in it and say it’s their house,” said Kathy Taylor, the women’s lacrosse coach at Colgate, who until July 1 was the president of the I.W.L.C.A.
Lee Corrigan, the president of Corrigan Sports Enterprises, disagreed. He said that over a decade-long partnership the coaches association had received about $6 million from his company, compared with the $10,000 it took in annually before the partnership began. The coaches association did not dispute those figures.
“We’re partners,” Corrigan said. “They say they own everything outright, and we’re working for them. I don’t think that’s fair, given that we do the majority of the work.”
When Corrigan Sports decided to proceed with the canceled showcases, including the New England Cup, the coaches association sought a temporary restraining order. It was denied.
As a safety precaution, Corrigan Sports requested that only one adult per player attend its event, and temperature checks of players were mandatory when teams arrived at the fields. Social distancing was mostly observed on the sideline, but players routinely tangled in close quarters on the field.
Coronavirus tests were not required; instead, each coach was responsible for monitoring the health of a team’s players. “I feel like it’s fine with the proper precautions,” Corrigan said.
In a normal year, the object of the summer showcases is to draw the attention of college coaches, the first step in securing a spot on a college team and, more important, a scholarship. But the N.C.A.A. has forbidden coaches in Divisions I and II from making in-person contact with potential recruits at least until Sept. 1. Thirty-one Division III coaches had registered for the New England Cup, but only 12 checked in shortly after the event began. To soften the blow to the participants’ investment of time and money, Corrigan provided game film free to all players.
The New England Cup usually draws as many as 150 teams on the first weekend in June. This year’s delayed event, in late July, with the coronavirus raging, attracted 32 teams.
Kasie Paton, whose daughter A.J. has Type 1 diabetes, said it had been a difficult decision to allow her to participate. In the end, she said she felt comfortable traveling from home in Exeter, N.H., given that new Covid-19 case reports in New England remained low and because cup organizers seemed to have made a good-faith effort to hold a safe event.
“Our son plays baseball, and that environment is really different,” Kasie Paton said.
Not all of the summer tournaments escaped the coronavirus. On July 12, a girls’ team from ADK Lacrosse in Queensbury, N.Y., north of Albany, appeared to violate state guidelines by traveling to play a day of scrimmages in Mount Olive, N.J. Afterward, a 15-year-old player tested positive for Covid-19 and the rest of the team was quarantined for 14 days. The affected player was exposed to the virus before traveling and has returned to practice, according to her mother. Warren County officials said they were unaware of any other positive cases.
Julia Hotmer-Drao, whose daughter tested positive after playing five games for ADK in New Jersey, said that her daughter had been exposed to the virus before traveling and that parents at the club did not intentionally violate New York State restrictions.
“We were trying to get back to normal,” Hotmer-Drao said. “It never crossed my mind there was anything unusual about it.”
Another 15-year-old girl, who plays for Long Island Liberty, tested positive after attending a lacrosse camp in mid-July in Seaford, N.Y. The player’s mother, who spoke on condition of anonymity to guard her daughter’s privacy, said she was seeking to get video of her daughter at the camp to send to college coaches.
In retrospect, the mother said that it was naïve to think the coronavirus — which surged in the New York metropolitan region in March and April — was now only a problem for other parts of the country.
“It’s still here,” she said.
As a precaution, Gallagher, the Liberty director, said that training for about 100 players was shut down for 10 days, and that it was recommended that those players be tested. No additional positive tests were reported, Gallagher said, but she said her teams would not be attending any more showcases or tournaments this summer.
“We’re trying to tell parents there’s no reason to go to these events under the current circumstances,” Gallagher said, especially during a so-called recruiting dead period. “It’s putting your kids in a position that’s not safe. Some people don’t see it as that.”
Joe Drape reported from Farmington, Conn., and Jeré Longman from Philadelphia. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.
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