BALTIMORE — Lacrosse is serious business in these parts.
With a possible cross-Potomac faceoff in Monday's final looming, interest in the NCAA final four that starts here Saturday is even higher in a lax-mad city that has hosted the championship five times in the past nine years.
In Saturday's semifinals, unseeded Maryland takes on No. 5 Duke, the defending champion, and 7th-seeded Virginia meets the University of Denver, the No. 6 seed.
More than 37,000 fans attended the championship match here on Memorial Day last year, but with a potential Terps-Cavaliers final in the offing, crowds for Saturday's semifinals and Monday's final at M&T Bank Stadium could be even larger this time.
"There's certainly a spirit and a fondness among the lacrosse community here that the sport maybe has come home for a weekend," Lacrosse Magazine editor and Baltimore native Paul Krome said. "I think many folks around here kind of view this as a home. When it's here, I think there's a sense that it's our sport."
If home is where the history is, then Mr. Krome certainly has a point. Baltimore has been a hotbed for the sport since it was first brought down from upper New York in the late 1870s. The city was so isolated back then that it was able to adopt lacrosse as its own without spreading it to the surrounding area. It always has been one of the most popular sports in Baltimore, but there was a time when people in Washington didn't even know it existed.
"You have people [here] that are lacrosse people," said Joe Finn, an archivist for U.S. Lacrosse. "Lacrosse is still a close-knit sport that builds camaraderie; you get a group of players and fans together, and they almost have their own language and their own culture."
The long-term collegiate success of local teams is a key factor in today's lacrosse culture. Even before the NCAA recognized the sport, Navy, Johns Hopkins and Maryland combined to win 29 of 35 national championships in the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association. The tradition and presence of programs like these have made local youths want to follow in their footsteps.
"In Texas, you have kids growing up playing football, but here, for the most part, people grow up playing lacrosse at an early age," said Ellicott City native Sebastian Weeks, who picked up the game in elementary school and remains a fan. "As I've grown up here, I've seen younger and younger kids picking up the game — it's just exploding in terms of popularity."
Even those who didn't grow up with lacrosse are slowly being drawn in by the city's trademark sport. Derek Blazer, the general manager of Mad River Bar and Grille in downtown Baltimore, was raised in Alexandria and went to one of the few high schools in the area without lacrosse. But since moving to Baltimore two years ago, he has been amazed by the sport's influence.
"The culture is really lacrosse over everything — over football, basketball, anything," Mr. Blazer said. "To have the biggest games of the year here, it brings a lot of excitement to the town."
The final four also brings a lot of business to bars like Mad River that usually lose customers over Memorial Day weekend. As many of the regulars leave for the beach, local businesses know they can rely on lacrosse to give them a boost. This, among other things, is what makes M&T Bank Stadium such a strong option for the championship every year.
"The biggest thing for me is that Baltimore is centrally located," Inside Lacrosse editor John Jiloty explained. "Everything is within walking distance, and I think it does a lot for a city that prides itself on getting noticed as often as it can."
Since the men's championship was first played at an NFL venue in 2003, New England's Gillette Stadium and Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia also have served as hosts. Mr. Jiloty argues that trying out new places helps spread the sport and introduces it to new people. Even so, local fans like Mr. Weeks would like to see the final four stay in Baltimore.
"When it's up in Foxborough and Philly, it just misses something," he said. "Every time it's in Baltimore, people are more excited and more animated — the whole city gets behind it. It draws the spotlight to where the power of lacrosse really is."
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