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Saturday, June 3, 2023

Ticos Adopt Sport of Native American Warriors

If Walter Rojas didn’t suck so bad at soccer, lacrosse probably still wouldn’t be a sport worth mentioning in Costa Rica.

“I have two left feet,” the smiling 27-year-old pharmacist said.

“One of our national idiosyncrasies is the idea that if you’re bad at soccer, you’re bad at sports,” he added. “But I thought, ‘I have to be good at something.’”

His first attempt was hockey. He didn’t let the dearth of ice in a tropical country stop him. He and his buddies played pickup floor hockey on the concrete at La PazPark in south San José for a while. But they found the sport’s possibilities limited because of the lack of rinks.

Rojas remembered his days as a foreign exchange student in the United States, where the son of his host family lugged around a lacrosse stick – a meter-long stick topped with a netted cup.

He traded his in-line skates for a skinny aluminum pole with a netted head the size of a large pizza – a goalie stick. He would play lacrosse.

He didn’t really know the rules or anything, but in today’s globalized world, there’s nothing to stop a crappy Costa Rican soccer player with a computer from becoming an expert in a sport played hundreds of years ago by native tribes a continent away. How hard is it to Google “lacrosse”?

With knowledge gleaned from an array of men’s lacrosse Web sites and from the International Lacrosse Federation manual he ordered, Rojas rounded up his friends and some of his brothers’ friends and started tossing around the rubber ball used in the increasingly popular sport.

Compared to hockey, at least, lacrosse might have a future in Costa Rica, Rojas figures, not because the contact sport is any less aggressive or because equipment is any cheaper – indeed, lacrosse helmets are more costly than hockey helmets – but because of what lacrosse has in common with soccer.

Lacrosse can be played on soccer fields, and Costa Rica has a lot of soccer fields.

Since two years ago, when Rojas, his brother and friends starting playing “lax” – a nickname for the fast-growing sport – it has been catching on. Now, Costa Rica has three small lacrosse teams with a total of about 30 players, according to Rojas.

Though these Tico lacrosse players have the soccer fields on their side, the sport still faces many challenges here. Not only is getting equipment expensive and time-consuming – they order it online – but few people in Costa Rica know what lacrosse is.

“When I went to register lacrosse as a sport, at ICODER (Costa Rican Sports and Recreation Institute) they said, ‘Oh, that’s with motorcycles,’” Rojas said.

Gabriela Schaer, the institute’s sports development department director, couldn’t confirm that this was ICODER’s reaction.

She did, however, claim to know about lacrosse, and described it as a soccer-like game involving sticks and baskets. The former CountryDay School gym teacher said she used to teach the sport as part of physical education classes, though she wasn’t sure if any other schools in Costa Rica teach lacrosse.

“The future of the sport depends on what kind of effort is put forth by those trying to develop it,” she said.

Rojas registered the Lacrosse Sport Association with the National Registry last December, making the sport official here.

The association can now set up a board of members and hold officially recognized events, tournaments and leagues.

Though they haven’t quite reached that level, they do play the occasional game among the country’s three teams.

One of their big problems, Rojas said, is lack of equipment. But that hasn’t kept these young men from playing the aggressive sport in which defenders whack the player carrying the ball with a six-foot-long titanium pole as a defensive strategy.

Out on a swampy field in Hatillo 4, south of San José, a half-dozen players tossed around the rubber ball, clad in their Internet-ordered jerseys reading “Centinelas” (“Sentinels”) across the chest. Some were wearing hockey helmets and pads.

Though they started off padless and helmetless, they now have enough equipment for a couple of teams. Of course, they could always use more.

Rojas said the team hopes to raise another $1,000 to buy equipment so more players can come and learn.

“Eternally, the problem is money,” said Rojas, who grew up watching North American baseball teams like the Cincinnati Reds and Boston Red Sox on ESPN with his father, also a soccer rebel.

As the overcast Sunday morning started to drizzle on the drills the players learned from the Internet, a small crowd gathered to watch the soccer game on the less swampy, better groomed field next to theirs.

It didn’t really seem to matter, though, as Rojas’ brother Aldo ripped a shot at the goal that passed over the goalie’s left hip.

The ball kissed the back of the net and skimmed it, sending waves through the mesh like a pebble dropped into a still pond.

The ball dropped and hit the ground with a thud, and stopped completely and perfectly still in the wet grass. Beautiful.

For information on lacrosse in Costa Rica, contact Walter Rojas at or 833-7507.


History of a Sport

Once played by native North Americans to heal the sick and train young warriors, lacrosse is a contact team sport that is spreading around the world like wildfire.

Though debate exists over where the sport originated, most agree that the precursor to modern-day lacrosse was invented by Huron or Iroquois tribes living around the St. Lawrence River in modern day New York and Ontario.

Among other names, it was called “baggataway” by Native Americans, and was a spiritual cultural activity that was used to heal the sick, resolve conflicts, pay respect to higher powers and train young warriors.

Matches could get big and involve hundreds or thousands of players with natural boundaries that could stretch miles, and with games lasting days at a time. Serious injuries and even deaths weren’t unusual.

Though a rubber ball is used today, the sport’s pioneers used balls made of hair-stuffed deerskin or knotted leather.

The game became known to Europeans after French Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf saw the Huron tribes playing it in the 17th century. It is believed French explorers thought the stick resembled a bishop’s crosier – “la crosse” in French – hence the name.

The sport was developed by Europeans in Canada in the 19th century; in 1867, French dentist George Beers, the father of modern lacrosse, shortened the length of the game and limited the number of players to 10 per team.

Lacrosse saw an explosion in the 19th century, and was largely revived by the Onondaga tribe in the 1860s. Lacrosse was an Olympic sport in the 1904 and 1908 Olympic games, but was subsequently dropped.

In 1926, the first U.S. women’s lacrosse team was established at Baltimore’s BrynMawrSchool. Protective equipment didn’t come into the equation until the 1930s, when men’s lacrosse evolved to allow more stick and body contact.


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