Innovative lacrosse coaches devise a safe field game

Laylah Stokes prepares to fire the ball downfield during a Janie Ball match at Canatara Park. Troy Shantz

Troy Shantz
One local lacrosse program hasn’t broken stride, despite the pandemic shutting down most local sports.

The organizers behind the Janie Lax girls’ lacrosse program have modified the game to allow players to keep on playing while observing public health guidelines.

Keely Starret does a jump shot to a teammate down field, while opponent Claire Larche-MacSweeney goes for the block.
Troy Shantz

“Janie Ball” is a game of three-on-three field lacrosse played on a smaller pitch with each player staying in a designated zone they can’t leave, explained June Partridge, who with husband Brian DeWagner founded the larger and original Janie Lax program.

“The beauty of lacrosse is you don’t have to be close to anybody. We thought it was the perfect sport to continue doing if we possibly could,” Partridge said.

Forty-two girls registered with ten teams in two age groups. They started playing at Canatara Park in September, teaching lacrosse fundamentals while offering families a touch of normalcy in stressful times.

The original Janie Lax league, which began eight years ago, normally offers spring and fall sessions. Last year it had more than 130 girls in junior kindergarten to Grade 8 in the spring session alone, DeWagner said.

“When the pandemic hit and disrupted what was set to be Janie’s biggest season yet, we didn’t mourn the loss of the sport but realized kids were going to desperately need something as an outlet,” DeWagner said.

The husband and wife team bounced some ideas around before devising a new field layout with new rules to keep players safe. Large, fluorescent field markings show where players must stay, and pylons divide the field down the middle. Slim hockey net sides serve as the goal.

Emma Carlaw lines up a shot. Troy Shantz

“We polished it and tested it and BAM (we) had a way of delivering a full-league schedule, like a house league of super safe, socially distanced, accessible, fun sport,” said DeWagner.

Every player touches the ball under the new format, giving those that might normally shy away from the fray renewed confidence, said Partridge.

Approaching game nights in a relaxed way, though, also means letting some field lacrosse rules slide, she said with a laugh.

“We’ve kind of thrown skills out the window a little bit. But you know what? Whatever. Have at it. We’ll break the bad habits later.”

Janie Lax started with a handful of girls and some donated equipment DeWagner secured through connections he developed with U.S. colleges. Janie Lax has 40 NCAA partners and is a program partner of the Premier Lacrosse League, he said.

Registration was free the first five years, but players now pay a small fee to cover some costs, including a uniform.

“We believe that if you look good you play good,” said Partridge.

Maggie DeWagner tries to pass downfield despite blocking attempts by two defenders. Separating the players on the field has improved their passing skills, organizers say.
Troy Shantz