RANCHO SANTA FE — Yes, the game can be as brutal as it looks.
Yes, a 2.5-inch diameter rubber ball has the potential to reach 100 miles per hour when flung from a titanium-based stick into a netted goal from feet away; and yes, that same stick can come down and land a blow on just near any part of a player’s body.
But that doesn’t mean the game of lacrosse isn’t fun.
That much was evident Saturday at the San Diego Polo Fields where the sprawling acreage was divided up into fields of lacrosse matches filled with youth players and professionals.
On one of those fields, though, the speed and physicality of the game was on full display when players from LXM PRO league held an exhibition match to showcase how far the growth of the talent and popularity of the game has come.
One of those to take the field was longtime lacrosse player Nick Gradinger, who said after the match that the sport of lacrosse has grown exponentially over the last 10 years.
“A lot of people, when they’re unfamiliar with (lacrosse), they compare it to the game of soccer…but it’s just that much faster,” he said. “It’s got the physicality of football, in terms of the hitting and the contact with the players, but also just an unbelievable physicality with guys wielding 6-foot titanium shafts.”
He would exit the game early, an ice pack strapped across his right knee, though he said he was all right.
His team, Team STX went on to win the match 22-14 against Team Maverik.
Gradinger said his mom introduced the game to him and his brothers Lucas and Max.
His mom, who went to school on the East Coast where lacrosse has just been embedded into the culture for so long a time, would tell them about the game, which they had never seen before.
Slowly Gradinger started to see some youth lacrosse clinics being brought over the West Coast and especially in San Diego County from leagues and players back east.
Buoyed by his size and his eye/hand coordination, he excelled at both the high school and collegiate levels.
Gradinger played for the Torrey Pines High School lacrosse team and eventually went on to play college lacrosse back east at Cornell and then as a transfer to the University of Denver.
For the last three years, he’s been one of the lacrosse coaches at Torrey Pines.
During his time playing at Torrey Pines, he and his teammates carried a chip on their shoulders when it came to matching up with teams on the East Coast, he said.
“We knew that we were good; we knew that we could compete with the best kids on the East Coast and we had that chip on our shoulder every single day because we knew we were getting better; we were cognizant of how much our game had improved, and it picked up our game in Southern California, and we dominated for two straight years,” he said.
As the sport started to grow among the high schools, what eventually developed over those years would be a fiery rivalry between the Torrey Pines and La Costa Canyon High School lacrosse teams.
Something that he and current teammate and former rival La Costa Canyon player J.R. Oreskovich find themselves talking about still today.
“J.R. and I certainly did not get along in high school,” Gradinger said.
“It was not a good situation,” Oreskovich said, referring to their high school rivalry. “It was one of those things where you’d see people out and there’d be fights and it was not necessarily something you promote, but it’s a true rivalry,” he said.
“When he and I were coming up, he would guard me and it was always a one-on thing, and it was Torrey and La Costa,” Oreskovich said.
Now, that they work together and have gotten to know each other, Gradinger said they’ve formed a great bond. “He’s a heck of a great player, and he’s a great guy,” he said.
The rivalry still plays out between them today when the two schools meet, but in a much more cordial way, Oreskovich said.
Lacrosse has become the sport of those schools, Oreskovich explained. “They have nationally-ranked lacrosse teams, and in no other sport do they do that every single year like they do in lacrosse.”
Oreskovich started playing lacrosse during his sophomore year in high school, a late start by his standards, but his goal was just to make the team.
Once he did, his time was spent first practicing with the team, and then going home to practice some more on his own. He continued that discipline throughout high school, taking it with him to college where he played at Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.
He’s also witnessed the game grow locally, he said, noting that participation has doubled since he graduated from college, almost 10 years ago. It’s something he attributes to players leaving baseball for lacrosse because there’s more opportunity to make plays, instead of waiting for three or four chances to make a play.
Gradinger’s advice to up and coming players: “If you want it bad enough, just go out and get it. And decide if you want to put in the effort because there are a lot of doorways that can open if you want to put in the time and the effort. It’s a fun game to play.”