Long the domain of prep schools and high-brow colleges in idyllic settings, NCAA Division I men's lacrosse has been infiltrated by a determined group of athletes bent on taking the game to the streets of West Philadelphia.
In one of the region's best-kept sporting secrets, unpretentious Drexel University has crashed onto the national scene and stirred passions on the hardscrabble corner of 43d and Powelton, where the noise from a jam-packed crowd at Vidas Field drowned out inner-city clamor on a recent Saturday night.
"It was a pretty raucous environment, and it was fun," Dragons coach Chris Bates said as he gazed out at the new turf field from his office, which is adjacent to his team's pristine wood-paneled, carpeted locker room.
Smiling, Bates, a former standout at Dartmouth College, added, "I remember when you would just hear Mom or Dad clapping. But this was an event. We were worrying about parking, worrying about having enough seats. Those are nice problems to have."
Bates was referring to Saturday night, April 21, when more than 1,500 people jammed the bleachers at Vidas Field. Most left heartbroken after Towson, a perennial Colonial Athletic Association powerhouse, escaped with a 9-8 win on a goal in the final seconds.
The defeat broke Drexel's six-game winning streak but not its spirit. In a crucial game Saturday, the Dragons (11-4) rallied for five fourth-quarter goals in an 8-7 win at Hofstra that gave them the No. 2 seed in the CAA tournament. It was Drexel's first win over Hofstra after 18 consecutive losses.
In what could be another raucous night, Drexel, ranked 15th in the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association coaches' poll, will host No. 3 seed Delaware tonight at 7 for the right to advance to the conference championship game against the winner of No. 1 Towson vs. No. 4 Hofstra. In early April, the Dragons scored an 11-7 win over the Blue Hens.
The CAA champ gets an automatic berth in the 16-team NCAA tournament. There are 56 teams in Division I. The Dragons could also receive an at-large bid. Regardless, a place in the NCAAs would be the first in Drexel history.
The first indication that something special was happening with Drexel men's lacrosse occurred on opening day in February, when the Dragons stunned the defending national champion, Virginia, 11-10, in Charlottesville. Ranked No. 3 behind Cornell and Duke, Virginia has lost only once since.
"The win over Virginia gave us confidence, and it brought our team together," said junior cocaptain Steve Grossi, a midfielder from Strath Haven High.
In many ways, Grossi is typical of the athlete Bates has recruited to bring Drexel to its current level: aggressive and fearless, his ability honed on local fields. Grossi is among 16 Dragons on the 45-man roster from the Philadelphia region, and he embraces the notion that the team's success is largely built on urban toughness.
"To win, we have to out-tough our opponents," Grossi said. "We preach West Philly ball. We're not a finesse group. This isn't the Main Line."
Colin Ambler, the team's second-leading scorer with 22 goals and 13 assists, is a freshman from Abington High who has twice been named CAA rookie of the week. Ron Garling, who has 18 goals, is from Ridley High. But the main offensive force is a Canadian, Andrew Chapman, who leads the conference with 41 goals and 10 assists. The goalie, Bruce Bickford, has a sparkling 7.07 goals-against average as Drexel has ranked among the top 10 nationally in fewest goals allowed for most of the season.
To illustrate their no-nonsense approach to the game, the Dragons wear T-shirts with the slogan "West Philly Ball" emblazoned in graffiti-style letters during pregame warm-ups.
Grossi speaks softly but carries a long stick as Bates' midfield stopper on a team that prides itself on defense. Four players are permitted to carry the six-foot-long pole, the better to reach out and whack someone.
"Typically, Steve will guard the other team's best midfielder and try to neutralize him," said Bates, who is in his eighth season as head coach after five as an assistant.
Drexel reached this level gradually. But Bates says there is little reason that it cannot be sustained. The new turf field and $400,000 locker-room suite with a film room opened in September, helpful recruiting tools in a sport that has exploded in popularity in recent years.
"We've comes leaps and bounds, and it's nice that there's a recognition in the lacrosse world that we've built a program that can compete at the highest level," Bates said.
Said Grossi, "My freshman and sophomore years, we'd sometimes practice at Penn late at night, until almost midnight. It was pretty miserable. But I can see coming back as an alum someday and saying I was here when we got these beautiful locker rooms."
Bates spoke of the expanding recruiting pool because lacrosse programs at the high school level in this area have increased dramatically.
"With the facility we have and the success we're having this year, we feel like we're recruiting the higher-level kid," he said. "We don't feel like we're a one-hit wonder. We feel we can have a lot of big games here at Vidas Field in front of thousands of people."
Grossi said the lure of the game was in its physical, fast-paced nature.
"I come from a baseball family, and I was a baseball player until sixth grade," he said. "A lot of my friends were playing lacrosse, so I picked up a stick, and I've loved it ever since. This may sound weird, but I like hitting people."
"You can sit in right field and wait for fly balls," Bates said. "Or you can get into a scrum and pick up a ground ball and testosterone flies. It's no sedentary sport."