When Harvey Belson walks his dog at Heritage Park, he always makes a point to look for the boys playing the strange game with the long sticks.
"I don't know what they call it, but it sure looks like fun," Belson said, as his mutt, Dawson, sniffed the grass at his feet. "It kind of looks like hockey, but it's not as rough."
In the distance, the Irvine Lacrosse Club is running through a scrimmage on a makeshift soccer field. Wearing pads on their shoulders, arms and hands, as well as helmets, the players race up and down the field, carrying, passing and catching a small rubber ball in the basket-like head of their sticks, called crosses.
There's not much walking involved with lacrosse, a sport that originated with Indians in Canada and was introduced into the United States in the 1870s. Lacrosse is French for "curved stick," but the Huron Indian tribe of Ontario referred to it as little war.
And it can be a war. In this physical game, collisions are frequent. During action on the field, which is slightly larger than a football field, players often poke opponents with their sticks, trying to take the ball away.
"It sure looks like they're having fun. . . . too much running for me, though," Belson mutters, as he turns and continues his walk.
On the field, poking turns vicious, and jabs knock players to the ground. But as fast as they land, they're on their feet again, running.
"Ball down!" someone shouts. In an instant the ball is scooped up by another player who sprints down the field. Unable to find a teammate to pass to, he shoots. As he sends the ball zipping toward the goal with a quick flick of his wrist, he's decked by a defender and the shot bounces off the goal box frame.
As the scrimmage winds down the club's players, all of whom are Orange County high school students, start to relax. A winded Brian Wellikson, a junior at Irvine High, says he's not surprised by Belson's comments.
"I think we get that question every time we're out here practicing," Wellikson said. "They pretty much don't have a clue. Although one guy asked me if we were playing jai alai.
"When I tell them we're playing lacrosse, they give me this look, like, huh? 'You know, lacrosse,' I'll say. 'What the Indians used to play.' "
At that, Wellikson and his teammates start laughing. They know the sport they love is relatively obscure, at least on the West Coast.
Lacrosse enjoys great popularity in the East, where it is a sanctioned sport on nearly every high school campus, an NCAA sport at most colleges and is played professionally. The National Lacrosse League features seven teams, from Baltimore to Ontario, that play a 15-week indoor schedule.
Those interested in playing lacrosse in the Southland must find a club team. This year, four high schools--Irvine, El Toro, Woodbridge and Laguna Hills--are fielding teams in the Orange County Lacrosse Assn., which includes junior high teams. The season is from late February to early May. Any high school student can participate on any of the four teams regardless of where he lives.
Kirk Lamitie, a junior at Esperanza High, recently moved with his family from New York, where he played lacrosse on his high school team. Because Esperanza doesn't have a lacrosse club, Lamitie chose to play for Irvine.
He's one of the more experienced players on the team, which has 17 members, about a quarter of whom are beginners.
"You can't believe how big this sport is back East," Lamitie said. "In New York, kids start playing at an early age and every high school has a lacrosse team. I don't know why it's not big out here. But then again, California has surfing and water polo. I'd never heard of water polo until I got to California."
Lamitie used to play football in high school but quit so he could devote more time to lacrosse.
"It's more relaxed than football as far as the coaching and stuff. Look at me. I get to come out here, play a fun game and hit someone with a stick," Lamitie said, laughing.
Matt Green is the team's other veteran. A senior at Irvine High, Green wants to continue playing lacrosse in college. He and Wellikson started playing the game when they were introduced to it at Sierra Vista Middle School in Irvine.
"I remember watching it played as a demonstration sport [during P.E. class] and I said to myself, 'This is a game I could play,' " Green said. "It's a demanding sport that takes a lot of concentration. But at the same time, it doesn't require every moment of your life."
Similar sentiments came from Jeff Malinen, who plays for Laguna Hills.
"When I was in seventh grade, I had already played Little League baseball and soccer. I didn't really do that well in either of those sports, so I was pretty much was resigned to the fact that I would not play sports in high school," he said. "But when I saw lacrosse at my junior high school, I gave it a shot, and I've been playing ever since. I hope to keep playing in college."
Malinen, a senior, said when he was a freshman there was no lacrosse club at Laguna Hills. He played for El Toro.
"We have about 20 guys now [in Laguna Hills]," he said. "And the sport could get bigger out here. It's just that it's not that well known and it's hard to get the word out."
Pete Pallad, who coaches El Toro, has been involved with lacrosse in the county since 1990. He spends his afternoons demonstrating the sport at junior highs throughout the county.
"A lot of these school are looking for other sports to get the kids interested in, so that's why they like lacrosse," said Pallad, who went from El Modena High to Whittier College on a football scholarship but decided to play lacrosse instead.
"My roommates talked me into playing lacrosse, and once I started, I never looked back. I ended up playing four years at Whittier College."
Lacrosse is the oldest continuously played sport in North America. The Indians sometimes played the game to resolve tribal disputes.
In the 19th Century, French pioneers began playing the game. It was standardized in 1867 by W. George Beers, who set field dimensions (60-70 yards wide by 110 yards long), player limits per team (10) and basic playing rules (only the goalkeeper may touch the ball with his hands).
According to USLacrosse, the national amateur organization, the sport's popularity is growing. There are about 1,400 high schools and 500 colleges fielding teams.
In Orange County, however, the ranks appear to have remained consistent, at least according to Irvine's coach, Bo Sutherland.
"Some years it's a little lower and some years a bit higher as far as people coming out," he said. "This year, we have a couple of Irvine wrestlers on the team. They don't have any experience, but at least they are in shape."
Sutherland, like most of the players he coaches, started playing lacrosse in junior high. He played four years at Irvine High, then volunteered to coach the team after he graduated.
"Like most people in this sport, I do it for the pure love," he said. "I don't think it gets the attention it deserves, and it would be nice to see Irvine High give more acknowledgment to these players."
The Southern Section, which sanctions interscholastic sports, does not recognize lacrosse, which has been played by county high school club teams since 1989.
"We currently have a moratorium on [adding] new sports in the Southern Section," said Bill Clark, an assistant commissioner. "But as far as a groundswell to get lacrosse on as a Southern Section sport, I haven't heard it. At least not like a sport like roller hockey, or even equestrian."
Mike Teague, an assistant principal at Irvine High, said as long as club sports are not recognized by the Southern Section, the school has to distance itself a little from the team and offer what support it can.
"When you start looking at the sports that are being played by our youngsters that aren't sanctioned by the Southern Section, you begin to realize that there are a lot of kids involved," Teague said. "In some cases, these kids put in the same or more time in their sport than some of the sports that are recognized. And until they do become sanctioned, maybe there are things we can do to better recognize them."
Sutherland said he has no problem with lacrosse remaining at the club level. In fact, when asked, the majority of the Irvine players said they preferred the freedom club status affords them.
However, they also agreed it would be nice to get more recognition from the school.
That sentiment was endorsed by Eric Trumbauer, who plays for the 20-member El Toro Lacrosse Club.
"It could be worse at El Toro, but it would be nice if maybe we could get a letter jacket or something like that," said Trumbauer, a junior.
Teague said the schools are limited as to what they can provide for their clubs.
"Like all the clubs at Irvine, they can leave flyers on the bulletin board, can make announcements and sell candy to raise money for their club," he said. "They can even use the name Irvine and wear the school's colors. However, what they can't do is use our logo or mascot.
"As far as letter jackets, we can't give them the same kind of jackets a Southern Section-sanctioned sport gets, but we are talking about lettermen's jackets that look different for club sports."
For Wellikson, who played youth baseball and soccer, recognition is not really important. In fact, one of the things that attracted him to lacrosse was the sport's relative obscurity.
"The sport has a lot to offer, especially for a guy like me, who isn't exactly the biggest guy out here," he said. "And it's not like football or baseball, where only a select few play. In this sport, everybody gets to play, no matter your skill. And the people that play, or are involved with the sport, are really cool.
"There's definitely a counterculture going on here."
A recent two-day lacrosse tournament in San Diego resembled a Grateful Dead concert scene, Wellikson said.
"There was lots of tie-dye," he said. "It was laid-back and mellow, but that didn't mean there weren't some real good games going on. But this is lacrosse. It's not like a football game. You know, all that rah-rah stuff."