Lacrosse has arrived. It took a little longer than lax enthusiasts had hoped, but the game is clearly now a prominent feature of the American sports landscape. With talented athletes like Matt Zash on the pitch, lacrosse is increasingly attracting mainstream audiences.
During its first five years of existence, Major League Lacrosse consisted of just six teams. Then in 2006, the league expanded to its current 10-team format. For the sport to continue growing in popularity, though, it must remain in the public eye; and thanks to a deal with ESPN2, that’ll happen. MLL and the sports broadcasting giant recently inked a television contract that runs through the 2016 season, further cementing the league’s place in the wide world of sports.
Expansion and TV exposure are the products of hard work by the league’s executives. But without electrifying play on the field, MLL can forget about building its fan base. Fortunately, lacrosse routinely showcases some of the most amazing action any sport has to offer. And helping to lead the charge is Matt Zash, one of the young stars responsiblefor the game’s growing popularity.
Drafted sixth overall in 2006 by the Philadelphia Barrage, Zash helped his squad to back-to-back MLL championships in his first two seasons. The 5’11”, 190-pound midfielder is also a standout in the professional indoor league, the National Lacrosse League; and he was chosen 32nd overall by the New York Titans in 2006.
We recently sat down with Zash to discuss lacrosse’s staying power, how his high school experience helped his game, differences between college and the pros, and what it was like winning a pair of MLL championships.
STACK: What was your schedule like during high school?
Matt Zash: I was a three-sport athlete in high school and I was always busy. My basic schedule was to wake up and go to school, go to practice, and then go home and do school work and go to bed.
STACK: What other sports did you play, and did you focus most on lacrosse?
MZ: I played football and wrestling. Throughout high school I never really focused on lacrosse. When it was football season, I was focused on football. When it was wrestling season, I was focused on wrestling, and when it was lacrosse season I was focused on lacrosse. I never really thought that lacrosse was my sport. Whatever the season was at that time was my sport.
STACK: So why did you choose to play lacrosse after high school?
MZ: When I started playing lacrosse in the third grade, I knew that it was something I loved and something I wanted to stick with. I knew that there were opportunities out there, and out of the three sports I was the best at lacrosse.
STACK: How did playing two other sports help you become a better lacrosse player?
MZ: There are things from each sport that I definitely took toward making me a better lacrosse player. Combine the amount of discipline you need with the physical demands of wrestling, and I don’t think there’s a tougher sport. In football, you need toughness, aggressiveness and athletic ability to be successful. Each of those sport’s demands helped me become the lacrosse player I am today.
STACK: What’s your take on playing multiple sports in high school?
MZ: There’s kind of this theory that you have to play lacrosse year round in order to be good at it, but when I was growing up that wasn’t the case. It was to be as active as you can all the time and play as many sports [as you can], because there’s a lot of transfer and carryover that helps you out in all sports. I think burnout is an issue with a lot of athletes today, because they are so focused on one sport.
STACK: Tell us how you avoided burnout?
MZ: I think just having a break from each sport. I was never sick of them, because I was always excited to get back to football, then to wrestling, and then to lacrosse. When that sport’s season was over, the season was over, and I was ready to move on.
STACK: Why was your high school wrestling coach such a big influence in your life?
MZ: For the first half-hour of every practice he would talk about things that had nothing to do with athletics. He would talk about being a good person, integrity, responsibility, and doing the right things on the weekends. He would tell us about negative situations that could arise outside of school, and when they wound up happening, we would say, “Gary said this would happen.” We avoided those situations, and it was almost like he was smarter than everyone else. Other than my parents, he taught me most of the things that I still adhere to today.
STACK: What are the major differences between college and professional lacrosse?
MZ: When you start playing college lacrosse, everybody there is a high school All-American, high school all county, or all-conference. When you get to the pros, everyone is an All-American and the best player on their team. I don’t think the game is much faster; it’s just that the skill level is at a maximum.
STACK: How different is playing indoor lacrosse?
MZ: In indoor lacrosse you always have to have your head on a swivel, because at any time you can get your lights knocked out. There are just so many things going on in the indoor lacrosse game, because of the size of the field, that you can’t take a break from the action.
STACK: What was it like winning back-to-back MLL championships?
MZ: It was a great experience because I never won a national championship [at Duke University]. To win [championships] my first two years was definitely a good feeling. My ultimate goal every year is to just win championships. If that means scoring 10 to 15 fewer goals every year, it really doesn’t make a difference to me. I think the reason for our success with the Philadelphia Barrage is that Tony Resch does an unbelievable job managing egos. He tells us that if we’re going to do well in this league, and if we all want to win and have nice rings at the end of the season, we have to take on roles. You may not like your role, but if you want to be on a championship team you have to fall in line.
STACK: What advice would you offer aspiring high school lacrosse players?
MZ: You have to try and find balance in your life. A lot of kids today are being pushed to do one sport, and that bothers me. Some kids put a little too much focus on their athletic lives and not enough on personal growth. Sports are around mainly to have life experiences and to gain insight. There are things like leadership, responsibility and doing the right thing that can be learned on the lacrosse field that carry over into the real world. If you like playing lacrosse, it should be because you love the sport and what it has to offer, rather than being the star.