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Lacrosse is taking Israel by storm

Israel's women's national lacrosse team, founded eight years ago, has already left its mark on international competitions by beating countries with long history of lacrosse.

As recently as 2011, the number of Israelis who knew about lacrosse in general and lacrosse's presence in Israel in particular could perhaps be counted on one hand. But eight years later, the country's women's team is making international headlines, not just with their victories, but also with their goodwill gesture of gifting their Kenyan opponents new lacrosse cleats.

In July, the Israeli women’s national team won a silver medal at the Women's European Lacrosse Championship that took place in Israel. The Israeli team is made up of six native-born Israeli women who play alongside American Jewish immigrants to Israel. “Seeing how far these players have gone in a sport that didn’t even exist in Israel just eight years ago is absolutely incredible,” David Lasday, chief operating officer of the Israel Lacrosse Association, told Al-Monitor. “I knew we’d be good, but I had no idea how good.” 

The team’s silver medal is the high point of a series of remarkable achievements for Israel’s lacrosse teams. The women’s team came in sixth in the world championship two years ago and fourth in the European championship four years ago. The men’s team came in seventh in the last two world championships in 2014 and 2018.

Lacrosse was first developed by the native peoples of North America about 400 years ago. Originally, it was an unusually violent game. In its current incarnation, lacrosse reached Canada in the 19th century and was even played in the first Olympic Games of the 20th century. Described as a cross between soccer, basketball and ice hockey, the game played between two teams of 10 is very physical and fast-paced. Like in soccer, players score by getting the ball into the opposing team’s goal, but in lacrosse, the ball is moved across the field using sticks with a netted “scoop” attached to the shaft. Each game lasts 80 minutes. 

The game came to Israel in 2011. Lasday and his friend Scott Neiss, now executive director of the Israel Lacrosse Association, were two American Jews in their 20s who immigrated to Israel and decided to bring the sport here with them. The game is very popular in the United States, and they thought that it would help connect American Jews like them to Israel. They decided to start by planting a team in Ashkelon — a southern Israeli town that has been the sister city of Baltimore since 2003. Baltimore is home to a large Jewish community that loves the sport. “This was really important for us,” said Lasday. “The Jewish community helped us with professionals in the sport, and it gave us equipment for free.”

One year later, Israel had its first lacrosse national teams — men’s and women’s teams made up of American Jews, playing in the European championship. These teams formed the basis of a group of some 20 men and women who immigrated to Israel and settled in Ashkelon and other towns in the south so that they could take part in nurturing Israeli lacrosse.

“They saw it as a kind of mission,” Lasday said. “They all knew that they were part of something bigger, and I assume they relayed that feeling to the players born in Israel.” Lasday also said that an additional 80 American Jews have immigrated to Israel over the last few years because of lacrosse.

The Israeli women's lacrosse team, which secured silver at the 2019 European Championship.

About seven years ago, these new immigrants began spreading lacrosse among children and teens across the country by taking it to the schools. Nikol Baglay, now 20, is a star player on the Israeli women’s team. She was 13 when she started lacrosse because of its pace and the high adrenaline. “I ran track as part of the athletics program in my school in Ashkelon,” she told Al-Monitor. “One day, I saw a bunch of nice people standing next to the track with their sticks and balls. They were handing out flyers and telling people about the game of lacrosse in their American accents. They showed us how to play and let us try it.”

By 2015, she was already part of the Israeli national team for high school-aged girls under 19 and was headed to the European Championship.

“It was our baptism by fire. We had no expectations,” she said. “We were all just girls of 15-16. We were the youngest team there, and we had no experience. We saw that in the results. We got smashed and ended up in second-to-last place. But looking back and considering what we learned, it was a great price to pay. It was because of all those losses that we learned to win.”

Four years later, she takes great pride in the silver medal she won with the adult women’s team. “We defeated countries with yearslong traditions of lacrosse, like Scotland and Wales,” she said.

One of the main reasons lacrosse has made such incredible progress in Israel is that the sport is managed by the players themselves, and that no one is doing it for money. Many of these players also coach the next generation and help recruit new players to the sport. Israel is now home to 16 lacrosse clubs with 500 players, both men and women. “Almost every player becomes a coach or is involved in one way or another in lacrosse, mainly on a volunteer basis,” said Baglay, who coaches girls in elementary and middle school. "The American coaches brought the culture, gravity and respect for the sport. That had a big impact on me. My whole life I thought that women’s sports aren’t as important, and that people make fun of them. In lacrosse, we can strive to go far and compete at the highest levels. And there are more and more young girls who want to be a part of it.”

Israeli lacrosse hasn’t even finished celebrating the success of its women’s team, and its team for girls under 19 just finished playing in the World Championships in Canada won by the United States. Half of the players were born in Israel and were led by Yulia Gorobets, 16, who is considered to be a particularly promising young player. Despite her age, she was also part of the adult team that just won the silver medal in the recent European Championship. She was the youngest player in that tournament.

“It was very exciting!” she told Al-Monitor, beaming with enthusiasm. “It was a big privilege for someone as young as me to play for Israel’s adult women’s team. Lacrosse is an integral part of who I am. There is no greater honor than to represent your country. When I am at the matches, I meet and get a chance to speak with quite a few players from other countries. I feel like a kind of ambassador. The progress that lacrosse is making in Israel gets many players from around the world to show interest in Israeli society and get to know us better. I think that’s great.”

Two big tournaments took place in Israel in the space of little over a year — the 2019 European Women’s Championship and the 2018 World Men’s Championship. Together, they brought over 3,000 players from dozens of countries to compete in Israel. “We hosted them as best as possible,” Lasday said. "It was important for us that they get a lot of love here. If anyone came here with negative view about Israel, I have no doubt that after this visit, they have a totally different opinion.”

Lacrosse is still growing, not only in Israel but around the world, too. The International Lacrosse Association already has 67 members, and there is a good chance that the game will return to the Olympics by the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Israeli lacrosse has not yet reached the level of the sport as it is played in the United States and Canada, but given the progress that it has already made here, Lasday said he is feeling very optimistic.

“My dream is to see lacrosse become one of the most popular sports in Israel,” he said. “Playing in the Olympics could do that.”

While Israeli athletes who play soccer and basketball — the two most popular sports in the country — will probably still just have to fantasize about participating in the Olympics, Israel’s lacrosse teams have a real chance of fulfilling Lasday’s dream by winning Israel’s first Olympic medal in a ball sport for teams.

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