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Richmond Times Dispatch (Virginia)

 

At the end of her junior season, former lacrosse player Lisa Smith was given her senior night a year early. She had suffered four concussions playing the game - two as a sophomore and two as a junior - and the team thought she wouldn't be able to return for her senior season.

"All the doctors were really adamant about me quitting at that point," said Smith, who graduated from Mills Godwin in 2015. "Just because it was too dangerous. And you kind of have to look at the long road here. As much as I want to play and that was my favorite thing, they all said that it's just not worth it at this point."

Smith played midfield, and she said all of her concussions were the result of getting hit in the head by lacrosse sticks on the draw, when players vie for the ball. But she returned for her senior season after all, this time with a helmet. She played with one similar to those used in rugby, after wearing a protective band that covered the sides of her head at the end of her junior year.

"My mom and dad wouldn't let me play lacrosse without the helmet," Smith said.

For the first time, there's a performance standard in place specifically for women's lacrosse headgear. Whereas players such as Smith could previously wear various types of soft head protection, players who want to wear headgear now have to choose one of two helmet models. But there are varying opinions in lacrosse about what effects the use of headgear could have, and the use of headgear is still optional for players.

The performance standard was approved in May 2015 - American Society for Testing and Materials standard F3137. U.S. Lacrosse, which sets the rules for high school girls, ruled that any headgear worn on the field after Jan. 1 of this year had to meet the new standard. The two helmet models that meet the standard, and that are approved by U.S. Lacrosse, hit the market during the latter part of 2016.

So last spring marked the first season that players locally and elsewhere could wear the new helmets in scholastic competition.

A major part of the new helmets' design is a flexible shell to try to assure that those not wearing the helmets wouldn't be injured by those who are, in case of a collision. Both of the new models - one is made by the manufacturer Cascade, and the other by Hummingbird - resemble bicycle helmets, except the Cascade model includes built-in eye protection.

Caitlin Kelley, the senior manager of the women's game at U.S. Lacrosse, said she thinks soft headgear similar to the type Smith wore, had been allowed in the sport for close to 20 years, before the new standard was put in place.

"We felt that it was such an important safety concern and issue, that the equipment that was on the field should actually be tested and certified and sport specific," said Kelley.

Although helmets are an option, field players are only required to wear protective eyewear - goggles that provide a cage around their eyes - and a mouthpiece. The eyewear has been mandatory since 2004. Goalies can wear pads and full helmets with face masks, such as those used in the boys game, in which there's more contact.

Body contact isn't intended to be a significant aspect of girls lacrosse, but concussions are still a risk because of incidental stick-to-head or ball-to-head contact.

One study, released in 2015 and based on data from high school and college athletes collected between 1999 and 2001, found that women's lacrosse had the second-highest incidence of concussions, behind football. The primary cause was found to be contact with an object, such as a stick or a ball.

Another study, published this year and based on data from high school athletes collected from the 2011-12 school year through the 2013-14 school year, found that girls lacrosse had the fifth-highest concussion rate. It trailed football, boys lacrosse, girls soccer and boys wrestling.

But while some in the sport support the use of helmets, others worry that the equipment could change the way girls lacrosse is played, perhaps opening the door for more aggressiveness.

"We've gotten sort of definitely extreme responses," said Kelley. "People that think it will really ruin the women's game and impact it and make it more dangerous and more physical. There are definitely people that believe that. And then there are people that absolutely believe stick-and- ball contact is a reality and that this offers some protection."

Last spring, Mills Godwin attacker Libbie Smith, Lisa's younger sister, was one of the local players who wore one of the new helmets. She chose the Cascade model.

"My parents have just been driving it in us that it needs to be there in the sport," she said.

Like her sister, Libbie wore a rugby-style helmet the previous two seasons. Libbie, a rising senior who said she hasn't suffered a concussion playing lacrosse, thought it was great that a formal headgear standard was in place.

"Because it just shows that people want to be protected, too," she said.

Mills Godwin coach Kate Desai said that while Libbie was the only varsity player who wore a helmet, multiple players on the school's junior varsity team wore them. Desai, who said she played lacrosse from age 11 to 19, supports the use of helmets.

Desai said she doesn't think the helmets would cause players to be more aggressive around each other's heads. She said she believes the game is already aggressive and that it's about controlled aggression. She believes the helmets add an extra layer of protection, but don't encourage aggression.

"I don't think it's like, 'Oh, she's got a helmet, I can just check her in the head and she'll be fine,' " said Desai. "I don't think kids have that mentality, I just don't think that's inherently in them."

Atlee defender Ellie Woodward, a rising junior, was another local player who wore a helmet last season. She also went with the Cascade. Her mother, Cheryl Woodward, said the decision was made for her to wear a helmet after she suffered a second concussion back in January.

That one came in a snowboarding accident, and she was wearing a helmet at the time. Ellie's first concussion was suffered during lacrosse practice in 2016, when she was defending a teammate who was shooting and was hit in the head by the stick on the follow-through.

"It was no second-guessing it," said Cheryl. "It was like, 'If you want to continue to play, you're going to have to wear a helmet.' "

Ellie had a positive experience wearing a helmet for the first time. The helmet even became part of a new team activity.

"People would sign my helmet if they got the most ground balls in the game or they played really well - my coach would let people sign it," said Ellie. "And it became a big thing, and it's fun; I like it."

But Brooke Ireland, a consultant with the local Strikers lacrosse program, said she thinks helmets could change the way girls lacrosse is played - the finesse of the game. Ireland has also served as the head lacrosse coach at Virginia Tech and William & Mary, and was an assistant coach at Collegiate.

"I feel like it's going to be more aggressive," said Ireland, who played at Tech from 1994 to 1996. "I feel that the game has become more and more aggressive over the years, which I actually personally have liked. But aggressive the right way and the safe way.

"And I feel like if our officials are doing what they should be doing, or they're officiating correctly, then we shouldn't have to worry about head injuries."

Collegiate coach Annie Richards is also wary of the use of the helmets in the sport. Helmets don't completely eliminate the risk of concussions, and Richards said that when she sees research that says the equipment is the best way to go about things, then she'll be excited about it.

"I will not be encouraging helmets for any of my girl players unless there's some research that comes out that says this is a really, really good thing to do," said Richards.

While U.S. Lacrosse has ruled headgear optional, the Florida High School Athletic Association took it a step further. It voted in 2014 to make headgear mandatory. Next year, all players will be required to wear helmets that meet the ASTM standard. Florida is the only state to mandate headgear.

Kelley said that, while she doesn't have comprehensive data, the data she does have show that use of the helmets hasn't been great as it pertains to the number of players wearing them. Desai estimated that she saw no more than 10 varsity players wearing helmets in Conference 11 play last season. Richards said she saw perhaps two or three players on other teams wearing them.

Kelley said that if someone were to call her looking to mandate headgear for their school or league, she would say they can, but would also encourage them to support officials education and coaching education.

"Because if the game is played safely, and within the rules, then the injury risk to the head is very minimal," she said.

wepps@timesdispatch.com(804) 649-6823@wayneeppsjr

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