FALL FEAR: The Beltway Sniper Kept The Teams Away

By Nelson Coffin

As the realization that the two men apprehended early Thursday at a Maryland highway rest stop are, in all likelihood, the "Beltway Sniper", the whole Washington region exhales and the sense of freedom we all used to take for granted slowly returns. But only a few days ago a palpable air of paranoia had many looking over their shoulder when crossing a shopping mall parking lot or pumping gas. Most of the outdoor public events, like high school football games, have been cancelled or moved hundreds of miles away for more than two weeks. Fear of the Beltway Sniper even touched the world of women's lacrosse in a big way this fall as this past weekend's George Mason Fall Tournament, usually the season's biggest, suffered 16 team cancellations in a field of 20.

News Photos of Likely Sniper John Allen Muhammad and Montgomery County Hero Chief Charles Moose

George Mason usually hosts a who's who of women's lacrosse line-up at the fall tournament that was reduced quickly this year to just four squads after nervous teams pulled out of the prestigious event. Schools such as Syracuse, Ohio State, Cornell, Hofstra, Denver, Loyola, Johns Hopkins, Richmond, Notre Dame, Maryland, Rutgers, William & Mary and Duke drew their own restraining line rather than risk the uncertainty of entering what the nation viewd as a battle zone on nightly newscasts. Some felt they had no option despite the lure of participating in the nation's best fall-ball tourney, held at Mason the previous four years in the Northern Virginia suburbs.

Distance no doubt made evaluating the dangerous situation that much more difficult, especially for Denver Coach Abby Burbank and her charges. From 2,000 miles away Burbank had to make a decision that could have Had long-lasting ramifications if she made the wrong choice. "It was a group effort," recalled Burbank, who attended Williams College. "Obviously, we wanted to go and play, but when that shooting at the Home Depot happened, it made us cautious. We talked to the risk-management people here and at Mason and tried to make an educated decision, Basically, it was a risk we didn't want to take."

White vans evoked terror and caused traffic jams throughout the region

Understandably, George Mason coach Amy Umbach was not thrilled with the low turnout. "What I was hearing was that the administration and parents (of the other schools) had concerns," said Umbach, a Philadelphia prep product and W & M alum. "Once one team backed out, other schools followed like ducks in a row." Umbach's disappointment - after all the logistical work she had already done to assemble such a strong field - could not be masked.

"I told them that we were still going ahead with the tournament and that we would never put them in a position where they wouldn't be safe," said Umbach. "I had to know by Thursday, but once one or two dropped out, they all did."

Three notable exceptions helped the pared-down tournament go on as planned. Two-time Division I runners-up Georgetown University, George Washington University and American University showed up in full force to assure the weekend would not be wasted. Georgetown Coach Kim Simons had few reservations in terms of safety issues. "First, our teams have been functioning on a daily basis here (in the D.C. area)," said Simons. "We've been practicing outside. So it didn't make a whole lot of sense to practice here and then not play at Mason. Besides, the Mason campus and ours are alike in that it would be difficult for somebody to get off their campus quickly. We felt very safe. There was a lot of visible law enforcement and some undercover officers there, too." Still, the decision to play was not taken lightly by anyone involved in the Hoya program. "There definitely was some talk about it," Simons said. "We gave the kids the option of not coming. But everybody came and all the parents were there, too. I think the coaches were kidding around on the internet and calling it the 'Battle of the Brave' just trying to make light of a horrible situation. George Mason just did a great job of making us feel safe and secure."

The teams will be back next fall

Umbach was assured by security personnel and George Mason administrators that extra precautions would be taken for the players' safety. "We talked about it as a team," she said. "And they couldn't understand why other teams wouldn't come. But we were living it every day here. We practiced outside. The team even joked that I was a better target because I was the one standing still while they were all moving around."

Umbach will not let this year's problems affect the GMU fall event that she hopes will be even a bigger next October than in years past. "It's a great opportunity for our kids to play against top competition and just celebrate great lacrosse," she said. "We hope to have 20 teams next year." Quietly, only a weekend earlier Umbach staged an outdoor 7-on-7 high school-club tournament in which 13 of 14 invited teams participated as planned.

The college women were not the only people inconvenienced by the shootings. Major League Lacrosse' Titan Tour, a clinic slated for St. Stephens/St. Agnes School in the same area, was postponed until next fall as well. The league did not hesitate to follow in the footsteps of Northern Virginia high school and youth programs who scrapped outdoor activities during the recent reign of terror. "It was an internal decision made by the MLL in consultation with St. Stephens/St Agnes," said MLL Director of Communications Jaye Cavallo. "All parties involved came to the same conclusion. We felt it was in the best interest of campers, coaches, parents and staffers."

The entire region is free to walk in public without fear after Thursday's arrests. The lives lost will never be regained and the experiences missed by many of the regional public as events were canceled may never be made up. But plenty of lacrosse events are still planned in the area over the next few weeks. They are:

October 26, 2002 UVA Women's Play Day @ Charlottesville, VA 10:00 AM

November 16, 2002 - Fairfax Fall Brawl @ Lanier Middle School, Fairfax, VA

November 16, 2002 - Pumpkinhead Tournament in Bethesda, MD

November 17, 2002 - Virginia Weslyan 8 on 8 Tournament @ Virginia Beach, VA

November 23, 2002 - 4th Annual Turkey Shoot-out Tournament @ Oakton, VA

November 29, 2002 - Womens' Turkey Shoot @ Annapolis, MD
More information can be found in the Fall Ball section of E-Lacrosse.

Carc's sporting the new REBEL/STX Uniforms!

October 25, 2002