Racing on I-15 through the inland of California one often wonders what the founders of Las Vegas were thinking. Natural beauty aside there is not much out here. Literally. One can easily imagine the same landscape over a century and a half ago. Back in the 1800's there were rumors of an incredibly lush oasis in the middle of a high desert valley, drawing prospectors and explorers alike trekking to its foreboding location, crossing over a virtual moonscape of red rock and dust. Many sane individuals stayed home, choosing the creature comforts of water and shade to the real possibility of becoming a vulture's meal. Thus those that made the trek were the more adventuresome and risk taking, if not fool-hardy. What they found upon crossing into the Las Vegas valley surely ignited the same feelings of exultation experienced today.
Not much has changed on this stretch of I-15 in the past 150 or so years. Sure, sprawl has steadily crept out from East and West, and there's a gas station here or there, but aside from a few shacks off in the distance- most inhabited by people hoping not be found- there are few signs of life, human or otherwise. No rivers, no ponds, no trees signifying an underground spring. An anti-Eden of barren sand and cactus with some desert brush to add color. Without the endless parade of billboards advertising Amazing Jonathan's, Rat Pack Reunions and the ubiquitous Carrot Top, there would be no sign that we were headed off towards anything other than a desolate valley devoid of actual human colonization. (Granted one may argue whether Carrot Top represents true human existence at all). Yet despite such a bleak landscape passing you by, and the promise of a Nevadan furnace before you, one always finds themselves brimming with excitement when approaching Vegas. Because much like those initial settlers, the promise of an incredible desert oasis drives you mad with visions of hedonistic nights and days, Ghostbars and Circle Bars, red bulls and a man named Jack, happy to have survived the journey there. Obviously, a great place to hold a lacrosse tourney.
Or so we all thought as we drove like a bat out of hell to the original Sin City. My great friend and "Westside Connection" tourney team organizer, Mike Dewan was behind the wheel with me riding shotgun. In the back jump seat was my high school and college teammate, and best friend, Kevin Terry. All three of us had been friends for years, KT and I since we were sophomores in high school, and had played together on various teams for the past decade. Mike has been spearheading teams of only California/West Coast born and raised players since his junior year in college, starting with his Usual Suspects squad back in 1999. KT and I have been there most of the way, taking pride in being teams of relative outsiders at various western tourneys. Over the years the Vegas Tournament has been both kind (we won the tourney in 2001) and mean to our team of Usual Suspects, but we always seem to come back. This year our team joined up with another West Coast/California team Dub-C, and became Westside Connection; a natural merging of friends, teammates and fellow left coasters. For us this tourney has always felt right at home- An unnatural place to play, in a city full of outsiders.
Our drive out goes smoothly. Little traffic and a constant stream of sarcasm, stories and ripping of each other that comes from three close friends. Not a word or sentence is left untouched, and if you dare open your mouth it had better be funny or thought provoking or you'll deal with a stream of verbal admonishment. It's like being on a cross of The O'Reilly factor and The Gong Show, with nothing left sacred. Making only one stop in Baker, California to side track us (home of the world's largest thermometer, which was at 97 degrees on a cool Thursday evening) we get to Vegas relatively quickly. Its 8:30 pm, our first game isn't until 10:30 the next morning, and a full palette of nightlife beckons. Naturally it would serve us well to party until dawn.
To accommodate such grand plans of action the three of us meet up with fellow Westside teammates Eric Ryan, Brian Moore, James Craft, MJ Crickmore, Will Burson and Ben Schooler. All are fellow Suspects or Dub-C'ers, and all have been Vegas regulars. There is an understanding at this tourney that lacrosse is practically secondary, and the endless nightlife makes this a war of attrition more than anything else. As a result it is silently acknowledged that tonight will be relatively low key, which means we'll have our last cocktail by 5 and leave wherever we are by 5:30. We head for cabs and the initial stop of the MGM Grand. Within a few minutes of arriving however, a split emerges between the crew- gamble or party. Not being one to throw money at a bunch of cards I choose the latter with Eric, Craft and B. Moore joining me.
Its already 12:30, first game is in 10 hours- got to hit the Circle Bar at Hard Rock. The Circle Bar, via its location at the ultra convenient (to the fields) and ultra hip Hard Rock Casino always becomes the de facto Tournament headquarters. Want to see your friend from Boston out playing this year? Head to Circle Bar. Want to find the Cal Poly Women's Team? Head to Circle Bar. Want to see anyone associated with this tourney? Head to Circle Bar. We all head in, lead by Craft as he is trying to meet up with a few girls he met earlier. As is the usual on a Tourney Thursday night, the Circle Bar is surrounded by guys in Lacrosse Shirts and girls in tube tops, together though not necessarily mixing. After a quick cocktail and the obligatory flirting with a bachelorette, you literally cannot turn around without seeing a few drunken women in veils; it is off to Tangerine at TI. 1:15 am, 9 hours and 15 minutes till game time.
Tangerine is rather dead tonight, but no worry. It makes it so much easier navigating the bouncers and doormen to try to gain a rapport with any of them- thus greasing the skids for the weekend. Hanging at this new club I start to feel a pang of exhaustion and the need for sleep. Obviously I need a Red Bull. Feeling generous, I order a round of tequila and cocktails for the four of us- to the nice tune of $80. Forgetting I was in a Vegas club and not a local dive bar, my jaw almost drops. To no one's surprise, the cocktails taste bitter.
Before you know it we are restless to leave again, but as 3 o'clock rolls around our group of 4 has been reduced to two. B. Moore has taken an early exit to the hangover back roads and Crafty has been overcome by the sight of female skin, blinding him from our next stop- Drai's. Finishing our cocktails, Eric and I make haste for this haven of nightlife and head cases. An "only in Vegas" type of place, Drai's caters to the slightly off, not really getting going until 4am. Pulling up at 3:30 am we head to the door, which was being guarded by an ex-paramilitary Serb, or his ornery little brother. Cautiously explaining to him that I was doing research on the Vegas nightlife in conjunction with the Lax Vegas tournament, I do my best to wilt him down. But, alas it is not a go. Until, of course, Eric says "Hey, we just want to check it out" and he lets us in.
We head to the subterranean depths of this velvet Hades and wander through. Being a Thursday, it is relatively low key and not jammed. Perfect actually. As Eric heads to get a cocktail I convince myself in my completely inebriated state that I should track down the VIP hostess. Believing that my story in a lacrosse publication will grant me sway I do my best to explain to her that I am writing a piece on the absurdity of trying to play sports in Vegas. Unfortunately she takes me to be competent at this point, and hands me paper and pen to write down answers to my yet to be made up questions. Touché, my dear, touché. Unable to see the irony of asking about all this while drunk at 4:30 in the morning before a 10:30 game, I do my best to come up with anything. She gamely plays along until I call uncle and ask for a card. I'll call her tomorrow- it's 5:00 am and I need to close my eyes. Grabbing Eric, we duck into a cab. Game time in 5 hours, and we need to be ready.
The morning arrives early, and as much as the blackout curtains take care of the sun, they do nothing to quiet my three roommates- all of whom seem suspiciously spry for an early morning game. Such is the way in Vegas, where your body seems to ignore all efforts to slow itself down, and instead pushes you towards more and more ridiculous behavior. Like getting up after 4 hours sleep to play a physically demanding game in the middle of a desert. As we all head down to the cars for the trek over to the fields an unofficial head count yields no one missing. So far so good, no casualties to the sirens of Sin.
Lax Vegas 2005 has 11 teams in it this year, 5 in our bracket and 6 in the other. Though we have a smaller bracket we have the two time defending champion Rusty Red, as well as a V-Men team from Boston and an Oasis team with a few players from all over. Our first game however, pits us against Windy City Lacrosse club. A thoroughly sloppy affair, neither team seems to understand the concept of shooting at the cage, especially us. Though we out shoot our Chicagoan adversaries a whole lot to a few, the score remains three to three towards the end of the game. Fortunately we controlled the ball for almost the entirety of the second half as our face off guru Will Patton and longstick maven Dallas Hartley make it nearly impossible for the other team to gain possession. Pressing our luck, and our shots, we finally get one to slip by a determined Windy City goalie in the form of a Tim Casey goal- who played with far too much frenetic energy for someone out the night before. Walking away with a 4-3 victory leaves us relieved, but not satisfied. Especially considering the formidable task of team Rusty Red coming up next.
With the game not scheduled until 4:30 pm our next task is to avoid the sun for the afternoon. Many on our squad choose to go back to their hotels to sleep, I figure what better way to relax than at the Hard Rock Hotels heavenly pool. If there is a better place to ogle and people watch I would like to know, because in a town devoid of inhibitions this watering hole dominates. A short walk from the fields leaves us in the glowing confines of the Casino, where we head straight to the poolside Oasis. Trying to find shade amongst the crowd of sun bathers proves fruitless so we head for the water instead, leaving clothing, wallet and phone on a poolside step. Surrounding us is a non stop party- poolside blackjack, cocktails, girls in endless supply wearing next to nothing, and of course an 8 foot man cloaked in lion fur with a midget sidekick. Why they don't have these at every pool I do not know. Though the sun is hot, the water feels great and refreshing. To say I was getting myself game ready would be a lie. When temptations of Caligulan festivities dance around you, it is hard to convince yourself to head back out to an oven like field to play in a tourney. But we pry ourselves away anyways. Rusty Red is the defending champion, and we are still the team from California. If anything, that trusty chip on the shoulder allows motivation when there surely is a need for one.
Evidently the chip is there for the rest of the crew as well, and same for the Rusty Red. Both teams have full squads and get after it from the opening whistle. Boston coach Scott Hiller leads a group of Cannon clad Rusty Reds, with help from the Hollywood Starz club, and they play as a team with a high degree of familiarity. Our squad possesses not the team synchronicity but makes up for it in fresh legs and relentless riding. Using our full complement of attackmen and longsticks we maintain a degree of control over the game by not giving away any clears. The arrival of Nick Sherrill and Chris O'Mahoney, two Sonoma d-men, let us keep a constant flow of aggressive defenseman onto the field, and since it is the second game the legs feel a bit more spry and the hangover has subsided to a point of irrelevance. Strangled into a 3-3 tie towards the middle of the fourth quarter our middies and attack start to take over, initiating a productive offense and maintaining the face off's in our favor. Will Burson and Ben Alexander, two ex-Sonoma Attackmen, punch in 3 goals to make the victory stand at 6-3. As the whistle blows to signify the end, we gather for the customary handshake, immediately focusing on the ridiculous Vegas night planned ahead. Our next game is not until 4:30 pm the next day, which may make the Vegas heat doable. That's doubtful, but a possibility.
Friday of Lax Vegas is the 'official' kick off party for the tourney, and usually the night of the most debauchery. This is by design as tourney director Kirk Schulz and his right hand man Mike Vermeys seem to always set up a party worthy of the Vegas name. This is fantastic but seems to be at the expense of the actual tournament play. Given the absurd amount of alcohol consumed, relentless 24 hour party scene, and rather horrible dry heat, Vegas is a most formidable place to host a decent tourney. For if you look at most lacrosse destinations- Vail, Placid, Hawaii, Tahoe, O-city, The shore, etc… they all possess environs somewhat conducive to athletic activity . Vegas ain't the same. The environs are uncomfortable, the distractions are constant and strong, and hedonism is the rule, not the exception. Athletic activity here is usually done indoors- basketball, dodge ball, Arena Football, etc, or at night. The only thing done outdoors here is golf, gambling, drinking or digging holes in the desert. Naturally, of course, a lacrosse tournament seems like the most logical event to have here.
When I asked Kirk about these issues he was adamant about the feasibility in throwing a tourney, and pointed to 7 years of successive fields. Additionally, if this tourney were to be such a calamity it would not consistently draw teams from all over the country. These are truly valid points and prove the mettle of the Lax Vegas enterprise. However, in the spectrum of lacrosse tourneys, from game focused to social focused, Vegas weighs heavily towards the social activities rather than the games themselves. Not as if this bothers many of the teams. As we all know, the post collegiate lacrosse culture is not averse to social interaction.
The Rainbow Room plays host to the kick off pre party and is a nice venue, but around 11pm people begin to break off to various destinations. One of our attack's birthdays is today so we mentally scratch him off the list of available players for tomorrow. Since it is the weekend every club, casino, and bar in Vegas is doused with hordes of people. Lines are an hour or so long and when you have more guys than girls it doesn't help the cause. Luckily our friend Daryn McCord at Studio 54 hooked us up and put a group of us on the list, saving us the time of waiting to pay for over priced cocktails. So off we went to another dizzying night of thumping bass, cockeyed bartenders, bachelorettes from Iowa, Tri-Delts from Colorado, and the occasional road tripping duo from the somewhere in the Carolinas. Since we don't have a game until late the next day this evening extends into infamy. As hard as it is to pull yourself to a hot afternoon game, it is harder to pull yourself to bed in a cool and electric night. Not with so much opportunity for carnal recreation at your every whim.
Our eyelids get a break the next day, and by the time we get to the fields many games have already been played. In the other 6 team bracket the Ankle Breakers and Rocky Mountain Oysters have been distinguishing themselves from the rest of the field. The Oysters have a considerable collection of talent, including Navy alums Ben Horn, Seth DiNola and Graham Gill, as well as Barrage defenseman Brian Kelly. Ankle Breakers represents the requisite Long Island squad with guys who have helmets adorning the regions respective lacrosse factories. It is no surprise that these two teams are at the head of the group.
Rusty Red had already won their two games by the time we start our first game against the V-Men, thus in order for us to stay at the top of our bracket and earn a spot in the finals we have to win both of our contests rather convincingly. Looking across the field it seemed that we would have our hands full with the Middlebury helmets dotting the squad. Yet whether it was the late start, the cooler weather, or the day of getting familiar with each other, something seems to click for us and we rolled in our first game 14-3. Much of the credit should be given to our fresh supply of legs that we constantly rotated in, as well as Will Patton, Ben Schooler and our longsticks controlling almost every face off. Whatever it was, it felt good, and was hopefully a sign of things to come.
With the first game down, and the next not for a bit we all scramble to the Hard Rock sports book for the end of the Saturday football afternoon. Seemingly every other team felt the same way and the book is crowded with smelly dudes in lax shorts and Under Armour. After watching a few upsets, and losing a few dollars, we head en masse back to the field. Fortunately our last game is starting at 7:15 under the cool shade of night. This naturally motivates our team, as does the recent news that the tourney format was altered to have a final four tomorrow rather than just a championship game. Though it made the most logistical sense, from our perspective it seemed as a bit of a slight- as if our previous wins were a mirage. Evidently our trusty chip came through for us again and we responded with a better game than the first, against a more talented Team Oasis opponent than the previous. By rolling up an 11-3 victory we ended up with an undefeated round robin record, which admittedly was a bit of a surprise.
Ending the games on a high note left the team stoked for another night out, yet there was a motive beyond fun that was driving everyone out into the Vegas night. It was a sense of duty. With so much temptation and partying literally right outside your door trying to lay low or rest up for a game becomes a task of Herculean strength. Rarely do you get to come to Vegas, and make no efforts to classify any other city in the same category in order to downplay its uniqueness- such acts would be ignorant and foolhardy, and even rarer still do you get a chance to go to Vegas with 20 of your closest buddies. Obviously being responsible the night before the semifinals and finals is not a viable option. What then, would I say I was doing here? Since tournaments are usually a vehicle with which we all use to get our weekend warrior lax-jones out, what exactly does that make the Vegas tourney?
Such answers were not to be found this particularly Saturday night, however, and like a reluctant senior dragging himself out to 6am workouts I put on my wares for a night of meandering mayhem. The team remained relatively tight knit for the most part, again entertaining the usual assortment of Vegas beginners and over-amped 21 and a day year olds. But as the night wore on I found the effects of two a day games and four hour a night sleeps catching up with me. This time they were not to be tranquilized with darts of Red Bull and I retreated back to the hotel at the early hour of 3am; early for Vegas, that is.
Waking the next morning the body felt relieved to have a whole 6 hours of sleep, and responded kindly to the demands that were soon to be put upon it. At the fields our team apparently took the weekend warrior pill, as all were accounted for and ready to go, save for B. Moore who decided not to wake up. In the shakedown of the brackets we drew the higher seed and would be playing the Ankle Breakers in one semi, while Rusty Red would be facing the Rocky Mountain Oysters in the other. Attrition had begun to take its toll on the ranks, as the Ankle Breakers initially had troubles fielding its squad for this Sunday morning game. Given the spirit of the tourney no fuss was made for the delay, though we were awarded possession of the ball to start the game. Picking up where we left off the night before our team was able to take control of the game through constant riding and hustle, and dictating the face offs. Eventually the score came to be 6-4 in our favor, sending us to play in the championship.
In the other semi Rusty Red came back from a 6-5 halftime deficit to thoroughly defeat the Oysters by the score of 15-8. Although initially surprised by the lopsided outcome of that game due to the relatively younger legs of the Oysters, it made sense upon further review. 3 days of Vegas partying effectively negates much athletic advantage, and the supposed familiarity of the defending champions surely made it difficult to defend for a group of players thrown together. And I imagine Rusty Red was eager to avenge its only tourney loss in two years.
With the finals set, there was only a mere break between games before the opening face-off. Both teams did not want to bake in the desert heat much longer than they had to, consequences be damned. From the outset of this game it was Rusty Red who came firing, initially taking a 3-1 lead. Their cuts were crisp, their defense was stout and they were out hustling their younger adversaries. Any advantage we may have had in terms of hustle was effectively negated in the first half. But then it all seemed to turn on again. Constantly rotating through all of our players, we put constant pressure on the Red on both sides of the field. Gradually the score started creeping back to even, 3-2, 4-2, 4-3, 4-4. The score stood at 5-4, advantage to Rusty Red with under two minutes remaining, until our trusty workhorse Ben Schooler beat his man for a final tally. By the time regulation ended the ping pong of scoring left us all at 5-5.
With the advent of sudden death overtime it became a game of whose goalie would blink first. Fortunately for us our goalie Derrick Kravitz hadn't blinked all weekend and fended off the initial shots that flew his way- the last one caroming off to waiting longstick Dallas Hartley. What ensued was a textbook fast break, with Hartley passing up to breaking D-man Aaron Myers, who promptly induced the Tim Casey to Will Burson to Ben Alexander game winning goal. It was over. Finally. 6-5, Westside Connection.
After the customary congratulations and handshakes and general milling about with the team, it was time to head back to Los Angeles- taking quite possibly the most dreadful stretch of congested interstate this side of the Jersey Turnpike. For as much fun and anticipation the journey out to Vegas brings, the journey back remains its polar opposite. Finally your body relaxes and realizes the incredible amount of damage that has been induced by endless nights and a diet of beer and vodka. Throw in the bumps, bruises, sweat and grime of a lacrosse tournament as well as a much lighter wallet and you have a recipe for involuntary revolt- enough for someone to curse this place forever, and vow never to return. Yet as me, KT, Mike Dewan and now Ben Schooler, loaded into Mike's truck all that was spoken about was how we were going to have to fly out next year to avoid the traffic. Nary a word was mentioned of the sunburn, the heat, the hangovers or the tourney field becoming victim to the whims of Vegas- for us, and for many others, the sirens song of sin remains much stronger than the veritable voice of virtue. Such is the draw of Lax Vegas- its dry, its hot, and you feel like hell when its all said and done, but rarely is there an opportunity to have such self-gratifying fun.
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