MOUNT VERNON — Here at Ash Park Stadium Thursday night — a thousand and a billion miles from the NCAA men’s basketball tournament Final Four in Texas — was a different version of amateur collegiate athletics.
The crowd size entered in the report on the women’s lacrosse game between St. Ambrose University and Cornell College was 43. It was less than half that at game time, but one bleacher section got pretty full after halftime when several members of Cornell’s men’s lacrosse team showed up to offer loud and loyal support for their female counterparts.
Lacrosse, not indigenous to Iowa by any means, has become a thing at Cornell and Davenport’s St. Ambrose. They are two of six Iowa universities and colleges to offer the sport for women, and two of over 500 nationwide that do so.
It’s the fourth season for men’s and women’s lacrosse at this 165-year-old institution. Both clubs have gotten better. The men’s team was 5-2 going into its Saturday game at Aurora University.
The women’s squad couldn’t hold on to a 9-5 lead and lost 13-11 to St. Ambrose to slip to 4-4. Which is a significant improvement from the Rams’ 1-14, 1-14 and 2-14 records of their first three seasons.
“It’s nice to see hard work coming to fruition,” said third-year head coach Meredith Merce.
Lacrosse has distinct similarities to soccer and hockey. Players use sticks with mesh nets attached and (goalies excepted) can only touch the ball with their sticks, which they use to carry, catch, pass and shoot the ball, and to strike opponents’ sticks.
There is running involved. Miles of running.
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Junior Lexi Dettbarn of Monona came to Cornell purely for the academics. She’s a philosophy major who minors in political science with an eye toward the school’s pre-law program.
Dettbarn, the daughter of longtime MFL MarMac boys’ basketball coach Eric Dettbarn, was a freshman who was approached by Merce to join Cornell’s lacrosse team.
“If you’d asked me what lacrosse was,” Dettbarn said, “I couldn’t have told you. I couldn’t even catch the ball at my first practice.”
Thursday night, Dettbarn scored four goals. Through eight games — the midway point of the Rams’ season — her 13 goals is tied for the team-lead with senior Caitlyn St. Marie. Dettbarn scored once in 2016 and had eight goals last year. She was named the team’s Most Improved Player both seasons.
“Lexi was one of the two last people I got to come out for the team that year,” Merce said. “She picked up a stick and has been growing as a player ever since. She’s so coachable, and she’s a great student.”
Merce is from New Jersey. She played lacrosse in high school and at New England College in New Hampshire, and played it exceptionally well. Her Cornell players come from nine different states (Dettbarn is the only Iowan), Washington, D.C., and the Virgin Islands, and played a lot of different sports in high school, but few played lacrosse. Some also are on Cornell’s soccer and volleyball teams.
Two years ago, the Rams lost games by scores of 18-0, 19-1, 24-0.
“Sometimes it was difficult,” Merce said. “I had to remind myself this was a group of athletes that had never played the game before. It was not like my college team. It is a process, and we are still growing.
“It’s one step at a time. The goal this season was to be more competitive, and I think we’re getting there. We want to get to the conference tournament in the next few years, and ultimately, the NCAA tournament.”
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Thursday’s 6 p.m. game began in sunshine and ended under a full moon. It featured a goal by Cornell’s Sydney Cooper that was punctuated by the horn of a nearby approaching freight train as if they were synchronized.
The Rams led 11-9 with less than five minutes left, but the Fighting Bees of St. Ambrose lived up to their nickname when it mattered most.
Cornell’s players clearly were down about losing once the game ended, while those Bees vigorously celebrated their comeback victory.
Not a grain of fame or a portion of fortune was at stake. Everyone seemed fine with that.
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