Lacrosse club president sees major opportunity in The World Games

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rep twg lacrosse eagen israel 550pxZach Eagen (left) and Wingate University's Brendan Grove representing Israel at the Heritage Cup tournament in Springfield, Massachusetts, this summer. During The World Games, Eagen will assist the Israeli men's and women's teams and serve as a liaison between the teams and the organizers. Image courtesy Zach EagenZach Eagen, a rising senior majoring in health care management and president of the UAB Men’s Lacrosse club team, has been in love with the game since he was 8 years old. So he is pretty pumped that the giant banner outside the UAB Rec Center advertising The World Games features a bedsheet-sized photo of a U.S.-Canada lacrosse match. He is even more excited about how the arrival of lacrosse’s elite in Birmingham could jump-start an already growing sport in Alabama.

Eagen, who is from Marietta, Georgia, saw the sport explode in the Atlanta area as he grew up. “I think we could see that same thing happen here,” he said. Lacrosse’s speed and action draw in young people, Eagen says, and they can progress rapidly because it uses skills they have already developed in baseball, basketball and soccer, and has the contact of football and rugby. Parents, like his own, love the fact that concussions and injuries are much less common in lacrosse. “We are already seeing a lot of kids drop other sports and pick up lacrosse sticks,” Eagen said. And it is telling that Birmingham is able to support the only brick-and-mortar lacrosse store for hundreds of miles around, he adds. (In 2021, Alabama had its first five-star high school recruit, a goalie from Briarwood Christian School.)

When Eagen was a kid, the powerhouse teams from Duke and Johns Hopkins universities came to Atlanta for a match that inspired many spectators. He thinks The World Games could do the same for Birmingham and beyond. “It’s going to be good for the sport in Alabama to bring in really high-level lacrosse,” he said. And there is more good news: This spring, the International Olympic Committee officially added lacrosse to the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles. The World Games will be one of the first opportunities for fans to watch the dynamic variant of the game that will be played at the Olympics, known as Sixes. See the World Games video below for an explainer.

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Giving back for the game

5 things to know about TWG lacrosse

1. Looks familiar…: Lacrosse requires moves and skills similar to baseball, basketball, football, soccer and hockey.

2. Lacrosse, accelerated: The version of lacrosse played at The World Games is known as Sixes — a faster-paced game than the standard field lacrosse.

3. Back, after 120 years: Lacrosse will return to the Olympics for the 2028 Summer Games in Los Angeles.

4. Founding people: One of the eight nations playing in The World Games lacrosse tournament is the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an indigenous sports organization of athletes from the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora nations, which originated the game of lacrosse.

5. World’s best: The United States and several other countries have professional lacrosse leagues. The U.S. men's team at The World Games, for example, has 10 pros in the American Professional Lacrosse League and two college players.

Eagen and several other UAB Men’s Lacrosse club members will have a front-row seat to the lacrosse matches at The World Games, which are being played at UAB’s PNC Field. (See the schedule and buy tickets here.) Some are serving as official scorekeepers; others are helping set up the fields and retrieving balls during game play.

Eagen has been selected to be an official liaison between The World Games organizers and the Israel lacrosse teams (men’s and women’s). “I will be with them from the moment their airplane lands until they leave,” Eagen said. That includes helping the athletes and coaches get checked in at the Athletes’ Village at UAB, and find the dining facilities and practice areas, as well as passing along official communiques from The World Games officials. The role is particularly meaningful for Eagen, who is Jewish and has Israeli grandparents. Earlier this summer, he traveled to Connecticut to play with the Israeli lacrosse development teams and attended the NCAA lacrosse championships. “There are not a lot of Jewish lacrosse players in the South,” Eagen said. “To be practicing on a field with 60 Jewish guys — that was pretty cool.”

Tradition of service

Volunteering is a major focus of the Men’s Lacrosse club. Eagen and the group’s more than 20 members recorded an average of 31 service hours per person at youth lacrosse camps and clinics in Birmingham and across the state last year — an effort that earned them the annual service award from UAB’s Student Government Association.

“In the lacrosse community, being generous with your time always leads to new opportunities and making new friends,” said Dan Willson, the club’s coach and staff adviser, who is a system administrator for UAB IT. “I helped a fledgling lacrosse blog with its webserver issues in 2007, which led to playing lacrosse with Thailand’s national team in a 2011 expo in Bangkok, which led to playing in a tournament in Turkey in 2013 with the Moscow Lacrosse Club, which led to becoming an assistant coach with Russia Lacrosse in the 2014 and 2018 World Cup, plus the 2016 European Championships. If I had not volunteered as a coach 34 years ago, I’d have missed more priceless life experiences than I care to imagine.”

rep twg lacrosse 1000pxThe UAB Men's Lacrosse club team during a recent match, with adviser Dan Willson looking on in the background, center. Image courtesy Abigail Donovan.

In fall 2021, UAB Men’s Lacrosse hosted one of the largest college-level club tournaments in the country. “This year, we are aiming to triple in size, with 12 men’s and 12 women’s teams, playing at the Hoover Met with sponsors and vendors on-site,” Eagen said. “We use all the revenue to keep our dues low — we have the lowest club dues in the Southeast, at $200 compared with an average of $1,200, and we invest in loaner equipment to give people a chance to try it out.”

Lacrosse may have a reputation as a sport for private-school kids, but that is not reality, Eagen says. One of the eight nations playing in The World Games lacrosse tournament is the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an indigenous sports organization of athletes from the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora nations, which originated the game of lacrosse. “They just had a stick and a ball, and they played to get closer to each other,” Eagen said. “That’s what we’re after as well.”

Why lacrosse?

rep twg getty lacrosse 550pxZach Eagen found lacrosse by accident. He and his dad came across some toy lacrosse sticks at Target one day and started to toss a ball back and forth. “I said, “Is this a game you can play?” Eagen recalled. Soon after, he joined his first youth team. “My dad played everything when he was growing up in New Jersey — football, baseball, basketball, hockey,” Eagen said. “He said, ‘If I had known about lacrosse, that’s what I would have done.’ A lot of the parents of kids I coach say the same thing.” By high school, Eagen was working as a referee and coach, in addition to playing. (He is the youngest sanctioned referee working college-level matches in Alabama, he notes.) A knee injury kept a stick out of his hands for a while, but it never dimmed his love for the game.

“Passing or shooting in lacrosse uses the exact same mechanics as pitching a baseball, except your other hand is on the stick,” Eagen said. “Anyone who understands defensive principles from basketball will understand lacrosse defense. Just like in soccer and hockey, passing and being able to move without the ball are crucial. People who are used to those sports can pick lacrosse up quickly and learn to play at a high level. Several guys on our team hadn’t played before college, and now you won’t see them without sticks in their hands.”

Speed is important, he said, “but you can’t just give the ball to the fastest kid and have them run around everyone else. There are seven or eight moves that a smaller or slower person can do to stop you or get past you. You have to understand how to move to create openings, and the entire team has to work together to be successful.”