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As Wheelchair Lacrosse Grows, Sport Is Thundering Along In Maryland

February 15, 2019
The Johns Hopkins men's lacrosse team is one of the most accomplished programs in the country, but one team has dominated the Blue Jays like no other the past four years. 

The Maryland Thunder wheelchair lacrosse team has scrimmaged Hopkins every fall since 2015 and has yet to drop a game. Last year's contest was a 16-2 rout.

"They kicked our tails," Blue Jays head coach Dave Pietramala said. "Our guys got a real dose of humility."

Wheelchair lacrosse got its start in the late 2000s with a team forming in San Diego. Former Salisbury University club lacrosse player Mark Flounlacker, who suffered a spinal cord injury in 2011, founded the Maryland team in 2013. He teamed up with wheelchair basketball veteran Mike Looney to form what was originally called Freestate Wheelchair Lacrosse. Looney, a former college lacrosse player, suffered a spinal cord injury in 2000.

About a dozen interested players attended a clinic at the Freestate Sports Arena in White Marsh, Md., in June 2013. The group practiced a few times at Athletic Performance Inc. before the annual Ocean City (Md.) Classic lacrosse tournament in August. Flounlacker then raised funds to fly in the San Diego team for an exhibition, and the two sides played five games that weekend, featuring referees and full teams. Those matches are considered the first actual games in the history of wheelchair lacrosse.

"That's where it really started," Looney said. "From there it was like, 'OK, now we have to build on that.'"

Player-manager Looney ramped up activity in 2014, with practices every Sunday from May until the Classic. Freestate played a group from Richmond, Va., at the Classic that season, the final time the event would be a two-team affair. In 2015, the August meeting became an actual tournament, with four teams comprised of players from San Diego, Milwaukee, Richmond and Maryland.

Wheelchair Lacrosse USA, the governing body of the sport, progressed to a national championship in 2016, the first in wheelchair lacrosse history. There are now more than 10 teams under WLUSA's umbrella, including the Thunder.

"It's really starting to expand," Flounlacker said. "I'm excited for the future, for sure."

Wheelchair lacrosse is similar to its able-bodied counterpart, with identical gear and concepts. The primary difference is the playing surface, which mimics a roller hockey rink. Looney likened the game to box lacrosse because of the closed space.

Teams are made up of eight players instead of 11, with three midfielders, two attackers, two defensemen and a goalie. Defensemen don't use long poles, but they can use a stick with a goalie shaft. Players use sports wheelchairs, and the game is full contact. 

Participants have various conditions that require wheelchairs, Looney said. Some had accidents resulting in spinal cord damage; a few are amputees, and others had birth defects such as spina bifida. Most of the injuries are from the chest or waist down. Each team is allowed five able-bodied players, and three can play at a time.

Increased visibility of the sport after the 2015 expansion led to growth on and off the field. The Maryland team became affiliated with the nonprofit Kennedy Krieger Institute, and it's received donations from apparel company Lax So Hard and equipment manufacturer East Coast Dyes, among others. 

The most notable development has been the partnerships with local universities. In addition to Maryland's annual matchup with Hopkins, the Denver team has played the University of Denver and Long Island recently faced Hofstra University.

"It gives us a chance to really grow the game and show people that are able-bodied that wheelchair lacrosse is exactly the same as able-bodied lacrosse," Looney said. "You're just playing it on six wheels."

Pietramala described the annual meeting as a "sobering experience" for his team, providing some perspective to a group of young adults who take a lot for granted at their age.

"Take a look at those guys that are across from us in those wheelchairs," Pietramala said. "There are no complaints. They look at it as a blessing and a privilege to be able to do what they're doing. From our standpoint, that is an unbelievable lesson to be learned."

Maneuvering is the biggest adjustment for the Hopkins players, Looney said. It takes some time for inexperienced players to get used to making moves and finding open space. Looney said the Blue Jays always improve by the end of the game and would be a formidable opponent if they played more often.

Looney said the Hopkins players are tough to stop if they manage to gain possession on the offensive end, but he and Flounlacker agreed the chair is the great equalizer. 

"If you can't move, then you're screwed," Flounlacker said. "It doesn't matter how good your stick skills are."

The team changed its name to the Maryland Thunder in 2018, an homage to Baltimore's former National Lacrosse League squad. The Thunder currently practices at Alpha Ridge Park in Marriottsville, Md. Looney is working on putting together an eastern conference championship in July with Richmond, Buffalo and Long Island. He's also looking to schedule regular-season games at Alpha Ridge during the summer.

Flounlacker and Looney are working toward developing a youth operation to further expand the sport, a feeder program that would allow teams to slowly phase out able-bodied players. They also have designs on Paralympic competition, which will require building the game at an international level. 

The goal for 2019 is to have 14 teams at the national championship on Long Island, Looney said. And after two second-place finishes and a third-place finish, he's hoping to secure some hardware this year.

"I don't want to come home with anything but the trophy," Looney said.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mike Looney

Issue 251: February 2019