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Coaches Discuss Improving Equipment

Every time a lacrosse players drops to the ground injured, Greg Cannella's thoughts drift back to 1999 and a chill goes down his spine.

"Those feelings haven't gone away," the 10th-year head coach at the University of Massachusetts said Thursday afternoon.

Cannella was on the sideline running a UMass practice in 1999 when Eric Sopracasa, a longtstick midfielder, was struck in the chest by a shot, collapsed on the field and died.

"It still affects me emotionally," Cannella said, "thinking about Eric losing his life on the lacrosse field. I always think about his family and how they're doing. That's the worst part."

Today, George and Deborah Boiardi, Cornell coach Jeff Tambroni and his players are enduring the nightmare the Sopracasa family and the Minutemen experienced five years ago. The Boiardis' son, George, a senior defensive midfielder for the Big Red, was struck in the chest by a shot late in Wednesday afternoon's game in Ithaca vs. Binghamton and collapsed and died. He was 22 years old.

"They said it was a million-to-one thing back in 1999," Cannella said. "Well, it's not a million-to-one thing. Not in my book."

The tragedy at Schoellkopf Field has rekindled discussion among coaches about improving the equipment worn by men's college and high school lacrosse players. Boiardi was wearing standard lacrosse equipment when he was struck - helmet, shoulder pads, elbow pads and gloves. Only goalies are required to wear a chest protector.

"I said this years and years ago, that we have to adjust our equipment based on the speed of the game," former Cornell coach Richie Moran said. "Football has added a lot. Why haven't we? The velocity of the ball has increased tremendously with the advent of plastic sticks."

Moran is executive director of the Intercollegiate Men's Coaches Association, a lacrosse oversight committee that was formed in December to advise the NCAA on issues such as recruiting. He said that in light of Wednesday's tragedy, it may be time for the group to expand its reach.

"Obviously, we have to do more to protect players at all levels," he said. "We really have to set the tone."

Moran can count on plenty of support from the coaches.

"I'd be very much in favor of a rule change to make it more safe," Johns Hopkins coach Dave Pietramala said. "Guys are shooting the ball so hard now."

"It's time to look at it and look at it seriously," Cannella said.

"There's no question in my mind that it is time," said Binghamton coach Ed Stephenson, who knelt in stunned silence with his players as emergency medical personnel tried to save Boiardi's life. "It's too frequent of an occurrence in our sport. Hopefully, this will start a movement to change and improve the equipment."

The National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research, based at the University of North Carolina, reported that two men's lacrosse players died from catastrophic injuries during the two decades from 1983-2002. With 105,218 players participating, the fatality rate per 100,000 participants during the period was 1.90. The fatality rate for baseball during the same period was 0.67; for football it was 0.53.

"You don't see football players running around in inadequate equipment," Moran said.

"We have to evolve and react to this," Pietramala said. "It's a contact sport with limited pads. It's amazing that we haven't dealt with more injuries."

The coaches believe it will take NCAA rules to bring the players into compliance. They agreed that players in general prefer to wear as little equipment as possible.

"That's true," Syracuse coach John Desko said. "Some shoulder pads will go down and cover much of the sternum area, but the players don't like to feel restricted."

"That doesn't make it right," Pietramala said.

In the case of Sopracasa, a chest protector may not have helped. He suffered Commotio Cordis, a phenomenon that occurs when a healthy person, usually a young male (the average age is 14), is struck in the chest wall by a blunt instrument - most often a baseball or a hard rubber object such as a hockey puck or lacrosse ball - at the precise millisecond the heart is repolarizing between beats, resulting in cardiac arrest. Boiardi's cause of death has yet to be determined.

A study published in the March 6, 2002, Journal of the American Medical Association reported that of 128 confirmed cases of Commotio Cordis studied, fatal blows were inflicted at a wide range of speeds - as slow as 30 mph (a lacrosse shot can reach 100 mph) - and that 28 percent of the victims were wearing chest protectors.

If the event does occur, the best hope of recovery is having an automatic external defibrillator on hand and applied within three minutes of the blow. Even then, only 25 percent of the victims recover. Cornell had an AED on hand, and it was used immediately in an attempt revive to Boiardi.

Regardless of his cause of death, coaches believe it is time to legislate more safety into the game.

"Does this change it?" Cannella said. "I don't know. Hopefully, it does."