Student taking Iowa club lacrosse from amateur to contender

BY IAN MARTIN | MARCH 11, 2010 7:30 AM

Ryan Miller/The Daily Iowan
UI junior Alex de la Peña gets poke-checked while rolling to dodge a defensive player during men’s lacrosse club practice on Tuesday in the Bubble.
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He’s probably the best player at his sport at the University of Iowa.

And as an informal teacher of the game, he may be the most important player on his team.

So why hasn’t anyone heard of Alex de la Peña? Maybe because few in Iowa have ever heard of his sport.

“It’s funny. How the football players are treated at Iowa, that’s how the lacrosse players were treated at Landon [High School],” said de la Peña, who attended the all-boys school in Bethesda, Md. — one East Coast state where lacrosse is considered the premier spring sport.

The man his teammates call “de la” has been playing the game since third grade. Now in Iowa — where there is just one high-school lacrosse team in the state, at Waukee Senior High — he is one of four captains on the club team. The squad is filled with first-timers and people who picked up the sport in high school.

Considered to be one of the United States’ fastest growing games, with a 9.1 percent spike in participation from 2007 to 2008, according to U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s best description may be ice hockey on grass. It’s a hard-hitting and fast-paced game with players attempting to shoot a hard rubber ball past a goalkeeper and into a net. There are 10 players per team on the field at a time, and like soccer, there are defenders, midfielders, and attackers.

The Los Angeles-born attacker said he picked up the sport when he moved to Long Island, N.Y. And while he may not look like a top-tier athlete off the field in his usual attire of sweatpants or pajamas, the roughly 5-8 de la Peña is one of the best when he dons his helmet and shoulder pads.

He describes his game only as “quickness,” but his teammates see it differently.

“He’s really smooth, and everything looks easy when he does it,” cocaptain and fellow attacker Mitch McElman said. “He’ll throw a no-look pass or a behind-the-back pass, or he’ll score behind-the-back. Every once in a while, I catch myself watching him.”

McElman admitted de la Peña’s talents are Division-I caliber, but de la Peña said that after pondering the idea in high school, it didn’t appeal to him.

“[D-1 players] have to run seven miles a day and do tons of sprints,” said the 21-year old, once recruited by Villanova, Vermont, and Maryland — all considered competitive schools at the collegiate level. “I just didn’t think I could do it for four years.”

And so de la Peña ended up at a large public university in the Midwest. But while lacrosse isn’t strong in Iowa, it seems he is taking a liking to the campus.

“Al really loves the university,” said George de la Peña, a UI associate professor of dance and Alex’s father. “He’s a Hawkeye through and through. For him, it’s a point of pride that the lacrosse team be as good as other aspects of the university.”

For the Iowa lacrosse club, Alex de la Peña may be the right person to accelerate the spread of the sport on campus.

“You just don’t see someone who moves, performs, and excels at the sport as well as Alex does in the Midwest,” said assistant head coach and UI medical student Casey Ervin. “He can give the younger kids and those who are new to the game experience that nobody else can.”

Ervin is one of two assistant coaches for Iowa Lacrosse. The team has no head coach.

But this season a head coach doesn’t seem necessary. The club has started 5-0 thanks to a strong defense and high-powered offense that averages more than 17 goals a game.

Competing in the Great River Lacrosse Conference, the team is a threat to win Division 1-AA of the conference — especially with their 2009 team MVP de la Peña averaging 6.67 points — or goals and assists — per game.

De la Peña said he would consider coaching lacrosse in the future, especially back at his high school.

This season, with expectations for de la Peña and the team high, the attacker stays in a routine that is meant to honor the tradition of the Native American foundations of the game. The sport started among the Iriquois and Hurons hundreds of years ago.

He listens to the score from the film Last of the Mohicans before games, inspiring him for his motivational speeches like any good coach has.

“Last year, I talked to the team before the game,” said Alex de la Peña, who told his team the game was meant for fun but to always remember that “it started it out as war. Remember that you’re battling somebody … and if everybody gets his job done, you’ll win.”

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