Found in Translation

by Adam Herman

Driving back from the University of Delaware on a hot day in mid-May after a nine-goal defeat wasn’t how the Drexel men’s lacrosse team had hoped to end its 2014 season.

The Dragons had toppled high-profile teams in Hofstra University and the University of Pennsylvania in successive games, pushing expectations to the side en route to the Elite Eight of the NCAA men’s lacrosse tournament.

After the game, Drexel senior Ben McIntosh was asked how he was handling the loss, his final outing as a Dragon.

“We worked hard all year, and we took this program to somewhere it’s never been,” the grizzled veteran answered.

His head hung low.

His answer was proud. His body language was anything but.

Driving back from the University of Delaware on a hot day in mid-May after a nine-goal defeat wasn’t how the Drexel men’s lacrosse team had hoped to end its 2014 season.

So it didn’t.

On June 27, the team boarded an airplane and took off for Tokyo, to compete in the 25th Annual Friendship Games, an international competition organized by the Japanese Lacrosse Association as an exhibition for Japan’s ever-growing crop of lacrosse players. The sport found a foothold in the East Asian nation almost three decades ago and has been blossoming ever since.

But how does a school like Drexel University end up at an event like the Friendship Games? The Dragons had a brilliant year, but they’re no lacrosse powerhouse — at least, not yet.

No. A connection like this comes from fortuitous hirings, friendships, and more than a little bit of Northeastern hospitality.

This year’s games were 25 years in the making. Drexel was destined to come to compete in Japan this summer, even if the University didn’t know it at the time. Twenty-five years ago, Japan found lacrosse, lacrosse found Japan, and a collection of men in Maryland hooked up with a dozen men in Japan to stage an international sporting revolution.

In Christopher Marlowe’s 1604 play, “The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus,” the character Faust asked, “Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships?”

In international lacrosse relations, there is no question as to whose face launched a thousand lacrosse sticks.

Don Zimmerman coaching on the field.
Don Zimmerman is that man.

Zimmerman, the legendary former Johns Hopkins University men’s lacrosse coach and current head coach of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County team, was born in Baltimore in 1953. He was essentially born into lacrosse royalty, living in the de facto cradle of American collegiate lacrosse. Zimmerman played for St. Paul’s School, a college prep school in Brooklandville, Md., with one of the most prolific high school lacrosse programs in the nation.

The sport is his life; he never really had a choice. Where he made his choice was in choosing to actively promote lacrosse as well as participate in it. Since his playing career at Johns Hopkins ended in 1976 and his coaching career took off back at Hopkins, Zimmerman has been at the forefront of spreading lacrosse to new markets.

He speaks in reserved tones about many things — when I ask him about what he thinks of the recent success Drexel’s men’s lacrosse team has experienced, he commends the Dragons in a few words without stepping to hyperbole. Zimmerman has seen a lot in more than four decades with the game of lacrosse.

But everything changes when I ask him about the beginnings of his relationship with Japan and the country’s efforts to build lacrosse’s notoriety. He’s devoted the majority of the last four decades to playing, teaching and coaching lacrosse to anyone interested in listening. In 1986 he was presented an opportunity to showcase the sport for an untapped but rabidly interested market: the entire country of Japan.

A number of representatives from Johns Hopkins were in Tokyo awarding an honorary degree to Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone. After the ceremony finished, the pomp and circumstance tucked away, the group moved to a reception, where lacrosse quickly became the hot topic.

Japan wanted to play. Hopkins could help.

That night the dream of lacrosse making the leap across the ocean was sparked by three men with a mutual interest for good sport and relationships.

“A Hopkins alum named Nori Endo, who was working in Tokyo, came into the reception and started talking about how they were playing lacrosse in Japan,” Zimmerman says.

A pair of students at Keio University in Tokyo, Yusuke Sasaki and Mizuho Wakabayashi, had seen the game of lacrosse on television and instantly fell in love.

Japan’s national sport is sumo wrestling, and the country adopted baseball in the late 19th century, turning it into the country’s biggest professional sport. But lacrosse was something new. There was speed and excitement, two facets lacking in the ploddingly pastural baseball and the slow-motion buildup of sumo wrestling. Sasaki and Wakabayashi needed to know more, so they went to the Canadian Embassy for information. The Embassy told them to talk to Endo.

John Hopkins Vice President Ross Jones was in Tokyo on that trip as well, and he convinced Endo to push the idea of stirring up interest for lacrosse in Japan with higher-ups. Endo had found students interested in giving the new sport a shot. The time was right. So Endo walked over and discussed the idea with former Hopkins head coach and then-Director of Athletics Bob Scott.

Portrait of Bob Scott inside a diamond shaped frame.
That night the dream of lacrosse making the leap across the ocean was sparked by three men with a mutual interest for good sport and relationships.

“Scott went over and gave a week-long clinic,” Zimmerman explains. “The following year, after the 1987 season, I went over with four players and basically took them from the throwing, catching and line drill stage to playing the first game ever on Japanese soil. It was like a pickup game, with players mainly from Keio, and then it really caught on.

“The following year they came over to Baltimore and I put on a three or four day mini-camp for them and that really got it rolling. They came over to the Johns Hopkins camp and I picked a camp all-star team to play against the Japan team.

“And then when camp was over, we had the mini-camp for them at Hopkins.”

Zimmerman has remained heavily involved in Japanese lacrosse since those first camps and clinics with Keio students. The Tokyo-based university often visits Zimmerman at UMBC, scrimmaging and participating in clinics with Japan’s old friend.

He has also traveled to Buenos Aires, Argentina to help teach the game in the South American country in December of 2004, spending eight days fleshing out the sport in a country which boasts pato, a combination of polo and basketball, as its national sport. Zimmerman admits that lacrosse is in its “initial stages” of development in the world’s fourth-largest Spanish speaking nation, lacking much visible growth, if any. But it’s coming along.

That is the whole goal of Zimmerman’s lacrosse crusade. He’s spreading the word and teaching the beauty of his craft to brand new audiences who are beholden to the Johns Hopkins legend’s seemingly limitless knowledge.

On May 30, 1989, Don Zimmerman’s Johns Hopkins squad faced off against Syracuse University in what is known as one of the greatest collegiate men’s lacrosse games in history. Some circles call it the greatest college lacrosse game ever played.

A then-record crowd of 23,893 lacrosse fans soaked in the sweltering springtime sun at the University of Maryland’s Byrd Stadium on May 30, 1989. The high only reached 82 degrees that Tuesday, but the humidity reached an overbearing 97 percent. It had rained four days out of the last week and it would rain again the very next day, stirring up the infamous Baltimore-area humidity.

It was like playing lacrosse in a rainforest, save the precipitation. The air was thick, clouded with sunbeams. But nothing would dampen this, the Christmas morning of college lacrosse. The cumulative attendance at Byrd that weekend eclipsed 60,000, breaking the previous record by more than 13,000 heads.

The eastern United States had fallen in love with this unwieldy sport.

The No. 1-seeded Orangemen and the No. 2-seeded Blue Jays were far and away the two best teams in the country. It was only fitting that the two would decide the fate of the other’s season.

The game featured a slew of lacrosse legends, including Syracuse’s sensational twins, Gary and Paul Gait. Gary Gait was a four-time All-American during his time with the program and graduated as the leading scorer in program history with 192 career goals, a record that still stands today. The Orangemen also featured attacker John Zulberti, a senior who won the Jack Turnbull award as the nation’s top attack man in 1988 and 1989.

On Johns Hopkins’ side, world-beating defender Dave Pietramala shored up the Blue Jays’ back line, beating back Syracuse’s high-powered attack. Pietramala was awarded the Lt. Raymond Enners award that year, an award given annually to the most outstanding player in men’s collegiate lacrosse by the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association.

The winner of the Enners award the previous year? Gary Gait.

The stage was set. The No. 1-seeded Orangemen and the No. 2-seeded Blue Jays were far and away the two best teams in the country. It was only fitting that the two would decide the fate of the other’s season.

Through the first half Pietramala and the Jays succeeded in shutting Gary Gait down, holding him scoreless as Johns Hopkins compiled an 8-6 halftime lead thanks to a 4-1 advantage in the second quarter. Gary’s brother Paul, however, was another story, as the perceived lesser of two evils cranked out four goals in the first 30 minutes of play. Yet the Jays’ Matt Panetta helped counter Syracuse’s relentless attack and the Blue Jays entered the final quarter leading 11-9.

The lead quickly evaporated into the humid Maryland air.

The Orangemen scored three quick goals in the first five minutes of the fourth quarter, including a goal from Gary Gait, just his second of the game, and a go-ahead marker from Zulberti to give Syracuse a 12-11 lead with just under 10 minutes to decide the national champion.

This is how it ended:

The summer of 1989 was a hinge point in lacrosse’s national popularity; after the crescendo of theatrics at Byrd Stadium that summer, lacrosse was “in.” High school lacrosse participation in the United States increased by more than 528 percent over the next two decades, going from just under 30,000 participants in 1990 to over 140,000 participants in 2008.

And it all comes back to that showdown over 25 years ago.

That game is a big reason a number of the participants in today’s collegiate lacrosse landscape are where they are. Born within one or two years of that legendary game, the obsession with the sport was just starting the biggest upward swing of its popularity burst as these men and women came of age and began to discern for themselves what sport would be theirs.

“I was seven when I started,” senior Drexel midfielder Nick Saputo, who was born in 1992, says. “I’m from Long Island [N.Y.], so everybody plays lacrosse, everybody starts really young.”

That day more than 25 years ago helped generate the national collegiate lacrosse landscape we know today, and that specific Johns Hopkins team is the reason the Drexel men’s lacrosse team was playing games in Japan less than two weeks ago.

In 2003, Brian Voelker coached the University of Pennsylvania’s men’s lacrosse team to play in the month of May for the first time since 1989, the same year as the legendary national championship game.

The hole left by Tony Seaman, the most successful head coach in Penn men’s lacrosse history, was gaping. The program struggled through nearly a dozen losing seasons and for a long time seemed aimless at best. While the rest of the northeast raced by in a lacrosse-fueled frenzy, University City’s premier lacrosse program was spinning its wheels.

All that changed when the university hired an up-and-coming lacrosse mind named in Voelker before the 2003 season. In the four subsequent seasons the Quakers found the NCAA Tournament twice, and by 2006 Voelker had the Quakers firing on all cylinders once again.

It wasn’t the most stable program in the country, but for the first time in a very long time, the Quakers had a direction.

Voelker is now the head coach of the Drexel men’s lacrosse team after being hired before the 2009-10 season. He has led the Dragons to a 37-23 record in his five years at the helm, and this past season he piloted the squad to a 13-5 record and the first CAA Championship in school history — and, by extension, the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament berth. The Dragons toppled his old Penn team, 16-11, in the first round of the tournament before falling to the Denver University Pioneers, 16-5, in the second round. The Pioneers are coached by Bill Tierney, the same coach who gave Voelker his first coaching opportunity as an assistant coach at Princeton University. Voelker stayed there for one year before moving on to bigger and better things, like the job at Penn.

Voelker was a competitor, and a damned good one.

He was a member of that Johns Hopkins team that came oh so close to winning the national championship in the all-important spring of ’89. He was a three-time All-American, earning First Team honors and the Blue Jays’ team award for most outstanding defender in his senior year.

“Brian’s one of the tougher guys that I’ve played with,” Dave Pietramala told The Daily Pennsylvanian in 2009. “When Brian had a [defensive] assignment he took it personally. You didn’t have to worry about ‘Voelks.’ He’s such a competitor he wouldn’t allow himself to not do what he was supposed to do.”

The Jays made the NCAA Tournament in all four of Voelker’s seasons with the team, making the trip to the final game of the season only once.

When I mention the game, more than 25 years later, he groans knowingly. “I can probably, unfortunately, play it back in my head,” Voelker says with a laugh.

It’s the morning of June 16; the Drexel men’s lacrosse team leaves for Japan in 11 days and instead of talking about the looming trip I have asked Voelker to relive the most excruciating loss of his playing career. I’m glad we’re discussing the topic over the phone, he in Philadelphia and I in New Jersey. But he’s handling it well.

“It was an amazing day, amazing crowd and the whole deal,” he says. “They got the best of us that game. We had some opportunities to win it and we didn’t. We played against [the Gait twins] and some of the other great, great players on that team.”

“It’s still fairly fresh in my memory, partly because it was such a great game and partly because it was Hopkins in the national championship and I had my opportunity and we didn’t do it.”

Voelker has accrued an impressive resume in the time has spent around lacrosse; the one thing he has yet to add to that list is a national championship.

He’s audibly frustrated by that exclusion, even so many years later.

“It drives me crazy that we didn’t win the game.”

Teams are national champions for a calendar year before being challenged by their peers. The longest national championship streak since Division I lacrosse began holding a tournament in 1971 is three years, held by two schools: Princeton, and, of course, Johns Hopkins.

Friendships, on the other hand, tend to run much longer.

While his lifelong dream of winning a national championship with the Jays fell just short of fruition, something stronger brewed. Voelker met Japanese international student Yusuke Sasaki, the same student who had a hand in sparking the Japanese lacrosse revolution. Sasaki came to Johns Hopkins in 1988 as a J-1 student intern and immediately gravitated towards the Blue Jays’ lacrosse team.

Sasaki spent the majority of his two years as a Johns Hopkins student attending Hopkins practices and learning all he could about this frantic sport played with sticks, cradles and bamboozling offsides rules. This was just two years after the Japanese Lacrosse Association was formed by Norio Endo, and Sasaki and a small group of friends at Keio University back in Minato, Tokyo, were lacrosse sponges. They wanted to learn everything they could about the sport — and what better place to learn than on Hopkins’ campus?

Sasaki moved in with a group of team members on campus and essentially became an adjunct member of the team in his time in the States. Japanese interest in the sport was still booming, so Sasaki returned to Tokyo that summer, bringing with him the entire Johns Hopkins team.

Sasaki had spent the better part of the last two years courting — and being courted by — nylon strings and five-ounce rubber balls.

In his sophomore year of college, the team’s trip to Japan was Voelker’s first time on an airplane — a 13- or 14-hour flight, he remembers.

“We stayed there for 10 days or so, played in some games, did some clinics, toured the city, and Yusuke was kind of our personal tour guide,” Voelker explains. “He showed all of the guys around.”

One night, Voelker says, Sasaki took a small group of players out to dinner, his best friends on the team, and he made it a point to show his American friends an authentic Tokyo time. He arranged for his sister and her friends to come with them and coordinate a real, traditional Japanese dinner, a repayment for all of the traditional American dinners — if you can call an extra-large pizza and two liters of Diet Coke dinner — he had enjoyed with the Jays over the past two years.

But it was more than just a thank you for the free food and the friendship. The trip was to thank Zimmerman, Voelker and the rest of the Johns Hopkins lacrosse team for introducing him to and immersing him in the sport that would engulf his life. While America was busy falling in love with lacrosse in steamy Byrd Stadium in late May of 1989, Sasaki had spent the better part of the last two years courting — and being courted by — nylon strings and five-ounce rubber balls.

In 1987, the trip that Zimmerman took to Japan led to the creation of the Japanese Lacrosse Association’s core slogan.

“Lacrosse makes friends.”

During those two years, Sasaki, Voelker and the rest of the Johns Hopkins team lived out the JLA’s newly minted catchphrase. The Blue Jays showed Sasaki first hand what lacrosse looked like at the highest level, and in return he showed them the land he hoped would one day bear witness to the same quality of competition.

Sasaki never became a professional competitor upon his returning to Japan. Following his graduation from Keio University in 1991, Sasaki took a job in the financial product department of the Industrial Bank of Japan. Lacrosse was his true love, but the real world occasionally rebuffs true love’s advances.

Sasaki and Zimmerman stand on the field together simling at the camera. Zimmerman has his arm around Sasaki.
So he found a different way to get involved in lacrosse’s continued explosion in his home country: he became director of the JLA. He handles a bevy of the JLA’s communication responsibilities, both domestic and international. He coordinates the annual Friendship Games, inviting over former Hopkins teammate Seth Tierney, head coach of Hofstra University, in 2012, as well as Zimmerman’s UMBC teams.

This year it was Voelker’s turn. As was discussed nearly ad nauseam on campus during this past program-shifting season, Drexel caught the right man at the right time.

Voelker and Sasaki have stayed in touch through emails and periodic interactions in the world of lacrosse, when Sasaki returns to the United States for visits or World Games interactions. During our conversation Voelker couldn’t emphasize enough how highly he thinks of Sasaki, a quarter century after the two shared time on Homewood Field and learned of each other’s homelands and traditions.

“[Sasaki]’s just a super awesome guy,” Voelker explains for the third time in as many minutes during our first conversation. After returning from the trip, Voelker tells me that Sasaki was once again a most benevolent trip coordinator. His old friend made sure the JLA had people helping Drexel at all times.

True to the JLA’s slogan, lacrosse made Voelker and Sasaki friends decades ago. That they would be reunited at the Friendship Games was more a matter of when, not if. This year, the when finally came.

The afternoon of July 7, I call Brian Voelker to talk about the team’s trip. He politely asks to return my call in 15 minutes. He eventually calls back a half-hour later and apologizes for the wait.

“I’m still trying to figure out what time zone I’m in,” he says with a laugh.

Once we connect, Voelker gushes about what he viewed as an overwhelmingly successful trip for all parties involved. And not just the lacrosse aspects, where his team won every exhibition it competed in, including an 11-7 victory over the Japanese National Team in front of thousands of eager fans in Edogawa Stadium — which he describes as “an event.” This trip was about more than playing a game. It was about using that game as a vehicle to teach his players just as much as they taught the Japanese players.

The stadium was lined with adoring lacrosse fans. Thousands of people had traveled to the unassuming Edogawa Stadium, a gray concrete structure tucked away amidst all shapes and sizes of gray office buildings and apartment complexes, just a quarter mile away from the Edo River and Tokyo Bay. The sky that day adopted the locale’s unified color scheme and for over a half-hour during the third quarter both sides took reprieve as thunder and rain threatened the only excitement in the otherwise muted prefecture.

There was little visual spectacle to the event, yet Princess Takamado and Edogawa’s mayor attended the game along with thousands of Japanese fans.

For Voelker, it was quite the shift from his visit 25 years earlier.

“When I was there lacrosse in Japan was just starting,” he says upon returning. “The Japanese players weren’t good enough for us to play them; we didn’t even play a Japanese team, we played an Australian team.”

When Voelker’s players soaked in their surroundings on the last day of June, they saw a glimpse of the progress that has stemmed from what the JLA set out to accomplish three decades ago. Lacrosse finally has a firm grasp on Japan’s sporting society, and it has its sights set on something much bigger than Edogawa Stadium.

On the last day of the trip, Tokyo University showed its gratitude to all the visiting teams and all those who helped make the 25th Annual Friendship Games a reality. They held a reception to deal out final thank-you’s and bid sayōnara to one another.

As he glanced around the wood-paneled room, Voelker noticed something. His guys weren’t hanging out in groups together. They were scattered around the reception, talking, joking and laughing with the Japanese players they had met during their stay. In just six days his team had built friendships with complete strangers, with only lacrosse and a little bit of humorously rough communication to thank.

Once again, just like in 1986, and 1989, and 2012, and every year in between, lacrosse made friends.


Photography and Images

  • Yusuke Sasaki
  • Kim Hairston – Baltimore Sun
  • The Daily Pennsylvanian
  • Geoff Burke – USA TODAY Sports
  • Tommy Gilligan – USA TODAY Sports

Video by ILacrosse


  • Don Zimmerman, head coach of University of Maryland Baltimore County men’s lacrosse team
  • Brian Voelker, head coach of Drexel University men’s lacrosse team
  • Nick Saputo, junior midfielder on Drexel University men’s lacrosse team
  • Jules Raucci, junior midfielder on Drexel University men’s lacrosse team

Article Design by Noel Forté

Reported and Authored by Adam Hermann