When Megan Heintzelman heads to Crestwood girls lacrosse practices, she has to rotate her head slightly to get a clear view of what’s ahead of her.

When Heintzelman, a rising senior at King’s College, was called up to the front of her kinesiology class recently to list the muscles of the leg, she froze at the whiteboard. Even that list, usually a piece of cake for someone like her studying exercise science, is part of what escapes her memory.

It’s all part of Heintzelman’s everyday life these days.

Following six concussions, Heintzelman has permanently lost peripheral vision in her left eye and also has a weakened short-term memory, at least for the time being, she said.

“With my left eye, I can’t see anything even to the side. I can sit here and stare straight,” Heintzelman, an assistant coach at Crestwood, said, “and you can put something to the left of me, and I can’t see it at all.

“But I’ve grown used to it.”

The accumulating concussions cost Heintzelman her collegiate lacrosse career after just one season at King’s.

Could any of those damaging blows to the head — and their long-lasting effects — been avoided, though?

Heintzelman will never know. However, girls lacrosse players across the country are now allowed to take an extra precaution via a pair of headgear options that cover a player’s head.

As Florida becomes the first state to mandate such equipment, a common divide on the topic exists within the Wyoming Valley Conference, where some believe extra safety could not only alter the game’s style of play, but also present more risk.

“Beautiful game”

Boys lacrosse players are equipped with hard helmets and facemasks, shoulder pads, gloves and other padding. They need everything in a physical, contact sport that allows checking.

Girls, meanwhile, don’t require all that armor because checking isn’t allowed to the head or body. Additional rules limit other opportunities for dangerous contact.

The shooting space rule requires defenders to cover ball-carriers “with the opportunity to shoot ... within a stick’s length of the attacker,” according to U.S. Lacrosse. Defenders who block a shooting lane any deeper are in harm’s way and violate the rule. By the same token, attackers cannot commit dangerous shots or follow-throughs with defenders nearby.

All of that amounts to a style of play much different than that of the boys lacrosse game. It’s free-flowing and relies on non-contact skills.

“Women’s lacrosse is a beautiful game because there is a physical component without being aggressive,” said Catie Kersey, coach of the District 2-champion Wyoming Seminary girls.

The netting on girls sticks aren’t as deep, either, requiring skillful stick work to maintain possession.

“The women’s game is totally different — not only in the rules, but the skills you use,” Crestwood head coach Russ Kile said. “It’s more of a beautiful game, an aerial game. I like that part of the game, where it’s based mostly on your skills.”

Heintzelman said she enjoys watching Division I women’s players show their finesse and skill with the stick, and her favorite part of coaching is watching those skills develop.

Extra protection

Even though the rules take away contact in the girls game, collisions and errant shots happen.

Kersey estimated incidental shots to players happen probably once a game, with varying severity. There’s not much in the way of required protection when that happens — girls wear goggles and mouthpieces — but an extra option to prevent injury did enter the game recently.

Last season, the National Federation of State High School Associations allowed the optional use of two models of headgear beyond the padded headbands common in the game. Those two models provide full coverage of the head and meet a performance standard “developed to help reduce impact forces associated with the stick and ball,” according to U.S. Lacrosse.

The extra gear was optional last season. Next season, though, Florida will become the first state to mandate protective equipment covering the entire head be worn by girls.

If girls lacrosse players are required to wear headgear, the skillful elements of the game may be decreased. That’s at least the worry of some WVC coaches who anticipate the boys lacrosse-style aggressiveness overtaking the game.

“Some of the controversy is that when you add protection to the players, they begin to play differently,” Kile said. “They operate under a sense that they’re more secure. They become aggressive.”

Kile calls himself a “purist,” who’s leaning against headgear and hopes the girls game keeps its current structure. He said he’s noticed incidental hits decrease as still-developing WVC teams gain more experience.

Kersey has similar thoughts, noting she’s “not a proponent” of headgear, concerned it will increase the physical nature of play.

Even if an evolving game isn’t a concern, that sense of security could make players more confident stepping in front of sticks and shots. The more gear there is, the thought goes, the easier it is to put the body in harm’s way.

Kathy Westdorp, a U.S. Lacrosse women’s rules subcommittee member, mentioned the headgear’s “conundrum,” stating its inclusion “may fundamentally alter the nature of the game by inviting high contact and may possibly lead to more injury” through “risk compensation.”

Efforts to reach PIAA officials for comment were unsuccessful.

Not a solution

For all the help they can provide, Heintzelman knows helmets can’t prevent all injuries.

She acknowledges equipment can come in handy, like when her goggles stopped a shot that could have “been a broken nose, a broken cheekbone, maybe worse.” Headgear can also reduce impact and lacerations to the head — she remembers her forehead cutting open once when a stick struck her.

But Heintzelman, who wrote a research paper on concussions as a college sophomore, stresses helmets don’t stop concussions and should not be mistaken as such a solution.

Some concussions were unavoidable for Heintzelman, a former Selinsgrove defender, who got her first concussion in eighth grade. She said she’s been concussed from a shot to the head, a stick to the head and even a collision that sent her to the ground and tore her rotator cuff.

But perhaps impact-reducing headgear may have helped in some of those incidents, Heintzelman said. Still, she thinks the choice to wear it should be up to the players.

Heintzelman kept returning to lacrosse until persisting concussion symptoms forced her to walk away. Until that point, the love of the game was stronger than the fear of more injury.

“You spend all your free time playing with your friends and growing,” she said. “The thing I miss most is pulling on a jersey and playing against another team.”

Her playing days are over but still take their toll, forcing her to write a lot of notes, set plenty of alarms and carry multiple planners.

She still loves the game. She’s found an outlet in coaching and hopes lacrosse doesn’t change.

“I wonder if (headgear) will change the game from more finesse to more force, more aggression,” Heintzelman said. “I think some girls would prefer it that way, but I would hate to see it changed from the way I played.”

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this story.

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eshultz@citizensvoice.com; 570-821-2054;