Meet the modern-day warriors continuing a sporting tradition steeped in history.

By Raelee Tuckerman

Mark Reader and Gino Iuliano are living proof that grown men still enjoy a good old-fashioned stick fight.
That’s why they look forward to pulling on their protective gear to engage in bone-crunching blows and pole-clashing pokes as they represent Bendigo on the lacrosse field.
Full body contact is a feature of this fast-paced sport, but there’s much more to lacrosse than simply squaring up opponents. It requires speed, strength, endurance and excellent hand-eye co-ordination to score goals and stop the opposition from finding the net.
“It’s a great blend of physicality and skill and combines aspects of so many other sports,” explains Mark, who coaches and plays for the Bendigo men’s team in the Victorian Lacrosse Association’s division three competition, which runs from April to September.
“There’s the physical contact of football; the defensive and attacking structures of basketball and the finesse involved in throwing and catching similar to cricket.”
Mark’s 20-year playing career began in Melbourne when he grabbed his brother’s stick and joined a workmate’s club.
“I’d played a lot of other sports, but lacrosse was so quick that the ball moves up and down the field in a flash and it really captured me.
“I thought I might have played my last season in 2009 after we bought a property in Bendigo and were getting ready to move. But then (much to my wife’s disgust), I discovered Bendigo was about to enter a team for the first time so I continued here in 2010.”
Gino, who runs Bendigo’s junior program and visits local schools promoting the sport, says lacrosse has a history steeped in culture and tradition.
“It originated with the Native American Indians in the continent’s north-east.
“Tribes like the Mohicans played to help keep their warriors fit for battle. Some of the chiefs even started settling disputes with lacrosse games, which could last for days.
“When French missionaries went over to America and saw these warriors running around with sticks, they referred to it as lacrosse – la meaning ‘the’ and crosse meaning ‘stick’.”
The modern Bendigo Lacrosse Club was founded in 2008, but early newspapers report matches were played as far back as May 24, 1886 – when a Melbourne association team took on a combined Bendigo-Sandhurst side at the Upper Reserve.
The game has several varieties, including indoor box lacrosse and polocrosse on horseback, but Bendigo competes in the more mainstream men’s field lacrosse.
In short, the aim is to carry the ball in the pocket of the stick and fling it into the goal. Players use their bodies and sticks to “check” opponents in a bid to dislodge the ball and stop their run.
“The women’s game has slightly different rules and there is a lot less contact,” says Gino, who is working towards establishing Bendigo’s first all-female state league team.
“The women are so fit and skilful and their top-grade is quite beautiful to watch.”
Gino, 50, was introduced to the sport in primary school by a visiting player conducting a clinic — much like he does now. He was heavily involved with the Melbourne Cricket Club’s lacrosse section before joining Bendigo and serving as president and treasurer.
He is also the face of Bendigo’s junior lacrosse, and is passionate about growing the sport through skills training and regular competition opportunities.
His children, Jessica and Christian, have both played locally and he has achieved incredible results at Lacrosse Victoria’s annual under-11 carnival.
“Our Bendigo kids have been undefeated for two years in a row,” he beams. “I feel like a proud dad about that. But we have some juniors here who, if they keep playing lacrosse, could well become Australian players one day.”
Gino points to 15-year-old Will Kenny, whose potential he spotted during one school visit.
Will made his senior debut for Bendigo at 14, joined metropolitan Moreland on loan last year and won their under-15 best and fairest, then represented Victoria at national championships.
“I played a lot of hockey and lacrosse uses similar skills, though it is much more physical,” Will says. “You can bump and check people to get the ball off them and I really like that aspect.
“I first played in the under-13 after-school competition, had a year off, then got back into it as pre-season training for hockey. Now lacrosse has almost taken over as my main sport!”
Will’s experience with the Northern Warriors state team has inspired him.
“My short-term goal is to play a few games with Moreland’s senior division two men’s team this season, as well as Bendigo in division three.
“The world under-19 championships are in Ireland in 2020 and I’d really like to push to get in the Australian team. I’ll be working hard to finetune my skills and get a lot more experience under my belt at a higher level to give myself the best chance.”
Gino, meanwhile, just wants more people to pick up a stick and give his favourite game a go.
“People play lacrosse because it is unique — there’s really no other sport quite like it.”
For information about Bendigo Lacrosse Club programs for men, women and juniors, contact Gino Iuliano on 0409 970 767.