Interest in youth lacrosse is growing in the Garden City, even if understanding of the sport is not.
“I think there’s only eight rules in this game,” a parent was overheard explaining at a recent Hellgate-Big Sky match, “and one of them says ‘no firearms.’ ”
There are more rules, of course, and families will get to know them as the sport continues its surprising growth.
“A lot of people don’t get the sport yet,” Sentinel High School junior Blake Dufner said. “It’s going to take time.”
This spring marks the fifth year of competitive youth lacrosse in Missoula. Participation has jumped from 13 players to 200 in those years, not counting University of Montana college teams. Two years ago, there were two high-school teams in the state. Now there are close to 10.
“Our first youth program was in 2007 through the Flagship program at Hellgate,” said Kevin Flynn, who led a UM squad to a Men’s College Lacrosse Association championship that year. “This is the first year we’ve been able to field kids who’ve had playing experience before high school.”
Flynn now coaches Hellgate High’s lacrosse team, which grew from 12 players last year to 26 in 2012. Sentinel, which edged Hellgate in the first-ever high school state championship match last spring, has 15 players out this season, while Big Sky fields 13 players most days.
Dufner heard more than 100 kids recently signed up for the middle-school and youth programs through Missoula Elite Lacrosse, which became overseer of the sport once it transitioned away from its fledgling Flagship days. The inception of Missoula Elite coincides with the expansion of the sport locally, but lacrosse is growing nationally, as well.
More than 680,000 players – male and female – participated in organized lacrosse in 2011, according to a U.S. Lacrosse participation survey released last week. Roughly 60,000 players were new to the sport, the largest one-year increase in participation since the governing body of lacrosse began tracking such data in 2001.
The largest jump was in the youth segment (age 15 and under), which rose 10.9 percent compared to 2010 figures, while high school players increased by 7.8 percent and collegiate players (varsity and club) went up 4.6 percent. The report went on to say that lacrosse is growing in exposure, too, as nearly 100 college and pro matches will be televised this year.
That’s how Big Sky High senior midfielder Tanner Pace found the sport.
“I saw it when I was flipping through the channels one day,” said Pace, the Eagles’ team captain. “Then my dad saw an ad for a camp and asked me if I wanted to try it. I said sure.”
That was five years ago. Now Pace is hooked. In fact, he’s looking forward to another five years.
“I’m going to try and play for the Griz team next year,” said Pace, who acknowledged that’s a rare move for a Montanan. “Coming from Missoula, it’d be tough to get on certain teams out of state, even though there’s a lot of teams.”
The NCAA sanctions 661 men’s and women’s teams throughout Divisions I, II and III. A third of those are Division III women’s teams (215), although Division III does not offer scholarships to athletes. Division I programs can award roughly a dozen men’s and women’s scholarships each year, while Division II awards roughly 10 per gender each year.
Several junior colleges also offer scholarships, but the handful of organizations devoted to college club teams do not. Of the nearly 30 UM players, only one is currently from the Treasure State.
But that’s not to say Missoula couldn’t produce scholarship-worthy lacrosse players someday.
Dufner was all set to play high school football when he tried lacrosse the summer before his freshman year.
“A couple of my buddies were playing it at the time,” said Dufner, recalling a pick-up game at Dornblaser Field. “It was unlike any other sport I’ve done, and it was a lot of fun. For a lot of people, I think they like it because you don’t have to be big. There’s a position for everybody. ... After that first game I was like ‘Yeah, I’ll sign up,’ and every year since then I was like ‘Heck yeah.’ ”
The rapid rise of lacrosse in the region – five of Montana’s eight teams hail from this side of the divide – is difficult to explain at times.
Is it friends? Parents? TV?
Some point to Flynn, the former Griz star who first pitched the idea of lacrosse to Hellgate’s Flagship program and helped start Missoula Elite Lacrosse.
“He is theee reason why anyone plays lacrosse in Missoula,” Dufner said. “Him and (coach James Pyke). All it was was a Flagship program and it’s gotten much bigger. I feel like there’s no way I’d be playing right now, if not for him.”
Pyke, who helped coach those initial Hellgate squads, was quoted in the Missoulian in 2008 about how the lacrosse craze got its start.
“I went home to New Hampshire and came back with as many sticks as I could possibly find just lying around in my bedroom,” he said. “Those were the first sticks we had.”
That’s because, in 2007, a hodgepodge of players gathered under the guise of a lacrosse team, but they didn’t have any equipment and they never actually played a game. The following year, with Pyke’s sticks, the Hellgate teens played their first match against a team from Sandpoint, Idaho. The Flagship team was such a success – in terms of numbers – Flynn formed Missoula Elite Lacrosse, which took all the players in the city and placed them onto one squad for the next two years. Last spring was the first year there were enough players to divide the club into three separate high school teams.
With each new phase, Missoula’s appetite for youth lacrosse grew, its players’ skills got better and Flynn’s initial premise was proved correct.
Now there’s a new wave of thought in town.
“I think Kevin was great to get it going, (but) now Kevin’s just at Hellgate,” said Big Sky coach Joe Fricione, who also won a national championship in college while playing for Towson. “A lot of it is the kids. If we didn’t have kids recruiting, we’d only have eight or nine on the team. The kids are the reason it’s grown.”
“It’s a trendy sport,” added Fricione, who hails from New Hyde Park, N.Y. “And Missoula is a trendy town. And that’s not a bad thing.”
From the sidelines, the game looks like football practice with big sticks, which are also called crosses. Players wear full-face helmets and body armor on the shoulders and arms, but only shorts below the belt. The shorts are often the fanciest part of the uniform.
Like soccer or hockey, the action stops only for scores, quarters or injuries. Players use their sticks to throw a baseball-sized hard rubber ball to one another, and eventually into a net frame about the size of a hockey goal. After each score, two players face off over the ball, like skinny sumo wrestlers with oversized spoons.
“I tell people it’s a lot like basketball, mixed with soccer and hockey,” Dufner said. “In basketball, you score a lot and assists happen all the time, (while) in soccer and hockey goals rarely happen. But in lacrosse, games can be 15 points. ... It doesn’t grow dull, but it’s also not impossible to catch up if you’re behind.”
Pace said he likes the speed of the game. A team can go from passing the ball around for minutes at a time to “ripping” a shot on goal in a matter of seconds.
Scoring definitely seems to be a highlight, but so is hitting, even for guys as lean as Pace.
“I’ve been laid out before,” the 5-foot-11, 155-pounder said, “only to get up and find out I made a goal.”
Tenacity, speed and smarts are coveted, but so is a good stick.
“I remember seeing this little, crappy, toy lacrosse stick in a Walmart or somewhere,” Hellgate midfielder Spenser Schultz said. “I was playing with it when I saw a real game and realized what it was really like. Then I got a real stick and just couldn’t put it down.”
Sticks are to a lacrosse player what gloves are to an infielder in baseball. And anybody who follows America’s pastime knows the better leather takes more green.
“I’m scared to think of how much I’ve paid for a stick,” said Pace, who’s seen starter sticks in the $20-$40 range, but paid $250 for his. “Basically, whatever level you want to play you can find a stick that suits you.”
The whole setup – helmet, gloves, stick and league fees – can run close to $400, Fricione said, and that can be a deterrent to some.
“I’m not used to that. Back home, our high schools paid for our uniforms,” said Fricione, 24, who began playing when he was in seventh grade. “It’s tough to get kids into the sport. (Money) is an obstacle for sure.”
The Missoula high schools don’t help fund their respective lacrosse teams, although the district did start allowing letters for the sport as of last spring.
“A few people are like, ‘Lacrosse, I’m not sure what that is’ – and some are like, ‘Oh wow, it’s really growing fast in Missoula,’ ” Dufner said. “Most people see it somewhere at some point and think that game looks fun.”