Metea Valley junior Zach Wood had his eyes on a dream for the longest time.
"I wanted to play big-time Division I lacrosse," says Wood, who led the state in scoring his first two years, going over the 100-point mark in each campaign.
And he's going to do just that. Wood, who plays for the Waubonsie Valley Lacrosse Club, became the first junior in the state of Illinois to ever commit to a high-powered Division I men's lacrosse team. He gave his commitment to perennial power Virginia.
"It's a big dream come true for me," he said. "My dad played at the Naval Academy and lacrosse has always kind of been in the family."
But Wood, who plays club for Elmhurst-based True Lacrosse, readily admits his bags would not be packed for Charlottesville if it had not been for his involvement in the sport outside of high school.
"The club part of lacrosse is probably the biggest part of the recruiting process," he says. "High school is great to play and it's competitive, but if it wasn't for club, I wouldn't have been recruited. The club scene has really made things more competitive. Club teams are picking kids from all over the state and these clubs are going out to the East Coast to play high-powered teams. Club has helped the sport get more serious in Illinois. It's changed for the better."
The club component is one of several wrinkles that have helped the sport continue to gain a foothold in popularity not only in the local area, but in the Midwest region as well.
"From a youth perspective, we're working long and hard to both legitimize and build up the youth lacrosse clubs," Fox Valley Lacrosse head coach Brian McGinnis notes. "We're building up skills and abilities and raising awareness to help get these kids to the next level. Then these kids will look to play club-level lacrosse in the summer. It's about giving these kids an opportunity to play lacrosse at the highest levels. It's a progression. Like everything else, you have to walk before you can run. We start out teaching these boys the basic concepts like picking up a ground ball or learning how to throw. Now we've got a fifth-and-sixth-grade team at Fox Valley that looks better than some high school kids. These kids have a passion for it."
As McGinnis points out, getting kids involved at a younger age not only raises interest in the sport, but starts the wheels in motion where players begin the process of working their way up through the lacrosse system -- with the goal of playing in college and professionally waiting at the end of the spectrum.
Fox Valley Lacrosse, based in the Naperville-Aurora area, started with 22 players four year ago. The youth club has now exploded to more than 200 players.
"The sport is really gaining in popularity," notes Tom Wood, one of the founders of Fox Valley Lacrosse who also handles the recruiting efforts for True Lacrosse.
"We're down now to third- and fourth-grade teams. I only see the sport going up."
Wood, the father of Zach Wood, has been involved with the sport for more than three decades and is a major champion, promoter and advocate of the sport. He's loaded with information that not only points to, but simplifies the reasons he feels the sport will continue to explode in popularity in the years to come.
"You take football, for example," he begins. "You show up your freshman year and there are 100 kids there. If you ask coaches how many of those freshmen are still around as seniors, it's about 15 percent. That's horrible. They won't cut anybody, but they aren't really retaining kids.
"Those kids that are 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-7 and are good athletes, but don't have that 4.3 speed, lacrosse gives them an opportunity to play all four years. It's a lot more fun than football practice because it's faster and everybody touches the ball."
And according to Wood, the college opportunities out there for lacrosse are even greater now.
"Twelve percent of varsity (high school) lacrosse players play in college," he states. "In football, it's 0.2 percent. That's a magnitude of difference there. I attended the NCAA coaches meeting in December and lacrosse is the only sport that is growing nationally. They've added 13 programs."
Wood is also struck by the strong academic correlation with lacrosse.
"The NCAA graduation rate is 88 percent for lacrosse," he says. "In football, Stanford is the top school at 86 percent. Football's top school is below our average. Notre Dame's lacrosse program graduates 99 percent of its players. We're getting these kids focused on college. With lacrosse, you can't do it without good grades. You could be the best lacrosse player in the world and if you don't have a 30 on the ACT or aren't top in your class, a place like Princeton isn't going to recruit you. With these types of standards, it's also forcing kids to keep their focus on their grades."
College opportunities are becoming more numerous in the immediate area. Aurora University is in the midst of its first varsity men's season, while Elmhurst College and Benedictine University have announced plans to field teams in the next several years. Wood notes Carthage College in Kenosha, Wis., recently started a program and Augustana and Lake Forest also have plans in the works to start programs. Aurora will host its first home game March 30.
"From the college standpoint, it helps enrollment and it helps with the growth of the game," Aurora coach Brendan Dawson says. "We've got 31 freshmen this year. It's helping get people to campus that might not normally be there. The sport is growing like wildfire at the Division III level. We're trying to recruit a lot of local guys and build with local talent. This is giving guys locally the opportunity to not leave the state. They can play college lacrosse here."
Wood, however, stresses the only way that college recruitment is going to happen in this area is by playing at the club level.
"If you don't live in Baltimore, New Jersey or Long Island, it's really the only way to get recruited," he said. "You have to go to the recruiting tournaments and camps back East."
True Lacrosse, according to Wood, in the last three years has produced more than 40 players (in college or going into college) that received scholarship money or financial aid (Division III) to play lacrosse at the college level.
"At the Division I level, there are 12.6 scholarships for lacrosse and 10.6 at the Division II level," Wood explains. "Recruiting happens early. It's a bit of a feeding frenzy. If you have 40 guys on the team and 12.6 scholarships, you're not getting a full ride. Kids are getting recruited early. We have kids that get feelers when they aren't even in high school yet."
But Wood adds the competitiveness for scholarships should not be taken as a negative.
"You don't have to be 6-feet-6-inches tall or run that 4.3 in the 40-yard-dash," he says. "This is probably one of the only sports where you could say if you want to play somewhere in college, you will. It might not be at Duke, but you can play somewhere. This sport is exploding around here. We've got 40 percent growth in this area and the national average is about 20 percent. And the main reason for that is the sport is a (heck) of a lot of fun."
Women's teams added
Libertyville High School senior Hope Nishimoto has her eyes on Division I Liberty University in Virginia. Liberty is one of the newer women's programs in the country, offering yet another collegiate opportunity to players.
"They just started their program two years ago," she says. "I sent my video to them. I'm hoping that they will take me or I'll walk on to the team. It's a new program and it's a program that is growing and I like the coach there. That's what drew me there."
Neuqua Valley senior Rachel Leibovitz was playing in a club tournament in Naperville when she caught the eye of Grand Valley State University in Michigan. That's where Liebovitz, a midfield-center and captain at Neuqua, will continue her career.
"That's how I was seen," she says. "The (Grand Valley State) coach was attending one of my tournaments in Naperville and saw me. It's super-important to play club if you want to get yourself out there. If you aren't playing outside of high school, you are going to get rusty and you won't be keeping up with everybody else. While everyone is bettering themselves, you aren't. You have to play all year to better yourself."
Naperville-based Players Indoor coach Kylor Berkman, who played at Salisbury (Md.) University (2008 Division III player of the year) and is now a graduate assistant at Aurora University, agrees that it is important to get on a club team that gets involved in high-powered exposure tournaments. But he sees an added benefit that can reverberate back home.
"These club teams that play in these tournaments against teams from lacrosse hotbeds, they get to see good competition and good players," he states. "They are getting good exposure to how the game is played. Out here right now, the level is not quite what it is in these traditional lacrosse hotbeds. But when they play in those tournaments, guys are bringing those experiences back here and more guys are getting better. The cycle continues and the level of improvement becomes exponential."
McGinnis rattles off a list of high-powered tournaments one the club's teams attended last season. He mentions marquee places such as Ohio State, Notre Dame and the University of Massachusetts.
"Kids can't wait for the opportunity to play in college," says McGinnis, who played at the University of Dayton. "They want to become great players. It's a domino effect. Younger kids are seeing the older kids getting recruited in high school and going to the different tournaments where colleges are."
Former collegiate standout Jake Deane is one of the founders of True Lacrosse. As a youngster growing up on the East Coast, he too had his own lacrosse dream.
"Having that ability to play at the college level is very motivational for kids," Deane says. "I grew up wanting to play at Syracuse (he ended up at UMass). "I used to watch them on TV. Kids are watching the Virginias and UMass's on TV. They are seeing their dreams. In order to realize their dreams they need to get seen and they need to play in front of college coaches."
Deane still plays professionally for Major League Lacrosse. Both he and True Lacrosse co-founder Mike Gabel were former members of the Chicago Machine franchise, which has since relocated to Rochester, N.Y.
"Having a pro league is good," Deane remarks. "It gives kids another dream and a goal. As well as playing in college, now there's an opportunity to play professionally. People have to understand that it's not going to turn into the NFL or the NBA overnight. But as this sport continues to grow, the youth, club, high school and college levels and the MLL will continue to grow."
Wood adds that if high school football programs latch onto the sport -- the growth will be even more dramatic.
"I grew up in Maryland where everyone played lacrosse," he says. "The football coach was usually your lacrosse coach, because lacrosse is the perfect cross-training sport for football because of the footwork and things like that. Football coaches around here haven't bought into that quite yet. As soon as that happens, Katie, bar the door."
The one thing Wood notes that is preventing even more staggering growth is the current economic conditions.
"It will only gain in popularity once it is sanctioned by more schools," Wood says. "A lot of schools can't put it in the budget right now because they don't have the money. Beggars can't be choosers. We're in bad economic times right now. We can't expect a school district to roll over and say, 'Fine, bring it in.' It's not going to happen right now. We're making some progress. There are still the irate parents that spend money on property taxes that can't understand why the lacrosse team can't get a field. The park districts and the schools are being as cooperative as they can be. If a school gives the lacrosse team a field, then what about the rugby team?"
Wood is part of a group that is attempting to ease the financial burdens while creating more interest in the sport. Used lacrosse equipment will be donated in the near future to inner-city schools for after-school lacrosse programs.
"We want to keep expanding the game," Wood says.
But key members of the local lacrosse community are united in their opinion of the sport's massive growth in the area. Dawson grew up in the Philadelphia area and played collegiately at Salisbury. From this East Coaster's perspective, the sport has made tremendous inroads.
"It's growing very quickly in the Midwest," he says. "There is a lot of interest in the high school and youth levels. Before you know it, this is going to be a very good lacrosse area with some really good players. It's already started to happen."
McGinnis adds: "This is a great time for the sport to take off. You've got all of these Division III programs coming in. The Midwest is going to be that next big area for the top college programs all the way down to youth programs. We're drawing kids now from the Naperville area all the way up to Crystal Lake. I'm not blown away by the growth here. I'm excited about it."