They are the Los Angeles Lakers of Illinois high school girls lacrosse.
Wilmette-based Loyola Academy has won the last two Illinois High School Women's Lacrosse Association state titles. The Ramblers' 2010 title was its sixth state crown.
So what's the trick to developing an elite high school girls' lacrosse program in Illinois?
“Speaking from our experience, it's been a combination of a lot of factors,” Loyola coach John Dwyer explains. “First and foremost, you need a student group that is excited about the sport. You need to have supportive parents. That's a huge component. You need the full support of the school — the principal and the athletic director. Those are all big components in having success.”
Dwyer then notes the school component can sometimes carry a heavier weight in the grand scheme of things.
“Some schools have certain sports that excel,” he notes. “You could have an athletic director that is outright hostile or complacent about lacrosse. You need all of the components working in the same direction. It makes sense.”
Also up in the area that is referred to as the “lakeshore,” sits New Trier with its five girls' state championships. New Trier lost to Loyola in the 2010 state title game.
“Like any sport, No. 1 you have to be fortunate to have good athletes that are really motivated,” New Trier coach Pete Collins states. “We've got a solid, core philosophy here. Our big thing is excellence brings influence. We take from the likes of Dean Smith and John Wooden (college men's basketball coaching legends) and the success they've achieved. If you work as hard as you can and play smart and play hard, the winning is going to take care of itself. We encourage them to make mistakes and take risks and continue to have room to grow. We're probably one of the best-conditioned teams around. We push our kids. Expectations in practice are harder than playing games. Everything counts. Everything is competitive. We teach our kids to take risks, knowing that it will help them get better.”
Both Dwyer and Collins agree the buck doesn't stop solely with the high school program.
“You've got kids playing youth lacrosse now,” Collins states. “They try it and they like it and that gets a lot more athletes involved.”
“A youth program is very important,” Dwyer adds. “Over the years there have been several youth programs in various communities. That has helped develop an interest in the game first and foremost. When I first started, 95 percent of the players have never heard of or played lacrosse. Now 70 percent have played it and some have played for a few years through camps or summer leagues. It's a big difference. We still get that kid who is a great athlete who understands sports and picks up the skill set rather quickly.”
Dwyer notes keeping an eye on the current student body can help foster an environment of success.
“You have to do a good job within your own school of attracting the best athletes to the game,” he states. “Our school has outstanding softball and soccer teams and an outstanding water polo team and outstanding track and field athletes. There are a lot of viable options at our school. It's important at any school to get your share of the best athletes to play. You want to get some of those great athletes.”
Collins also is a strong believer of loading his schedule with the top competition around.
“You have to play really good competition,” he notes. “We want to play the best teams in the Midwest, on the East Coast and in the country. We expect a lot out of our kids.”
Dwyer credits his coaching staff for helping mold a program that has enjoyed continuous success in recent years.
“You have to have consistency and continuity with coaching,” he says. “We place a strong emphasis on our coaching staff. We graduated 19 seniors from last year and we feel like we should be a competitive team this year because the kids that are moving up are quality players. The kids that played on the JV team last year are going to start for us this year. That's a huge credit to the coaching staff.”
Collins adds the coaching staff's technical philosophy is critical to the program's continued development. There is no “my way or the highway” mentality in terms of offensive or defense schemes.
“What are some of the best high school and college programs doing?” he asks. “We look at things like if we have speed and we have talent we can possess the ball. If we have a lot of good defenders, what defense will get the most out of what we have?”
Collins and his staff stress the program's history to the younger Trevian players. But it's not a history lesson in state championships per se.
“The big thing is it starts with the freshmen,” he says. “Here's the tradition and the history. But it's not about winning, but about playing harder than everyone else.”
St. Charles co-op coach Peter Bogle, whose team is one the upswing and making a beeline toward that upper echelon of girls teams, feels some of the younger programs are still playing catch-up with the more established squads in the state.
“We are literally a decade behind the North Shore,” Bogle states. “They've been continually building their youth levels. That's something that is starting to happen here. If a girl has a stick in her hands before freshman year in high school, that is going to really pay dividends and that's going to take a few years to see that. Our sophomore class this year is probably the strongest one we've seen. The majority of the players have been in the youth programs since seventh grade. We're finally seeing that value. We're like a big ship turning out in open waters. We're slowly starting to make that turn. I spend a lot of time talking to parents about what can be done outside of the school season. It's a huge thing.”
Dwyer disputes the head-start claim to an extent.
“To some extent that is true,” he says. “But don't forget with the student-body enrollment of Loyola, 50 percent of the kids come from the city of Chicago.”
Libertyville coach Dana Brady does feel the North Shore teams do have the upper hand in one category.
“One of the big things is they have had lacrosse in the community for longer than we have,” she states. “We started a summer camp five years ago and that has brought in interest. A lot of it has to do with what is going on during the off-season.”
Youth programs are key in the sport and so are the higher-powered club-level teams which not only provide more opportunities for training and competition against high-level opponents, but also open the doors to the college recruiting game.
“We're getting girls now in high school that are playing the game with these club programs,” Bogle notes. “You've got programs like (Wildcat Elite Club), Lakeshore, Players Indoor and True Lacrosse — those come to mind. It's another competitive outlet for the girls. Some of these girls are playing year-round not including the spring high school season. You are seeing more and more girls do that.”
Libertyville senior midfielder Hope Nishimoto points to strong coaching as a big factor in the development of a program, but she also feels it's up to the players to help push the dial to the right.
“The coaching certainly has a big impact on a program,” Nishimoto says. “But you have to put the work in. I know girls that do a lot of summer camps to keep their skills strong. They put in a lot of off-season work. It's more the girls having the motivation themselves. I took private lessons and I think it took my play to the next level. I did lot of camps and traveling leagues for indoor and outdoor. All of it really helped me.”
St. Charles senior Katie Bogle adds: “The off-season is really important. It's like riding a bike. You don't forget things when you jump back into it. You're ready to go instead of wasting time in the preseason on things that you forgot. It's not like you can pick up where you left off. If you have girls that are playing in the off-season, you can carry on from there.”
And Nishimoto says the quicker the players invest in themselves the quicker the impact it will have on the program.
“You have to get to the newer girls. I don't know if you would call it advertising, but you have to get more people knowing about lacrosse and keeping that interest,” she says. “The sport is still new around here. I feel it hasn't got a lot of publicity yet. Tell these girls about it and tell them about all of the coaches that are willing to invest in them. You have to get it in peoples' mindset that this is a fun sport with a lot of opportunities.”
Katie Bogle feels the chemistry between players is something that can separate the elite teams from the rest of the pack.
“Probably the most important thing is everybody has to be friendly to each other,” she states. “Lacrosse is a lot different than other sports. Some girls' sports, the players get cliquey. In my experience, lacrosse girls have all been accepting of everybody. Some girls have never played before and everybody is easygoing toward them. We build a basic friendship before being a team. We're friends off the field and teammates on the field. If you're having fun out there and you're making friends you are going to be more encouraged to come back and play with those people that you made relationships with.”
The mental part of the game also cannot be ignored.
“As a team it's really important to stay positive and play with energy,” says Bogle, a senior at St. Charles North. “For us, we take this very seriously. But we're still friends. We play with energy and we stay positive and that definitely helps us stay strong. If you think you are going to do bad as a team, you are going to do bad. If we have a bad game, we rebuild and we come back stronger.”
Neuqua Valley senior center mid Rachel Leibovitz notes her team could have panicked last year due to a huge roster turnover. Instead the team went 18-3 and went 6-1 in conference play.
“We lost a ton of girls and had to start over fresh,” she says. “But we got a lot better last year. We got better because we all love the sport and want to get better at what we do. We all push each other. We're always motivating each other to be better. We compete with ourselves to be better so the whole team can be better. It's about working together and it's about the commitment you put into it. Everything takes time to work-up and build.”
With interest in the sport continuing to soar in the area, greater opportunities will be available for teams to accelerate their speed on the road to becoming an elite team.
“It's an exciting time to be involved in lacrosse,” Brady says. “All it takes is one or two girls who like the sport and they tell their friends about this cool and new sport and then everything takes off.”
And then the race to get precious space in the Illinois girls' high school lacrosse penthouse will really be in full swing.
Area coaches say these schools are on the upswing in girls high school lacrosse:
ŸOak Park-River Forest
ŸWheaton UnitedCopyright © 2014 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.