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updated: 3/21/2012 12:09 PM

Lacrosse shows net gain in popularity

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  • Waubonsie Valley defender Kyle Fortsch tries to block Grayslake North's AJ Fish from shooting in the "B" level IHSLA championship game last June. Waubonsie Valley won the game and has been elevated to the sport's "A" level this season; Fish is one of the top returning seniors in the state.

    Waubonsie Valley defender Kyle Fortsch tries to block Grayslake North's AJ Fish from shooting in the "B" level IHSLA championship game last June. Waubonsie Valley won the game and has been elevated to the sport's "A" level this season; Fish is one of the top returning seniors in the state.
    George LeClaire

  • New Trier celebrates its eighth straight IHSLA championship trophy after topping Loyola Academy last season in the title game in Oak Park.

    New Trier celebrates its eighth straight IHSLA championship trophy after topping Loyola Academy last season in the title game in Oak Park.
    George LeClaire

  • Hinsdale Central revels in its runner-up finish to Loyola Academy in girls lacrosse last June in Evanston.

    Hinsdale Central revels in its runner-up finish to Loyola Academy in girls lacrosse last June in Evanston.
    George LeClaire

  • Waubonsie Valley celebrates its Lacrosse Cup championship over Grayslake North in Oak Park last June.

    Waubonsie Valley celebrates its Lacrosse Cup championship over Grayslake North in Oak Park last June.
    George LeClaire

 
By Chris Walker

The fastest-growing sport in Illinois will not have a state series affiliated with the Illinois High School Association this season, but that doesn't seem to be slowing down lacrosse in any way.

The IHSA required 65 boys teams and 40 girls teams to register with it by Feb. 1 in order for it to host a state series.

Although there are 79 boys teams in the Illinois High School Lacrosse Association (IHSLA) and an additional 13 teams in the Northern Illinois Lacrosse League, along with 47 in the Illinois High School Women's Lacrosse Association, not all of those teams are varsity squads. And some were not ready to commit to IHSA competition, for a variety of reasons.

"Regardless, it is undeniable that lacrosse continues to grow in Illinois," wrote IHSA lacrosse administrator Matt Troha. "And that it will only be a matter of time before we are crowning our inaugural IHSA state champions in the sport."

Deadlines for some youth leagues have already come and gone, but there may still be time to sign up for the spring season, depending on the organization.

At the high school levels, both boys and girls teams have been busy practicing and gearing up for games, which began right about now for most teams, weather and field conditions permitting.

New Trier is aiming for its eighth straight Class A title in the IHSLA while Waubonsie Valley moves up to Class A after topping Grayslake North for the Class B title last June.

For the girls, Loyola Academy is coming off its third consecutive IHSWLA title after beating Hinsdale Central in the state title match last season.

The overall groundswell in participation doesn't necessarily mean transitioning to the IHSA would be ideal for all high school-age programs. There are budgetary concerns at most schools, since the programs would go from independent club status to part of the official athletic program and thus require funding and support.

Additionally, the length of the season would be shortened, and the IHSLA's exisiting two classes would be combined into one for a postseason tournament which would follow other IHSA formats, based primarily on geography, so the top two teams in the state likely would never meet in the championship game, as they frequently do now.

Furthermore, the IHSA title game would be played over Memorial Day weekend, with the semifinal and title games played on consecutive days.

"There are certainly benefits to the state's series but we also have a pretty good system in place," said IHSLA president Rich Martin. "It would disappointing to go backward."

The current IHSLA system provides two classes of teams for competitive fairness and program development, as well as freshman/sophomore, junior varsity and varsity levels of play with an end-of-season tournament for both classes, along with an all-star game.

"I've been fortunate to work with a parent board and have a lot of freedom and not much red tape," said St. Charles North boys coach Andy Thompson. "There are certainly many pros and cons with the IHSA, so it's a tough call. You just hope that as many coaches and others involved can get as educated as possible and make a decision from there."

Thompson knows all about growth and change. The 1999 graduate of St. Charles (before it became St. Charles East) has coached the St. Charles Lacrosse Club since 2007. This spring he became the first head coach of the St. Charles North program as continued growth led the St. Charles Lacrosse Club to split into teams at both St. Charles North and East.

"When I first started, there were only 12 players from East -- and I'm not sure if it was because youth lacrosse in town was going on near North," Thompson aid. "The past few years we've seen a steady increase. The River City program has been great, and then the current players have done a great job of going out and getting their athletic buddies to compete."

In addition to the split at St. Charles creating two new teams, South Elgin, Marist and the Southwest Jaguars, consisting of players from the Oswego and Plainfield high schools, are some of the other programs debuting this year.

At the youth level, many kids as young as second grade are picking up crosses for the first time, and many others are returning to the sport for yet another year. Today, lacrosse has become a viable athletic option for youth thanks to lacrosse-specific organizations and even some park districts.

River City Lacrosse, which promotes the sport at youth through high school levels in Batavia, Geneva and the St. Charles area, has seen growth of 12 to 20 percent each year.

"It's been pretty steady through the last five years," said River City Lacrosse director Mike Black. "We just finished a very successful indoor program and we'll have over 40 kids playing in the second- and third-grade division, which is a great sign at the youngest levels."

Recognizing that the community wanted a lacrosse program, the Wheaton Park District started its own program in 2005, with 20 players enrolled. Now they have more than 250 participating.

"I knew it was an up-and-coming sport back then, and everyone wants to do the new thing," said Wheaton Park District athletic director Ryan Miller. "We have a lot of kids that are able to play baseball and lacrosse in the spring and they're as young as second grade through eighth grade."

The Arlington Heights Park District is offering a youth league for just the second year this spring. It's collaborating with Lacrosse America, which has provided camps, clinics and league play since 1991. Lacrosse America has similar affiliations in Barrington, Libertyville and Palatine and other communities.

"Each year we're hoping for it to continue to build," said John Robinson, superintendent of recreation for the Arlington Heights Park District. "We're co-oping with the Buffalo Grove Park District. Last year we had 45 kids sign up and we're hoping for 50 or 60 this year."

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