Schools reporting a seamless transition in lacrosse's first season

  • Glenbard West's Conor Bleuher (24) keeps up with Neuqua Valley's Ben Schink (20) during boys varsity lacrosse in Glen Ellyn on Monday, April 30, 2018.

      Glenbard West's Conor Bleuher (24) keeps up with Neuqua Valley's Ben Schink (20) during boys varsity lacrosse in Glen Ellyn on Monday, April 30, 2018. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Ken Jakalski

    Ken Jakalski

Updated 5/2/2018 9:09 PM

It appears lacrosse plays nicely with the other spring sports.

The Illinois High School Association's sanctioning of the girls and boys lacrosse state series this spring prompted us to ask athletic directors whose schools offer the sport to gauge its impact on other athletic programs.


By now well past the IHSA's designation of lacrosse as an "emerging sport," early adoption by most of the programs in DuPage County -- 15 boys teams, 12 girls teams -- has already made it part of the athletic fabric and, say the ADs, mainly negated fall-offs elsewhere.

"We haven't seen much of an impact on numbers with other sports since taking on lacrosse officially as a sport at Naperville Central High School three years ago. Our numbers in both boys and girls have remained pretty steady, in the upper 40s to lower 50s in both," said Redhawks athletic director Andy Lutzenkirchen.

Or as Neuqua Valley athletic director Branden Adkins said: "Since we have had a large participating club team for over 15 years our athletes are experienced lacrosse players. The players were always counted in our total so we have not seen a change."

When lacrosse in Illinois went from a niche in the 1990s to creating a buzz in preps a decade later, it did have an impact.

"When it started up as a club several years back it really affected our track program in respect to sprinters," said Benet athletic director Gary Goforth, echoing many a track coach. "Over the last couple years it hasn't really affected it a whole lot because it's been going on a long time."

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Goforth said a similar, initial drop occurred in Redwings football after boys soccer arrived there in the 1990s. With the current exception of fewer lower-level football players, no doubt due to that sport's current tumult, Benet football participants "have since returned to normal."

Like they say, change is the only constant. At IC Catholic, which has had lacrosse seven years, athletic director Adam Nissen said baseball has returned to three full levels after providing two the "past couple of years"; Metea Valley's Dan DeBruycker noted this year's smallest number of freshman baseball players.

"If you asked me that five, six, seven years ago it'd probably be different," said Wheaton Warrenville South's Mike Healy. "But there's not a kid that's playing baseball and lacrosse in sixth or seventh grade. Everybody's kind of in their own lane that they're headed to by the time they get to us as freshmen."

He added that track numbers "are as strong as they've ever been."

No one cited a link, but perhaps one does exist between lacrosse and the bat-and-ball sports. York's Rob Wagner is among several athletic directors who noted a downward trend in softball participation.


Glenbard West's Joe Kain didn't specify any correlation, but Hilltoppers girls have become attracted to this new wave of groundballs.

In the nine years Glenbard West has sponsored lacrosse its 83 current boys players are near its average of 80 participants. Meanwhile, from a low of 39 girls in 2012 the numbers have increased each of the past three years to a current high of 86.

Downers Grove North's Denise Kavanaugh and Naperville North's Bob Quinn both brought up something interesting: numbers could be swayed depending on whether school districts fund this relatively expensive sport or it's funded by parents under the club model.

"We are currently a nonfunded sport," Kavanaugh said. "If a time comes and the district funds lacrosse, that may make a difference in numbers or impact on other sport numbers."

Quinn goes a step further: "It's my opinion that if school districts pass that burden onto families, it's going to impact the next generation of kids."

As Metea Valley's DeBruycker said, time will tell. But at St. Francis, which has had a lacrosse program for eight years, it's been a win-win.

"I think the only conclusion is that we ended up with more kids coming out for sports," said Spartans athletic director Dan Hardwick. "We added 80 more kids."

'Today is better than yesterday'

Most everyone in the suburban track and field community is familiar with 32-year Lisle coach Ken Jakalski. Not everyone knows that on March 19 the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame inductee suffered a stroke.

"March 19 was the first outdoor practice and from that point on everything took a turn I never would have anticipated," he said Tuesday.

Recuperating at home only a short walk from the track at Lisle Junior High's Wilde Field, Jakalski is patiently adjusting from a sequence of health issues.

That night, after the coach once dubbed the "Inspector Gadget of Track and Field" charted his athletes' results from practice, he went to the emergency room with severe vision issues the Stroke Foundation would describe as homonymous hemianopia -- "the loss of one half of the visual field in each eye."

Later the following week a 105-degree fever sent Jakalski back to Naperville's Edward Hospital. Doctors diagnosed a staph infection in his aortic valve, which had caused the stroke either through the infection or by reducing blood flow to the occipital lobe. On April 4 Jakalski underwent open-heart surgery, his aortic valve replaced by a bovine valve flown in from Texas.

"If I start mooing you'll know why," said Jakalski, now following up with a "barrage" of practitioners for his various issues.

"I just have a tremendous respect for the medical community and how much quality care I was able to get," he said.

On the road to recovery, he's been touched by hospital visits from his track athletes, cards from the high school and community, support from friends Ray Carlson and Don Phelps, with Vanessa Hardy taking over the boys track team.

"When you have that many good people on your side it's hard to give up," Jakalski said.

He appreciates the "little steps along the way," he said -- pushing a grandchild's stroller; a 44th anniversary dinner at home with his wife, Sue.

The timetable for his return is inconclusive other than steady and gradual.

"You have to keep forging ahead and saying, today is better than yesterday and tomorrow will be better than today," Jakalski said.

Mark your calendar

If you're like us, and heaven help you if you are, your summer schedule already is getting booked.

For the high school basketball-loving golfer out there, July 27 is the date for an outing to support the Basketball Museum of Illinois, a planned 25,000-square-foot extravaganza in Pontiac.

The golf outing will be held at Klein Creek Golf Club in Winfield starting with 9:30 a.m. registration and box lunch pickup, followed by an 11 a.m. shotgun start.

A reception and dinner follows starting at 4 p.m. Costs range from $200 for an individual golfer up to various levels of sponsorships priced as high as $10,000. For information call (847) 224-7200 or contact

Follow Dave on Twitter @doberhelman1

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