Despite short-term hit, lacrosse aims to keep making impact
Just as the lacrosse wave was crashing, flooding local communities with high-energy kids wanting to grab a crosse and caged helmet, a novel coronavirus smacked back.
According to Andy Thompson, director of New Wave Lacrosse, which runs leagues and programs for boys and girls and adults in the Naperville area, signup numbers for summer have dropped.
"Yeah, we're taking a big hit," Thompson said. "We'll continue to take some hits throughout the summer and maybe the fall depending on how long this goes on, but I think the resiliency of people and just the spirit of the sport will naturally bring (participation numbers) back. I'm not really concerned about the long term, but the short term certainly stinks."
Blame the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down sports such as lacrosse, which became an official IHSA sport only two years ago.
"I don't really see it as being a big blow from the macro picture," Grayslake North boys coach Brad Fish said. "Certainly in the micro of the year, I think you're going to take a short-term hit."
Fish's program is in good shape. A former collegiate player at Rutgers, he started the program at North when the high school opened 15 years ago and also runs Grayslake Youth Lacrosse. He distributed 30 varsity helmets this spring, and his numbers are always healthy.
"From the IHSA standpoint, and where we were with the IHSLA prior to becoming an official (IHSA) sport, I think it's got a stronghold with the schools," Fish said. "I think you're going to have a short-term hiccup with the youth programs, and then hopefully it can get past it."
Boys lacrosse didn't become a varsity sport at Grant until last year, but interest at the Fox Lake school is high. Coach Josh Christian, who played football growing up in Waukegan, handed out 60 helmets this year. He needed to cut more than 20 kids.
"We were really looking forward to this year," said Christian, who welcomed back several seniors who started playing club as eighth-graders. "We ended up cutting 40 guys last year and we had a huge turnout again. The school board approved another coach last-minute because we had so many kids interested."
Lacrosse: Catch the wave.
"To me and a lot of other people, that was the sport to get into," Christian said. "I guess we'll find out what the impact is coming back in the fall when we start some of our off-season conditioning."
Lacrosse may see fewer players the rest of the year, but if they can take a hit, the sport can absorb one too.
"Statewide, everybody's in the same boat," said Naperville North girls coach Jessica Hogan, whose Huskies placed fourth in the inaugural IHSA tournament in 2018. "I think if it was supposed to be your first year, especially like in central Illinois, where they're trying to grow, you're probably going to have a slower time gaining momentum. It's such a fun sport. I think if people see their friends playing, they would jump on the bandwagon, and that helps develop youth programs."
Thompson, who played lacrosse at St. Charles High and helped start New Wave 10 years ago, says he and his staff have talked about running modified versions of the game this summer. If it's 4-on-4 or 5-on-5 games, with coaches wearing face masks and players observing proper social distancing on sidelines, so be it.
"If we can find a model for playing the game that fits within the guidelines that the governor has released, and as long as we feel good about it too, then we'll go with it," Thompson said. "But it's been the most challenging game of just trying to hit a moving target each morning that you wake up."
Hogan's program has produced several college players, including Anna Platou, who's playing at Division-I Cincinnati. If girls enjoy lacrosse, there should be ample opportunities for them after they graduate high school.
"It'll be interesting with the recruiting aspect, just because of how lacrosse is growing at the D-II and D-III levels," Hogan said. "I have gotten emails from D-II and D-III college programs. They're like, 'If you have anyone from (the classes of) 2020 and 2021, if you would recommend someone and they are interested in coming to our school, let us know because we may have a spot for them.' "
"Stick-to-itiveness" may be the operative word.
"We want to keep sticks in hand," Christian said. "But it's tough to play wall ball for a year."