Catching on: Popularity of lacrosse soars in Aspen
ASPEN – The morning air is brisk as, with lacrosse sticks in hand, a colorful troupe of fourth- and fifth-grade girls jog up and down Aspen’s Lower Moore Field.Parents and other spectators crowd the sideline, some shouting words of encouragement in between sips of coffee. Others anxiously pace as they follow the action.In a far corner, a boy tosses a ball against a concrete wall while a father plays catch with his son, who giddily attempts to scoop an errant toss off the wet grass.”Now, show me a cradle,” the father instructs.Fifty teams will compete here during this three-day tournament. Squads, comprised of everyone from varsity standouts to wide-eyed youngsters chewing their mouthguards and wielding sticks longer than their bodies, that hail from towns throughout this state – and beyond.If not for the surrounding peaks, still painted white with slowly receding snow – or the periods of hail – one would think this event was taking place in one of the sport’s well-established hotbeds, somewhere in the northeast perhaps. It’s clear things are changing.The lacrosse boom has hit Aspen.”What we’re seeing is the game of lacrosse has caught hold across the entire nation. … We’re just a mirror of that overall growth,” says Mike Goerne, the Aspen Lacrosse Club’s program director and head coach of the boys high school team.”It’s phenomenal, so fun to watch, be a part of and be around the energy everybody has for it on all sides.”About 130 children, from fourth grade through high school, were playing lacrosse here when Goerne joined the program in the Spring of 2006, he says. Now, that number has ballooned to well above 300. And counting.”I used to be worried whether we could sustain an eighth-grade team,” says Goerne, a former player at Division I Marist University in N.Y. “This year we have 25 on that team. Most grades have two teams. We have no concerns whether certain grades will or won’t have teams.””I don’t think anyone could’ve expected this,” adds Meredith Elwell Sauder, the club’s director of girls lacrosse and high school head coach.
Not even Dave Beirne saw this coming. The former college player set out with modest goals to give his children a chance to play the game he loved and find some way to give back to his new community shortly after relocating to the area from California in 2003. Beirne bought 65 sets of equipment and, with the help of friend Richard Pearlstone, set out to form a youth league.”My house looked like a retail store,” jokes Beirne.”We started with a bunch of second- and third-graders running around the field. … We just tried not to get in the way of the sport, but introduce it and stay ultra positive with the kids.”Soon, Beirne was lobbying with parks and recreation officials for field time. He visited local schools to invite youngsters to give the game a try. (He and others were also instrumental in convincing the town to construct a turf field at the high school. The project, which cost $800,000, was finished in August 2006.)Curiosity was piqued almost instantly.”I think it was like seventh or eighth grade. … I started seeing people carrying sticks around and messing around with the ball. The middle school had to put a ban on kids bringing sticks to school,” adds Aspen junior Nicky Ufkes. “It seemed like an accumulation of all sports, a lot of basketball and a little bit of hockey with the checking. There was the fast pace of football. … I was interested right off the bat and was eager to get a stick in my hands.”Others shared that sentiment, as club participation nearly doubled from 2006 to 2007.”It’s really exciting that things took off so fast,” Ufkes says. “It usually takes a few years for programs to get started and go through developmental stages. We never really saw beginning stages with lacrosse.”
Goerne, who led a youth team in Carbondale before making the move to Aspen in 2006 to both coach and head the club, had a hunch lacrosse would take off here.As a junior in high school, he helped found a team at his high school in Edina, Minn. There were about 10 teams in the state at the time, he says. That number is now 70.He returned home during the summers in college to host youth lacrosse camps. He has seen first-hand how people gravitate toward this sport.After meeting kids in Aspen, Goerne saw the possibilities.”These are the types of athletes that are built for lacrosse – they’re some of the fastest, most agile kids I’ve ever coached. Everything they do is outdoors. … All the activities they do are based on the side of a mountain at 8,000 feet,” he says. “In a lot of places, coaches struggle getting guys in shape for the season. Out here, we have a lot more time to focus on teaching the game itself. The kids love it. They can go forever.”For the program to fully flourish, however, Goerne knew the club needed to give players something to work toward. It needed to take the next step, to explore expansion with the Colorado High School Activities Association. That proved to be quite an undertaking.”The big goal was to grow the local program, but also to help merge Western Slope lacrosse,” Goerne says. “Back then, the biggest challenge we faced was that the only team that was CHSAA-sanctioned was Steamboat Springs. The road block or big barrier to having a CHSAA program was the development of a mountain conference. “There was a push to meet with coaches and administrators on the Western Slope to get everybody [on the same page] and to join within a short period of time.”Before it secured the backing of other programs, the club first needed to assuage a skeptical Aspen administration, Beirne said.”When we started going to [athletic director] Carol [Sams], she said ‘Don’t do this. We don’t have the field space. … We’re worried about hurting other programs,'” Beirne recalls. “I said, ‘Carol the kids want it.'””We had to prove ourselves for three years, and show that this was something kids wanted to be involved with … show this wasn’t a one-year wonder,” Goerne adds. “They were satisfied with the way the players embraced the sport. The school is amazing in that they support what kids are passionate about. They took the risk … because it was the right thing to do for the kids.”I don’t think had Aspen not taken that step that [other schools would have followed suit.] … The timing was perfect.”The Skiers participated in five CHSAA games during their inaugural varsity campaign in 2008. A year later, they played their first full Mountain Conference slate after teams like Glenwood Springs, Battle Mountain, Grand Junction and Durango made the jump in classification.This season was replete with nine victories in 14 games as well as the program’s first shutout and four-game win streak. There were 55 boys in the high-school program this season, Goerne said.”Without a varsity program, it’s tough to tell why you want to dedicate yourself as a youth player to the game,” Goerne adds. “The club season was great. It was necessary to get things off the ground.”
Elwell Sauder was eager to help Aspen’s girls programs follow a similar path when she took over in the Spring of 2008.The Moorestown, N.J., native has built a career on lacrosse; she was a All-American in high school, starred in two sports (field hockey) at the University of Virginia and worked briefly for Major League Lacrosse. Prior to coming to Aspen, Elwell Sauder led the girls programs for club Tri-State Lacrosse in the New Jersey area.”I was so in the hotbed of everything. … I only knew saturation,” Elwell Sauder says. “To be a part of something from the ground floor is an opportunity you rarely get these days. … I just couldn’t think of anything better.”Club participation among girls has nearly quadrupled in the last four years. The last three years alone, the number has jumped from 47 to 80 to 123, Elwell Sauder says.Aspen in now fielding girls teams for players in second grade through high school.”Having that hunger, drive and commitment, and having that happening in second and third grade, that is what makes programs sustainable,” Elwell Sauder says.So, too, does a varsity high school program. The Skiers joined CHSAA this past season on the condition that the program fund itself for two years, Elwell Sauder says. They finished with a .500 record.Forty-nine varsity girls programs took the field in 2010 in the state – up from 20 in 1988, when the sport was first sanctioned, according to Bethany Schott, CHSAA’s assistant commissioner. There are currently 68 boys teams.”Things always tend to lead with the boys,” Elwell Sauder says. “This move was a big step. … For younger kids not to be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I thought that’d be a real step backwards. … It really wouldn’t been a stall.”This is not even legitimacy so much as much as drive. … To see what [the eighth graders] are doing in terms of work ethic right now, I don’t know what it would’ve been if we didn’t go to varsity. They’d probably be a little more torn as to what their future held.””We had set a base and put a template out there, and [Elwell Sauder] came in and turned on a lot of girls to it,” Goerne adds. “She came in with such a passion for the game … and put a lot of dedication into it.”Elwell Sauder does her best to deflect credit. Instead, she prefers to praise the Aspen Lacrosse Club’s coaching staff for the program’s ultimate success.With good reason. On the girls side alone, the staff includes those who have played at Division I schools like William & Mary (Va.) as well as Virginia and the University of New Hampshire, among others. Many have also coached at the college ranks.”To be tucked away like Aspen and have this level of coaching to be able to pull from for the program, it definitely blows my mind. … I just call it a strike of luck,” Elwell Sauder says. “They just come out of the woodwork. … They’re here all making good lives for themselves, and it’s awesome that they’re willing and able to use their knowledge and experience to pass on to these kids. … Without that, this game wouldn’t have the same growth.””There’s so many people here that played at an incredibly high level,” Beirne adds. “They’re here cause they want to give back. We’re very fortunate.”
Goerne admits he would not have been surprised if participation dipped, if the appeal of being “the new thing on the block that everybody wanted to try” wore off after a few seasons.He is still waiting for that to happen.”Managing this growth is a good challenge to have as a director,” he says.”Lacrosse has really taken hold. … Parents are learning the game, falling in love with the game and starting to get more interested. It’s exciting each year how much more time kids are putting into the game and their own development.””The community support has been outstanding,” Elwell Sauder adds. “That’s the only reason how to make this possible.”Aspen’s presence in the game is growing. Local players are cropping up at tournaments and clinics around the region and country; Goerne took a group to compete in San Diego in April.On May 14-16, the town hosted its third Aspen Lacrosse Shootout, which drew fifty teams from across Colorado and even Wyoming. And in early June, the club will welcome some the game’s brightest stars from the college and pro ranks – including 2010 U.S. national team coach Mike Pressler – for the third annual Aspen Extreme Lax Camp.Pressler, the former Duke coach, now heads the men’s program at Bryant University in Rhode Island – Beirne’s alma mater. Beirne, who captained the Bulldogs’ lacrosse team in 1984 and 1985, established a relationship with the coach while serving on the university’s board of trustees.”It’s just another incredible opportunity that has really elevated the game,” Beirne says. “We’re working hard … to keep the momentum going.”Where that leads remains to be seen. While barriers to future growth exist – namely the need for more outdoor turf fields, Beirne says – most can agree on one thing: Lacrosse is here to stay.”I don’t see this as just being a fad,” says Amanda Wynn, an Aspen native who now coaches the club’s sixth, seventh- and eighth-grade girls. “Everyone has embraced this sport. … I could see Aspen being something like a perennial powerhouse.””It seems like we have a lot of good things to look forward to,” Elwell Sauder firstname.lastname@example.org
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