Watch any one of the many lacrosse club teams practicing on any given weekday at Aspen High School, and it’s easy to see why North America’s first sport is also its fastest growing.On a recent sunny afternoon, high school athletes from various varsity sports teams blended seamlessly on the school’s new turf field while playing a fast-paced, physical game that incorporates skills used in their other respective sports.Speedy soccer players darted between lumbering football players on the same surface where hockey players dished out checks to members of the school’s ski team.
The swift transitions from defense to offense were reminiscent of up-the-ice rushes found in hockey, while in front of the net, the offensive strategy was akin to a basketball game. Screens and rolls were carried out precisely while the ball was passed around in rapid succession – until a clean shot was fired or a defender forced a turnover, which set off a fast break in the other direction.”The interesting fact about lacrosse is that it really encompasses every other sport’s athlete,” said Mike Goerne, who coaches the older of the two club teams comprised of boys from the high school. “You have the big football players with the hitting at the defense. You have the fast soccer players at midfield who have the footwork. You have the attack men who tend to be more of the quarterbacks of the team. They’re the guys with the better stick skills. They’re shifty, change-of-direction guys. There’s something for everybody.”Clearly. Since the inception of the local club three years ago, lacrosse has become the valley’s hottest youth sport.More than 200 boys and girls between grades two and 12 have signed up to play on one of Aspen Lacrosse’s nine team’s this spring – an increase of more than 50 percent from the previous year. And that’s after the infant program doubled in size after its first year, in 2005. “It’s a growth that was completely unexpected,” said Goerne, a native Minnesotan who played lacrosse at Division I Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “A lot of it is friends just see kids with sticks at their house, and then they want to try it out.”The growth is so rapid, in fact, that Goerne said the club is doing all it can to keep up with the demand.A second- and third-grade team was added this year, as well as a team for girls between grades seven and 12 – the offshoot of so many young girls playing on boys teams last spring. At the start of spring practice, the new girls team had 15 players. At practice last week, twice that many young ladies could be seen on the field slinging balls to one another while listening to instruction from co-head coaches Katharine Sachs and Chelsea Watson – both former Division I players themselves.
Next year, Sachs said, it’s likely there will be enough girls to field a middle school team and a separate high school team. “Our main motive is just to make sure they have fun this year and to get their friends out here,” said Sachs, who graduated from Baltimore’s Loyola University last spring. “I’m from the East Coast, and as I was growing up the sport was just starting to take off there, really. And now it’s the same thing here. It is such a fun, quick sport that anyone who plays other sports, you can pick it up easily, and there are so many aspects to it. It’s growing in the West Coast so quickly. “It’s so new out here.”Sachs’ words ring true when considering the athletic backgrounds of some of her first-year players.Coco Writer, an eighth-grader who plays ice hockey during the winter, said she became interested in lacrosse when her brother started playing. Her seventh-grade teammate Ellie Parker – an avid tennis player and nordic skier – said she got the itch when she and some of her friends heard about the new team. “It’s a nice team sport where it has a lot of different eye-hand coordination, and you have to be a good runner,” Parker said. “I just like it because there are a lot of different parts to it.”And then there’s ninth-grader Logan Cross, a volleyball and soccer player, who said she was intrigued simply because she had never played a sport with a stick before.”It just looked like a lot of fun,” Cross said. “I saw people doing it, and I wanted to play too.””They’re all exceptional athletes, and they’re all true Aspen kids,” Watson explained of the sport’s draw. “In lacrosse, if you’re an athlete, it’s easy to pick up. They all play other sports, so it works.”
Aspen’s various teams play mostly play at spring and summer tournaments around the state, where a large number of short games can be squeezed into a few days. The two high school-aged boys teams also play traditional full-length matches against regional foes such as Grand Junction and Eagle Valley – similar to the sanctioned varsity and junior varsity high school games found on the Front Range.With a strong feeder program in place, the obvious next step for the high school teams is to get sanctioned by the Colorado High School Activities Association.The model for a varsity team is already in place, Goerne noted, considering Aspen’s successful high school hockey team was born from the town’s club program and still operates under the umbrella of Aspen Junior Hockey.
Other high schools in small resort towns with strong club lacrosse programs have already taken the step, including Steamboat Springs, and Summit – which joined the CHSAA ranks this spring.”Hopefully we’ll be sanctioned by next year,” Goerne said. “It starts with us working with the school, and the school working with the other schools that have club programs to go to CHSAA together. Obviously one team needs to lead it.”According to the Rocky Mountain News, male and female preparatory school participation has nearly doubled since CHSAA sanctioned lacrosse in 1999, from 2,141 athletes to 3,945 in 2006.That increase is the largest for any high school sport, except cheerleading.And nationally, according to the national governing body, US Lacrosse, no sport has grown faster at the high school level over the last 10 years – with an estimated 169,000 male and female players.It’s a trend that helped spawn Aspen’s club program, said Cody Baker, a junior at the high school who was among the group that pushed for a team three years ago. The hope from the beginning was that a varsity program would be in place before his senior year, he said.
“There’s a lot of hockey players who play, and a lot of football kids, as well as kids that just ski in the wintertime and they want to play a sport in the spring,” he said. “This is a good outlet for them.”It appears that it already has a built-in fan base, as well. The boys team of high school upperclassmen (essentially what would be the varsity) has already played two games under the lights this spring at the new turf field, and both attracted a healthy showing of fans – very similar to the crowds found at varsity soccer and football games.Considering how quickly girls are joining the new club team, Sachs said she can’t help thinking that varsity high school lacrosse for girls is right around the corner.”Hopefully in the next year even,” she said, noting she expects the boys program to be sanctioned by next spring. “Really, it just comes down to numbers and funding.”
Diane Godfrey, the mother of two children currently playing on local teams, said she has seen firsthand the unbridled excitement that lacrosse has spawned among valley youth.She said her 8-year-old son was deflated last year when he was in first grade and couldn’t play because he wasn’t old enough. As for her young daughter, she joined up with the boys fourth- and fifth-grade team this spring because there weren’t enough girls to form their own elementary school team. That means her daughter has to wear shoulder pads, arm pads and a helmet, and is subject to the stick checks and hits that are a staple of the boys game but not the girls version – but she loves it anyway, Godfrey said.”I think it’s exciting because it’s new,” Godfrey said. “When the program started here, they both got really excited.” Of course, coaches and league officials in other spring sports – like youth soccer and baseball – likely aren’t as thrilled about the valley’s blossoming lacrosse craze.Lawrence Altman, an assistant coach with the girls lacrosse team comprised of middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, said ideally he would love to see club lacrosse players still playing their first spring sport, if possible.He also said the onus for starting a lacrosse program was never to steal players away from other club teams – even if it there are cases of exactly that.
Then again, he added that kids should be allowed to decide for themselves which sport they prefer.”When we opened this up we told the players that their other sports took precedence,” he said. “My daughter plays tennis and other girls play soccer, and this was secondary. At the same time, if they prefer lacrosse, and they want this to be their primary sport, there’s nothing wrong with that.”Godfrey made similar remarks.”[Lacrosse] is a spring sport, and here we do offer soccer in the spring, but there’s also soccer in the fall,” she said. “It’s just nice to have something different.”Certainly, what’s old is new again.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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Aspen Skiing Co. invited uphillers to fill out a survey this week. It asks about habits such as how often they skin, where and when. It also asks if they would be willing to pay to play.