Coming of age, high school lacrosse turns 35 in Washington state

SEATTLE – Among prep powerhouses looking for an edge, upstart coaches looking for a foothold and committed educators looking to inspire, prep lacrosse for some 4,000 student-athletes attending 200 high schools from Spokane to Seattle and Lynden to Camas embarks on its 35th year of play in Washington state this Friday.

A Snohomish player (white) is pursued by a pack of Garfield Bulldogs in the 2012 Washington Lacrosse Boys Div. II High School State Championship in Seattle.

This March, an unprecedented seven new high school teams will take the lacrosse field for the first time.  Among them are four boys programs in Spokane along with upstart Camas and Union High Schools in Southwest Washington and a girl’s program representing Peninsula and Gig Harbor High Schools in the south Puget Sound area.

It’s the most significant year of growth for high school lacrosse in Washington state in its four decades of organized play.

And for state educators grappling with mature participation numbers in traditional school sports, lacrosse’s double-digit annual growth over the last decade in Washington may present an opportunity – and some fresh air.

One only needs to glance back to the 1970s and 80s when soccer burst onto the scene charming girls, boys — and moms all across the state, to understand what a fresh sport can bring.

And how it can enthuse.

“For students, lacrosse presents a non-intimidating opportunity to venture into field sports.  And more,” says Sue Haviland, a long-time math teacher and girls lacrosse coach at Redmond’s Overlake School where each spring 20 percent of a student body of some 500 pick up a stick, called a “crosse” on the school’s various teams.

“Kids new to traditional sports can feel a step behind before they step on the field,” says Haviland whose Owls open their Washington Schoolgirls Lacrosse Association season against Forest Ridge at home on Monday.

“Lacrosse is new enough for kids venturing into sports for the first time, where they can jump in and get up to speed quickly.”

That, says Haviland, can provide a gateway to something new and different in their high school lives.

Overlake student-athletes rally around Hall of Fame coach Sue Haviland during a Washington Schoolgirls Lacrosse Association game in 2012.

“That’s exciting.  That’s what education is.”

At defending girls state champion Bainbridge High School, one of the original girls teams in the state, head coach Tami Tommila credits the success of the sport with the popularity of the youth game on Bainbridge Island.

The skill of today’s players is an example of the success of the youth movement, says Tommila whose Spartans have won 11 state titles in 19 trips to the championship game over the past quarter-century.

“Years back, we introduced third and fourth grade programs,” she says.  “Today we have (high school) juniors and senior that have less lacrosse experience than our younger players.”

For John Baumann, head boys coach at Bellevue High School, whose defending state champion Wolverines visit the Bainbridge boys for a 7:30 p.m. start in one of Friday’s five opening games, lacrosse is an opportunity to contribute to a school culture already rich in successful sports and activities.

And to help student-athletes grow in their lives.

“We’ve worked really hard to do what we’re doing.  But it was a different scenario six years ago” says Baumann, whose district, at the urging of educators and parent groups, formally recognized lacrosse as an official club sport in 2007.

The move, says Baumann, was a game-changer.

Bellevue High School student-athletes celebrate following their 2012 Washington State Championship win over Eastside Catholic.

“Instead of pushing us away, they took us in,” says the former NCAA Division I player at Albany (NY), whose 2012 state title was the ninth for Bellevue in 16 title-game appearances since 1979 when the school helped bring lacrosse onto the state’s prep scene.

“Our kids were immediately embraced by teachers, coaches and other students.”

It’s acceptance by peers and teachers alike, combined with lessons learned on the field, is where Baumann believes a wide choice of school sports and activities play a valuable role in developing the character of young people.

“The highly competitive atmosphere that we’re in creates a genuinely strong person with the ability to contribute well beyond sports,” Baumann says.

“If you can deal positively with the high caliber and pressure of lacrosse – or other high school activities, you’re going to be successful anywhere in life.”

Baumann’s thirst for accomplishment resonates with first-year coach at Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School and player for the National Lacrosse League’s Washington Stealth, Drew Snider.

“Sure we want to win a championship.  That’s always a goal,” says the graduate of Seattle’s O’Dea High School and two-time Washington state high school lacrosse All-American who as a collegian helped guide Division I Maryland to back-to-back trips to the NCAA championship game.

Two-time Washington state high school All-American and first-year coach at Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School Drew Snider patrols the field during the 2012 NCAA Div. I men’s championship game. (Photo:  Greg Fiume)

“But I want to get their lacrosse IQ up,” says Snider, whose Raiders open next Wednesday at Vashon High School.  “If they go on to the (NCAA) level they’ll be familiar with what the coach is saying and wants.  They’ll have an edge.”

In Spokane, Gonzaga Prep, University High, Mead-Mt. Spokane and Lewis and Clark High Schools all begin Washington state play for the first time this spring.

Tuesday’s Inland Empire opener matches Mead-Mt. Spokane with Idaho’s Sandpoint, while Lewis and Clark travels across town to take on Gonzaga Prep in a Wednesday matchup on the Bullpups’ home field.

For Gonzaga Prep head coach and Spokane native Chris Shogan, the opening game marks a dream come true.

“It’s something that I’ve wanted since I started,” says Shogan who championed the move by Spokane’s high schools to the highly competitive Washington High School Boys Lacrosse Association after playing against North Idaho clubs since Gonzaga Prep brought on lacrosse in 2003.

The move, says Shogan, brings another form of inclusion for lacrosse student-athletes in Spokane and he hopes it will accommodate the swell of interest brought on by a rapidly growing youth game already pushing the limits of existing high school teams.

And opens the door to a healthy rivalry.

“Now being able to compete for a Washington lacrosse high school championship is important,” he says.  “It clearly puts east vs. west bragging rights on the table.”

In Southwest Washington, Camas head coach James Avino is looking to make his mark against rival King’s Way Christian in Vancouver along with Union High School, which is playing a varsity schedule for the first time this spring.

“Lacrosse is a good fit for kids that aren’t playing traditional sports to have an opportunity to compete at the high school level,” says the former collegiate lacrosse player at NCAA Division III Cortland University and later Colorado State before spending a decade as a high school football coach in Oregon.

Among the 27 student-athletes that will take to the Doc Harris Stadium field for the first time on Friday, March 15 when the upstart Papermaker club takes on Selah High School, 17 have lacrosse experience while others have played JV football and basketball or have run cross country.

In lacrosse it’s the opportunity to play and improve athletic skills that makes the sport attractive, says Avino.

“When I played lacrosse back east, every kid was involved in another sport.  You didn’t quit baseball to play lacrosse.  It was one of your three seasons of sports.”

A Bainbridge player fires-off a shot during the 2012 Washington Lacrosse Girls State Championship game at The Eastside Catholic School in Sammamish.

Other opening week boy’s games include Tahoma at Woodinville (6 p.m. at Woodinville High School), Peninsula-Gig harbor at Kennedy Catholic (7 p.m. at Foster High School in Tukwila) and Seattle Prep at Sammamish-Newport (7:15 p.m. at Bellevue’s Newport High School).

On Saturday, King’s Way opens at Curtis High School in University Place and Issaquah opens at Liberty High School in Renton. Both games get underway at 6 p.m.  And on Sunday, Richland opens against Idaho opponent Sand Point.  The contest kicks-off at Hanford High School at 1 p.m.

For girls, Washington Schoolgirls Lacrosse Association play gets underway in Week 2 of the prep season with three varsity games scheduled for Monday, March 11.

Among them is the Forest Ridge, Overlake matchup at 3:30 p.m. at the Overlake School in Redmond.  Mukilteo (Kamiak HS) visits Puyallup (Puyallup and Emerald Ridge High Schools) in a 7 p.m. start at Sumner’s Sunset Stadium and Garfield visits Mercer Island in an 8 p.m. start at Islander Stadium on Mercer Island.

Bainbridge High School opens on Wednesday, March 13 as the Spartans take on the Overlake School.  Game time at Bainbridge Stadium is 6:30 p.m.

“There’s a higher standard in our sport now in athletes becoming not just good athletes, but great athletes,” says the Spartans’ Tommila, who sees lacrosse taking a similar path to popularity as soccer, which has grown from a new sport on the scene three decades ago to one of the WIAA’s most popular with over 19,000 high school students participating today.

For Tommila, the question remains; Will lacrosse really blossom if it becomes a part of the WIAA?

“There will be opportunities for all girls (in the state) to give lacrosse a try.  I’m sure of that,” she says.

The 13-week high school lacrosse season in the Evergreen State concludes with the Washington Lacrosse Girls State Championships on Friday, May 17 and the Washington Lacrosse Boys State Championships on Saturday, June 1.

 ~ Mike McQuaid, Sports Information Director, US Lacrosse – Washington State Chapter

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