Lacrosse nation eyes Washington state

Lacrosse players for the University of Maryland clash in front of the cage, Friday at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash. The Terps are in the Seattle-area for Saturday’s Seatown Classic game against Denver. The fall-ball exhibition is the first NCAA Division I lacrosse game to be played in Washington state. Photo Courtesy: Henry Valentine

SEATTLE — Seattle, located in the upper-reaches of the continental Northwest, is known in sports circles for its football Seahawks, baseball Mariners and soccer Sounders FC and recently rolled-out plans to build a world-class basketball and hockey arena to host potential NBA and NHL franchises.

Major league stuff.

But this weekend, amid the NFL season and major college football games, eyes of the lacrosse nation will be on an unlikely sport in an unlikely city as Seattle hosts the first NCAA Men’s Division I lacrosse game to be played in Washington state.

The Seatown Classic, a Saturday afternoon matchup between the University of Maryland and the University of Denver, two of the nation’s premier NCAA Division I men’s lacrosse teams, gets underway at 2 p.m., at the Starfire Sports Complex Stadium in neighboring Tukwila.

Lacrosse you say. In Washington state?

With high school roots that go back four decades, thriving club programs, an increasingly popular Washington Stealth National Lacrosse League franchise in Everett, and youth programs in nearly every urban community, the curiosity of lacrosse has given way to a very real opportunity for kids in schools throughout the Evergreen State.

“Lacrosse is a fast-paced spring-season game with the speed of basketball and finesse of soccer. And for boys, a taste of football,” says Kris Snider, a three-time All-American at Virginia and lacrosse coach of Seattle’s Nathan Hale High School, who championed the effort to bring the Seatown Classic to the state.

“We really want the local kids, coaches and parents to see this game. To relish in the opportunity so they can picture themselves in the same sport,” says Snider. “These guys are pretty cool. They’re not all LeBron James, but they’re not a lot different from us. We hope it sparks imaginations.”

In a state high school sports system already strapped with limited playing opportunities for students looking to break into traditional prep sports, it’s lacrosse that Snider hopes will grab the attention of new athletes – and even some of the most talented.

“Lacrosse opens the participation door for girls and boys that don’t yet play a sport, while providing cross-over training for highly touted fall-sport athletes,” he says.

To validate lacrosse, one only needs to look to the great Jim Brown, an All-American in football and lacrosse at Syracuse, who went on to a storied eight-year career in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns.

Today, the sport has given the “soccer mom” of the 1980s new legs as the “lacrosse mom” of the 2000s. For the local lacrosse community, the sport’s success in Washington state has managed to turn heads, largely from its east-coast based lacrosse establishment, to the Northwest.

“Lacrosse in Washington is just as important as in any other state because its lacrosse leaders continue to develop the game with best practices, focus on what is best for players and provide opportunities for all children to participate in the sport,” says Steve Stenersen, CEO of Baltimore-based US Lacrosse, the national governing body of the sport.

In Washington, an annual double-digit growth rate throughout the past decade at the youth and high school levels has fueled the popularity of lacrosse in the state and around the U.S.

Today, the sport is considered as the fastest growing sport in the nation.

Popularity that could be hard to ignore not only for Washington, but for other non-traditional lacrosse states following the Northwest’s lead in how it manages demand for new programs and plans its path forward, says Stenersen.

“Geography has not affected lacrosse in Washington because its leadership is concerned with the responsible growth and health of a sport that is rooted in Native American religion,” adds Stenersen, who emphasizes the unifying steps that local leaders have taken to bring the sport together as it grows into less populous communities beyond the Puget Sound region.

Snider, who like his tireless playing style in the mid 1970s, has doggedly pursued athletic directors, parents and recreation leaders in the state – anyone who would listen, sharing his passion for the game and unselfish willingness to grow the sport.

It’s this infectious passion for exposing others to lacrosse at a higher level that made way for Maryland and Denver to visit Seattle.

The expansion of the sport and its impact is bringing great players to the top schools from everywhere not just the established states, says Snider. A trend he believes resonated with Maryland, one of the nation’s most respected programs.

But in Division I, with the University of Denver and the US Airforce Academy as the closest men’s programs to Seattle, and Oregon and USC and just a handful of Division III schools in California fielding the closest women’s programs, getting the attention of two of the top men’s teams in the country was a challenge.

Maryland midfielder Landon Carr, a high school All-American from Curtis High School in University Place, is all smiles as he steps off the bus before practice Friday at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash. Photo Courtesy: Henry Valentine

With Snider’s son Drew having finished a highly successful career at Maryland, helping the Terps to two national title game appearances in the past two years and former Curtis All American Landon Carr now patrolling the College Park midfield, playing a fall-ball exhibition in the Seattle area seemed to be a natural fit.

“I think that Maryland traditionally has been able to attract the kind of player it wanted to from its local environment. They tended to stay parochial, because of their environment,” says Snider . “It seemed like John (Tillman, Maryland head coach) felt his school was behind the curve and in the big picture it made sense for them to spread their wings.”

After several conversations with the Maryland program while his son Drew, an O’Dea High School graduate and All-State midfielder was playing in College Park, Snider received a call in 2010, shortly after Tillman accepted the Maryland head coaching job, about a Seattle game.

“John called me out of the blue and brought it up,” said Snider. “He said ‘It’s certainly on our radar. Let’s see if we can make it happen’.”

It was a clear opportunity to invite the lacrosse establishment to take a closer look at Washington state.

In fact, the lacrosse establishment has already had its eyes on Washington state.

In 2012, 23 Washington state high school seniors made their way onto the recruiting charts of NCAA Division I, II and III coaches around the country. It was the most successful recruiting year for high school seniors in the nearly four-decade history of prep lacrosse in the state.

“Definitely the top players in Washington can play with anyone back east,” says Maryland’s Carr, who along with Denver’s Cole Nordstrom of Bellevue High School and Jack Pruitt of Skyline High School, also prep All-Americans, are among more than 100 high school lacrosse players from Washington state that have gone on to play at the NCAA level and another 100 that have played at the club level.

“Where it drops off is that there are fewer solid coaches in the west. But the top players in Washington can play anywhere,” says Carr.

Along with the three Washington state standouts, the Seatown Classic truly has a Northwest flavor. While Carr is the only Northwest student-athlete playing for Maryland, Denver’s roster includes Oregon freshmen Blake Dutton (Lake Oswego / Lakeridge HS) and Michael Marcott (Portland / Lincoln HS), Montana sophomore Teddy MacKenzie (Livingston / Hotchkiss School) and British Columbia sophomore Wes Berg (Coquitlam / Charles Best Secondary School).

While lacrosse is quickly becoming the darling among moms, dads and high school student-athletes in urban communities from Spokane to Seattle and Vancouver to Bellingham, the sport is still struggling for acceptance among the high school establishment in the state.

Of the 21 states that now sanction high school lacrosse, Washington state with some 4,000 lacrosse student-athletes attending 200 Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) member schools, is not yet one of them.

From track and field with 23,284 high school participants to bowling with 1,152 in the 2011-12 school year, lacrosse would rank among the top of the bottom third with 4,000 participants.

But with its current growth trend, the sport is on pace to overtake golf and softball, the next two sports on the list, in the next few years.

After a cross-country flight to Seattle, lacrosse players for the University of Maryland loosen up before practice at Skyline High School in Sammamish, Wash. Photo Courtesy: Henry Valentine

“My hope is that we have an eastern Washington high school lacrosse league in the next few years so girls and boys lacrosse in Spokane and eastern Washington can continue to grow,” says Paul Manfred, Athletic Director at Spokane’s Gonzaga Preparatory School and a member of a group of state educators and athletic directors serving as lacrosse ambassadors to the WIAA.

With high school programs and clubs already thriving in the eastern Washington communities of Spokane, Wenatchee, Tri-Cities and Selah and new schools looking to break into lacrosse in the coming years combined with the bubble of youth players looking to play at the prep level, the state’s high school establishment may find an opportunity.

An opportunity that could reverse a flat participation trend in Washington state high school sports and activities in three of the past four years.

“It’s very noticeable that we have kids that choose Gonzaga Prep because we offer lacrosse,” says Manfred, whose school has one of three lacrosse programs in the Spokane area and is among six in eastern Washington.

“All of the other sports that we offer, are also at other schools in the Spokane area. Lacrosse is one of the diverse offerings that distinguishes us,” he says.

For now, as lacrosse moms and high school athletes continue their passion for the sport and local educators wrestle with adding new activities to keep up with interests in their communities, eyes of the lacrosse nation will be on Seattle’s NCAA Seatown Classic with curiosity – as an unlikely place for the game and a very real taste of a possible NCAA championship matchup this spring.

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