By Rick Coates
This week, hundreds of kids from around Northern Michigan are taking to the fields for what is quickly becoming Americas fastest growing team sport. No, not baseball: lacrosse -- a sport which involves whipping a ball up and down the playing field with hand-held racquets.
Thats bringing smiles to lacrosse enthusiasts such as Wally Kidd of Petoskey. Kidd was a high school All-American at Townson High School in Maryland and went on to be a part of two national championship teams at Johns Hopkins University. He developed the lacrosse program six years ago in Petoskey and he has seen interest in the sport grow rapidly.
Give a kid who has been playing baseball one year at lacrosse and he wont go back to baseball, said Kidd. Lacrosse is gaining momentum around the country and in particular here in Northern Michigan.
Pete Jones, who coaches in Traverse City through the Grand Traverse Youth Lacrosse Association (the group partners with the YMCA for leagues and instruction), agrees.
We have had a record turnout of players this year and we need more coaches as we have to create more teams, said Jones, who is coaching a group of 6th to 8th graders. We are still getting calls from kids and parents wanting to sign up kids for the season.
The Grand Traverse Youth Lacrosse program is for players from first through eighth grade and focuses on the fundamentals of the sport. In addition to teaching lacrosse basics, the program also has a competitive component with games and leagues.
When Wally Kidd introduced lacrosse to Petoskey six years ago he didnt know what to expect.
It wasnt like there were a hundred kids calling around looking to play. I had a lacrosse background and wanted my kids to have a chance to play so I ran an ad in the paper, set up shop at City Hall and thought I would be lucky if 15 kids showed up, said Kidd. That first year 40 showed up and the program has grown ever since. In fact, we have to turn kids away because we do not have enough coaches.
Kidd says the Petoskey program starts in the 5th grade and does not turn any kids away. The program focuses on fundamentals of the game.
Despite the early success in Petoskey, Kidd points out the sport was a tough transition for some parents.
Every kid we had in this program came over from baseball. We had some dads who were so upset at first that their kids were switching from baseball to lacrosse they wouldnt even come out to the games, said Kidd. Now these dads are the biggest boosters of the lacrosse program here in Petoskey.
So is the sport really becoming as popular with kids today as baseball, Americas pastime?
I agree with Coach Kidd, said Jones. Kids are coming over from baseball in masses; my son is an example of that. He used to play baseball and switched to lacrosse. In some states, high schools are dropping baseball because of a lack of interest and adding lacrosse.
WHY SO POPULAR?
So why is lacrosse becoming so popular? For years it was viewed as a private school sport and at the college level played primarily on the east coast at elite universities.
There are several reasons why lacrosse is now the fastest growing team sport in the country, said Colleen Sperry Aungst, spokesperson for US Lacrosse, the national governing body for mens, womens and youth lacrosse. Youth are attracted to the action-packed aspect of the game. Lacrosse embodies several skill sets and in a sense is a blend of basketball, hockey and soccer. It is also a great sport for kids who play multiple sports because lacrosse requires endurance, speed, agility and hand-eye coordination.
US Lacrosse estimates that there are now over 700,000 first through high school lacrosse players on organized teams throughout the United States, up from 500,000 in 2008. Currently Northern Michigan has six high school club teams, including Traverse City West, TC Central, TC St. Francis, Cadillac, Sault Ste. Marie and Petoskey. Other schools are also looking at programs.
But with schools facing budget cuts will lacrosse become a varsity sport in Northern Michigan?
I think the seed has been planted. Certainly there are funding and budget issues to making it a varsity sport, but Title IX also plays a part in this. Either a boys varsity sport would have to be dropped or a girls varsity sport would have to be added for this to happen, said Jones. I think that we will see lacrosse as a varsity sport in Northern Michigan in the next few years for boys.
Kidd echoes Jones:
Lacrosse is a lot like where soccer was at 25 years ago in Northern Michigan, there is this element of unknown to it, so parents and athletic directors are not sure about it, said Kidd. They worry that lacrosse might take away from other sports. But I think there is room for lacrosse; it provides another opportunity for kids.
Kidd is also concerned about one-sport coaches and he sees that as more detrimental to high school team sports than anything else.
When you have coaches telling kids they have to play a sport year-round, that is what hurts. I am opposed to that. In fact I recently spoke to the coach at John Hopkins and he told me he doesnt want players who only play lacrosse on his team, said Kidd. It has been proven that kids who play multiple sports dont get burned out on a particular sport and they often excel.
Is it having an impact on local baseball programs?
I think there is some concern but we are actually seeing growth in youth baseball in Northern Michigan, said Carl Studzinski a board member with Traverse City Little League. We are seeing a record sign-up at Little League and we have to turn some kids away because of the lack of fields.
What about girls lacrosse?
The reason Michigan does not have girls youth lacrosse is because we are one of two states where soccer is a spring sport. If soccer was in the fall, that would open the door for girls lacrosse programs, said Kidd. My daughter is 16 and the boys know she is as good as any of them and it pains her to not have the opportunity to play. She hopes to play in college.
The Petoskey lacrosse program has become the benchmark for Northern Michigan and Kidd points to enthusiastic members of the community who serve on the board as the key to its success. He also sees Traverse City and other communities getting better organized and developing very competitive teams at the high school level. While Kidd likes the competition, he loves what the sport is teaching the kids.
So many life lessons are taught on the lacrosse field, said Kidd. This is sport that in addition to the physical skills requires discipline, respect and character. These are all traits necessary to be successful throughout life in business and personal relationships. My players respond to all requests by saying yes sir. I even have teachers tell me how respectful these players are in school and how they address them as yes sir or yes maam. My high school team each year picks a word to focus on, this years word is respect, and we break every huddle by yelling respect.
The question now is will lacrosse earn the respect of the Northern Michigan sports community? By every indication it already has with many kids, and after all, these programs are for the kids; so now it is up to the parents and athletic directors to get on board.
For information about lacrosse in Petoskey contact Wally Kidd at 231-838-2700. For the Grand Traverse area go to www.grandtraverselacrosse.com or call 231-492-6666. For info about starting a lacrosse program in your community go to www.uslacrosse.org.
Lacrosse & Native Americans
Lacrosse was invented by Native Americans and was widely played across the eastern half of North America at the time white settlers arrived. It was dubbed le crosse by French missionaries who thought the curved racquets looked like a crosier or cross.
Known to have been played as early as the 1400s, the game was called baggataway by a number of tribes and was said to have been part religious ritual and part military training, in addition to recreation.
Thomas Vennum Jr., author of American Indian Lacrosse: Little Brother of War, has this to say about the game in our neck of the woods:
Great Lakes players (Ojibwe, Menominee, Potawatomi, Sauk, Fox, Miami, Winnebago, Santee Dakota and others) used a single three-foot stick. It terminates in a round, closed pocket about three to four inches in diameter, scarcely larger than the ball, which was usually made of wood, charred and scraped to shape.
Visitors to historic Fort Michilimackinac at the Straits know that the Ottawa Indians used a lacrosse game as a ploy to capture the fort in 1763. A game was organized outside the fort, but players sent a ball flying over the walls. When the gates were open to let them in, they grabbed their weapons, which were hidden beneath the robes of Indian women onlookers, and stormed the fort.