WHITEFISH – On a soaking wet Thursday afternoon, a couple dozen kids, a handful of coaches and a small cluster of parents met at Smith Fields for a lacrosse game. Despite unrelenting showers that would send most people running inside for cover, this dedicated group stayed out to celebrate the valley’s fastest-growing sport.
“This is lacrosse, not baseball,” one of the coaches had said earlier in the day. “Unless there’s a thunderstorm, we’re playing.”
A decade ago, lacrosse in the Flathead Valley consisted of loosely organized pickup games on the weekend. But today, the valley has a thriving youth lacrosse program and two high school-level teams: Flathead Lacrosse, which covers the North Valley, and Northwest Sharpshooters representing the Kalispell area. There’s a prospect of a third.
“It’s no surprise that lacrosse is one of the fastest-growing sports out there,” Northwest Sharpshooters varsity coach Ted Smith said. “Once a kid starts playing, they just love it.”
Lacrosse used to be played predominantly in the Northeast or on the West Coast, but it has now firmly cemented itself in Montana, with teams from Missoula to Billings. The Flathead Lacrosse Club was organized a decade ago; three years ago, a second group put down roots in the Kalispell area to form the Northwest Sharpshooters.
Flathead Lacrosse has become a team to watch in Montana after a strong 2016 season that saw the squad making it all the way to the semifinal, where it lost to the eventual state champion, Missoula’s Hellgate Knights. After last year, nine seniors graduated but have been replaced by 14 freshmen, one of the biggest classes of players to ever join the team, according to assistant coach Charlie Deese. This incoming group has been playing together since they were young kids, Deese said, meaning there’s no need to spend time on the basics. He said the team could be a force to be reckoned with in the coming years.
“These freshmen players have all of the fundamentals down and they’re some of the most prepared players we’ve ever seen,” Deese said. “We just need to have them work on playing as a team.”
That solid foundation is the result of an emphasis to get younger kids on the field with lacrosse sticks. Northwest Sharpshooters’ youth program has nearly a dozen teams that feed players into both its high school program and Flathead Lacrosse’s. Deese said collaboration between the valley’s two clubs is important.
“We’re trying to make this a cohesive program, rather than a disjointed group of teams,” Deese said.
Flathead Lacrosse’s varsity team is currently 1-1, and Coach Matt Rizzolo said he is optimistic that the club will be competitive during the state tournament on May 19-21.
Smith, Northwest Sharpshooters’ coach, is similarly excited about his team, which features at least three college-bound players. Smith has no doubt that the sport will keeping growing in the Flathead, but said some challenges persist, mostly the weather. Long winters mean Montana’s lacrosse players often spend the first half of their season in a gym working on their stick skills and not out on the field.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re in Billings, Bozeman or the Flathead, this is Montana and it can be tough to get outside early in the season,” Smith said. “But the good thing is, once we do, the kids are super excited to play.”