Riding Westward Expansion, Lacrosse Comes to Montana

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – Lacrosse’s roots are old, but its rapid growth is new. Considered one of the nation’s first games, of American Indian origins, lacrosse dwelled almost exclusively on the East Coast for decades. But in recent years, the sport has experienced a top-to-bottom explosion and, more specifically, a pioneering westward expansion.

As with some other national trends, Montana has been slow to hop onboard. In a state that loves its Friday night football and double-elimination basketball, lacrosse may seem a bit foreign. Yet Montana has never been one to turn a blind eye to a good game, and Eric Hanson is hoping that if he builds it, they will come.

Hanson and Matt Lawrance are founders and head coaches of the Flathead Lacrosse Club in Whitefish. Now in its fourth year, the club has more than 30 kids: 17 middle schoolers, 10 kids in second through fifth grade and five high schoolers. They practice twice a week at Whitefish Armory Field.

With 17 middle schoolers, the coaches now have enough players to compete against middle school teams from other cities and states. The team will compete at tournaments throughout May in its inaugural competitive season. This is also the first year the club is operating independently. It was previously under the direction of the city of Whitefish, Hanson said.

To kick the season off, the Flathead Lacrosse Club is holding a fundraiser jamboree on May 8 at the Whitefish Armory Field. At the event, which begins at 11 a.m., there will be a middle school doubleheader, a youth tournament and a men’s game. A barbecue and concession stand will be available to raise funds for the team. Hanson is hoping to attract new players and donations.

“A lot of people don’t know much about lacrosse,” Hanson said. “The jamboree will be a good chance for people to check it out.”

Mason McInnes, left, and Colton Gorian struggle for position while chasing down a lacrosse ball during a club practice in Whitefish.

Lacrosse is one of the fastest-growing sports in the nation. According to U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, the number of players participating on organized teams has more than doubled in the past decade, growing from 250,000 in 2001 to 560,000 in 2009. The most rapidly expanding segment is youth, which consists of kids younger than 15.

Much of the growth is occurring in the West. As lacrosse’s East Coast exclusivity becomes a thing of the past, more high schools are sanctioning the sport, more cities are adopting youth leagues and more colleges are either creating non-varsity clubs or NCAA-sanctioned varsity programs.

The top college level, however, is still dominated by eastern schools. In men’s NCAA Division I, only two of the 60 teams are west of the Mississippi: Denver and the Air Force Academy. There are also many more programs competing at lower levels, as well as nearly 300 colleges with non-varsity club lacrosse, including the University of Montana.

Women’s lacrosse, which uses different rules and equipment, is also growing rapidly. There are 91 NCAA Division I teams, along with many more lower-level and club teams.

Denver is an apt illustration of the sport’s westward movement. Last year, famed Princeton coach Bill Tierney left his Ivy League powerhouse to take over the men’s program at Denver, a move that sent shockwaves through the lacrosse community. Tierney had won six Division I national championships at Princeton.

The Flathead middle school team, in addition to playing on May 8, will participate in tournaments on May 15 and May 22 against teams from northern Idaho and Missoula. The Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene areas have a number of established teams, Hanson said, while Missoula’s club is growing quickly. Bozeman also has a club team, Hanson said, and the sport is popular in Canada.

“We’re surrounded,” Hanson said. “It won’t be long before we have teams to play.”

Working with a strong base of middle school and elementary school students, Hanson and Lawrance hope to lay the foundation for a strong youth lacrosse presence in the valley that will extend through high school. There are enough eighth- and seventh-graders that Hanson thinks the club will have a high school team within a couple of years.

Hanson is encouraged by one trend he’s noticed: “Once the kids play lacrosse, they love the game.” Few have left the club after joining and many have played since the club’s first day four years ago, he said. A grant from the U.S. Lacrosse Foundation helped pay for new equipment.

Waylon Roberts grips the netted end of a lacrosse stick with his protective gloves during a Flathead Lacrosse Club practice in Whitefish.

Lacrosse is a demanding sport, with continual running and physical contact between players, but that’s partly what the players like. That could explain why so many in the club are hockey players. Furthermore, lacrosse shares some basic fundamentals and concepts as hockey, as well as other sports.

Hanson said athletes who have experience in basketball, football, soccer or other games often adapt seamlessly to lacrosse. Mason McInnes, a sixth-grader at Whitefish Middle School, has learned to transfer his hockey skills onto the lacrosse field. He said a lot of his kids aren’t familiar with the sport, but he said once they try it, they’ll stick with it.

“It’s a really fun game,” he said. “I’ve got a couple of my friends to ask their parents and they really want to try it now.”

It’s through kids like McInnes that the Flathead Lacrosse Club will grow, Hanson said. Each year, as players spread the word at their schools, Hanson expects more kids to sign up. But Hanson also plans to increase promotional and fundraising efforts. The May 8 jamboree is a prime example.

“A lot of it is awareness,” he said. “Kids don’t know they can play.”

Hanson doesn’t mind volunteering his time, nor do the other coaches.

“We really want to see the sport take off,” Hanson said, “and someone’s got to coach them.”

To learn more about the club, men’s league opportunities or how to donate, check out the May 8 jamboree or log on to www.flatheadlacrosse.com.

Henry Chisholm, right, waits to take a shot on goal as Jack Blair, front, moves to snag a tennis ball hurled by his father and coach Scot Blair during a Flathead Lacrosse Club practice in Whitefish.

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