Lacrosse Takes Off in Big Sky Country

By Beacon Staff

WHITEFISH – At over 200 pounds, Boyce Ballard has a scholarship to play college football and is a state champion wrestler, but the nuances of lacrosse are still foreign to him.

When he gets out on the field, his linebacker instincts kick in. And during his first-ever lacrosse game recently, Ballard was introduced to the concept of “unruly hitting,” which, he learned, is illegal.

Matt Lawrance, front left, runs through faceoff tips with the high school team during a recent Flathead Lacrosse Club practice at Grouse Mountain Fields in Whitefish.

“I got sent to the box a couple of times because I was going by football rules,” the burly Glacier High School senior said. “I put a few kids on their butts. They told me it was ‘unruly hitting.’”

Like many other members of the fledgling Flathead Lacrosse Club, Ballard is new to the game of lacrosse. While popular on the East Coast and emerging in other areas of the nation, lacrosse is just now catching on in Montana.

Eric Hanson, a founder of the Flathead Lacrosse Club, said there are five different lacrosse programs in Montana, most of which are only a few years old or younger. Flathead’s program started up several years ago as a small indoor endeavor. It moved outdoors and became a more official club last year.

Hanson said Missoula’s program, due to rapidly increasing participation, now has enough kids to form three separate high school teams: Hellgate, Sentinel and Big Sky. There is also a team on the Flathead Indian Reservation based out of Pablo, one in Billings and another in Bozeman. Helena and maybe Great Falls are forming teams for next year, Hanson and fellow coach Matt Lawrance said.

The programs banded together to form an official Montana chapter of U.S. Lacrosse this year. It is the nation’s 63rd chapter in 42 states.

“Montana lacrosse is growing rapidly,” Montana chapter president Tim Bechtold said in a release on U.S. Lacrosse’s website. “We have had college teams at the University of Montana in Missoula and Montana State University in Bozeman for many years, but school-level lacrosse has expanded dramatically in the last two years.”

In the same release, Erin Sturgis, U.S. Lacrosse director of chapter relations, said: “We are eager to see how this new sanctioned chapter will promote growth of the sport in the Northwest.”

With 68 kids from first through 12th grade, the Flathead Lacrosse Club has more than doubled in size from last year. The players are predominantly boys, but Hanson and Lawrance encourage girls to participate as well. The club also holds recreational pick-up games and workshops for adults who are curious about the sport.

The club’s various age groups practice at different locations in Whitefish, using both the Whitefish Armory Fields and Grouse Mountain Fields right now. Smith Fields may be used as well.

David Rizzolo, front, races down field to take a shot at the goal during a Flathead Lacrosse Club practice in Whitefish.

This is the first year the program has had enough players to form a high school team, of which Ballard is the only senior and oldest member. The youthfulness of the team, along with the high participation rate of elementary students, bodes well for the future of the club.

“I can see it catching on here,” Ballard said. “It’s fun. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever done.”

Hanson hopes to have enough teams in the future to form a Flathead Valley league in which teams from different towns can play against each other. For example, Flathead and Glacier high schools would have their own teams, along with high schools in outlying towns.

Club members come from across the valley and Lawrance expects to see a lot more kids participate next year, based off the current enthusiasm he sees.

“They’re just all into it,” he said. “Kids are always talking about trying to recruit other kids.”

Flathead Lacrosse Club’s team travels to locations in Montana and Idaho to play in tournaments, which are often called jamborees. The club holds one annual home event as well, scheduled this year for May 14 at Grouse Mountain Fields in Whitefish.

The jamboree, which includes a barbecue, will be a chance for people to learn more about the game and enjoy a fun sporting event, Hanson said. Teams comprised of fifth-sixth graders, seventh-eighth graders and high school students will play games from 11 a.m. until 6 p.m. The local teams will participate against programs from elsewhere in Montana and Idaho.

“Basically we just want to invite people to come check out lacrosse because it’s taking off in Montana right now,” Hanson said. “It’s pretty exciting.”

For more information on the May 14 jamboree and the Flathead Lacrosse Club, visit www.flatheadlacrosse.com or email Hanson at flatheadlax@gmail.com.

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