Coming soon to a field near you: lacrosse
John Niewieroski didn’t have a lacrosse field last season, so he improvised.
Niewieroski, 57, marked off four baseball fields to create an area for his rookie team to practice and cut costs by borrowing a local school’s manual scoreboard to use during games. He even charged nearly $9,000 worth of equipment, uniforms and other team expenses to his credit card so the players--high school students in Bonners Ferry, Idaho--wouldn’t have to pay to play the game he grew up loving in upstate New York.
Niewieroski, still $6,500 in debt, started the Bonners Ferry team last year and coached the group (34 to start, 16 by the end of the season, only two of whom had previously played lacrosse) to a 2-10 record in the North Idaho Lacrosse League.
His team is just one of many that are changing the face of the nation’s oldest sport, which dates to the 17th-century North American Indians. More recently, the sport has been associated with rich boarding schools and college students on the East Coast.
With a rapid increase in participation and the sport’s movement west, the landscape and image of lacrosse are changing. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, in the past 10 years lacrosse has grown faster than any other high school sport. US Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, estimates that the number of people playing the sport is growing by a rate of 10 percent annually. Men’s and women’s teams at all levels are popping up in places like California, Texas, Michigan, Colorado, Oregon and Idaho.
"More people are playing, more people are coaching, more people are passing it on," said Casey Powell, a captain and forward for the New York Titans and one of professional lacrosse’s most visible players. "It’s like a virus. It just keeps spreading."
The National Lacrosse League, which began in 1997 with seven professional teams, has expanded to 13 teams. The Titans, an expansion team, joined in 2007.
As the sport has become more visible, the professional teams have drawn substantial crowds. More than 17,000 people piled in to see games in places like Denver and Toronto. And in January, the Titans were the host of the first professional game at Madison Square Garden, the nation’s top sporting venue. After the game, throngs of fans waited to get autographs from Powell and other players.
Powell has helped shatter the perceptions of lacrosse as a game for only the privileged. Powell, who comes from a small town in upstate New York, said he used to practice so much with his two brothers that they would wear down the grass in their backyard.
“We just fell in love with the game, became addicted to it, and never put the stick down,” he said.
Powell was attracted to lacrosse because it combines elements of football, basketball, soccer, hockey and even a little bit of wrestling. The game has grown, he said, because players from the East Coast have migrated west and found eager athletes in other areas of the country. As a result, the geographical talent gap is shrinking.
John Principi, who learned to play lacrosse from his older brothers while living in Fairfax, Va., moved to Del Mar, Calif., where he now coaches the Torrey Pines High School boy’s lacrosse team. In 2004, he led his team in a “David vs. Goliath” match against Long Island, N.Y., powerhouse Garden City High School. Though Garden City has been state champions twice in the past decade, Torrey Pines won the game--and showed that the East Coast no longer dominated the sport.
“It kind of opened everybody’s eyes to the growth of the game in California and the West Coast,” Principi said.
Coaches recruiting for college teams began to notice the talent pool that was available in Western states. Several players on the Torrey Pines 2004 team went on to play at schools like Colgate, Cornell and West Point.
The increased attention to the sport has allowed more students to play in college on scholarships, said Michael Wilcox, chairman-elect of the US Lacrosse Foundation and a former player at Bowling Green State University. With expanding visibility and opportunities, Wilcox predicted lacrosse would continue to grow.
“California is on fire," he said. "Texas is on fire. Colorado is on fire. That’s what’s exciting. It’s not an anomaly. It’s only going to spread more.”
As lacrosse expands, efforts have been made to reshape its national image.
“Part of our challenge is to provide more accurate information about the demography of the sport today,” said Steve Stenersen, the executive director of US Lacrosse.
Stenersen points to developmental efforts like the BRIDGE Initiative, which provides money and support for lacrosse programs in nontraditional areas like Brooklyn, Denver and Houston as a way to attract a more diverse group of kids to the sport.
Take Bonners Ferry, a small, middle-class Idaho town of about 2,500 people, 24 miles south of the Canadian border.
Although Niewieroski went deep into debt and had to perform virtually every task from water boy to field maintenance man, he expresses no regrets.
“Even if I don’t recoup that $6,500, it’s money well spent,” he said. “It gives kids the opportunity to play.”