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Chicks dig sticks
Jackson Hole, WYO – Lacrosse is valley’s fastest-growing sport, especially for girls.
There’s a new vocabulary on local playing fields where kids of all ages, in particular those with ponytails, are trying lacrosse for the first time. Ever heard of the expression “in the crease?” I had not until last weekend, and I grew up in Western New York, a hotbed of lacrosse.
The oldest and fastest growing team sport in America is catching like wildfire in the West. And the number of girls interested in the sport here has finally put Wyoming on the map thanks to the experienced coaches and parents who left the lacrosse-obsessed East Coast and are planting roots here in the Tetons. More than 400,000 youths played lacrosse last year, according to US Lacrosse’s annual participation survey, and a record total of 748,859 players competed on organized lacrosse teams.
After keeping score at the Jackson Hole Mountain Roundup tournament, and watching the 10-year-old boys’ goalie protect the semicircle known as the crease outside his square goal, I see why there is so much intrigue in what is known as the fastest sport on two feet.
It’s not that the players are faster, but the rubber ball is hard and heavy. It whizzes down the field, possession changing when its dropped as attack and defense pass across the center line. The time runs about 20 minutes a quarter and the scoreboard can require constant flipping.
“Boys have deeper pockets on their sticks and it’s a lot more physical of a game with a lot more equipment,” said Ellie Kucera, 15, a ninth-grader at Community School who is hoping to create a regional girls lacrosse team by the time she graduates. “It’s a lot easier to hold the ball. For us, it’s a challenge just to keep the ball in our stick. So throwing and catching is a much bigger deal.”
The strategy and challenge of the game led Kucera to choose lacrosse over soccer in Winnetka, Illinois, when she was in sixth grade. Now her old teammates are being recruited to Division 1 lacrosse colleges like Penn State and University of Michigan.
But she is taking a different route after moving to Jackson two years ago. She plays tennis and skis while her lacrosse teammates here ride in the rodeo and run track. The girls on the high school team play almost every sport available to them, she said.
She feels no pressure to decide now, but if she did want to play a sport in college it would be lacrosse.
“The real problem here is getting people to play in a small town and finding people to play with,” Kucera said. “We are the state champions because we are the only team in Wyoming right now. As we progress we are going to want to play teams in Denver and Salt Lake.”
Assistant Coach Sarah Kellogg, who walked on to the Colgate University team, is encouraging Kucera to keep fanning the fire and aim high with her lacrosse career.
“I played a million different sports in high school back in Westchester,” Kellogg said. “My parents were very focused on being well-rounded and I think it helped me be a better player. Being fast and athletic, you can build lacrosse skills in a lot of other ways.”
Kellogg is one of five local girl coaches who played Division 1 lacrosse in college, providing a unique coaching opportunity in such a small town. Zan Morley, the coach of the girls elementary team was an All-American player for Georgetown University. Other coaches played for Dartmouth, Hobart William-Smith and two, including Kellogg, went to Colgate.
Kellogg is excited to help Kucera build the program here by offering summer camps and clinics to supplement the short spring season. Kucera also is encouraging teammates to go with her to another camp in Chicago. The Jackson team is young and has shown a lot of improvement in the five weeks Kellogg has worked with them. But parents and coaches agree they will need to go to regional tournaments like the Vail, CO, Shootout if they want to get recognized by recruiters.
Local recognition has been easy. “There’s definitely a fever about it right now,” Kucera said. “The tournament last weekend was awesome. And we won.”
But that victory came after a beat down in Bozeman the week before by a team that had been practicing outside for more than a month when the field here were covered in snow. They also had no professional referees for the girl’s games. On May 30, the girls will play again at the second Jackson Hole Roundup.
This is the first year since co-ed teams began in 2009 that two local tournaments will be hosted. Three years ago, the program grew enough to separate the boys and the girls. And this year one of the biggest surges in the enrollment of more than 220 kids was the girls elementary team, which has 30 players, almost enough for three teams.
“The girls are really into it and they are good,” said Brenda Wylie, manager of the girls elementary team, who played lacrosse in Baltimore, MD. “But we have a lot of pressure if we want to take the program to the next level. They are going to have to do some travel unless we keep the numbers up and field space is going to be a struggle.”
This week the boy’s high school team had to share the elementary school fields with the girls because the East Field where they normally practice needed a rest after being torn up from the first tournament.
Parent volunteers like Wiley and Polly Wakeman, who is a Lacrosse Club board member and the manager for the high school and middle school teams, are working hard to find solutions like bringing in referees from Boise to train refs and finding tournaments to attend in towns like Park City.
Wakeman, another East Coast transplant, knows these challenges intimately. She went to boarding school in New Hampshire to play lacrosse because there was not a girl’s team in her hometown of Geneseo, NY. She sees the momentum of the elementary enrollment and the access to great coaching as the driving force, and the success of the boy’s program, which has doubled in enrollment and now has five teams with 163 players, as proof that ladies lacrosse is poised for a lot more growth.
“We are isolated geographically and culturally,” she said. “But the boys seem to be progressing, so I think it’s just a matter of time.”
The Jackson Hole Lady Bronco, whose ponytail emblazons the girls warm-ups and hoodies, may have a long way to go, but she will be representing Jackson Hole Lacrosse Club in the stands at the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse National Championship in Baltimore this Memorial Day weekend thanks to Wylie, who sent T-shirts back home for the occasion.
“It’s fun to walk around with our new shirts and be a part of the team,” Kucera said. “It’s cool to see a lot more people joining and asking about the sport. To get better all it takes is time on the field.”