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Oldest sport gains ground in area schools
Oldest sport gains ground in area schools
By STEVE NOVAK
For those who don't know the terminology, those athletes you see this time of year carrying sticks with baskets at the end of them are playing lacrosse.
A case could be made for the argument that lacrosse is the fastest growing sport in Northeastern Ohio. At the opposite end of its history, a good case could be made that lacrosse is the oldest sport in the United States, being played by American Indians before the Mayflower landed.
Just about every high school in the area now has a lacrosse program, but that's where the similarity often ends. Some schools have Division I programs, some have Division II, and some have club teams.
However, none of them are sanctioned by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, the state's governing board for high school sports.
There are 101 schools in Ohio that have lacrosse programs, and 49 more are needed to reach the 150 that the OHSAA requires before it will sanction a statewide tournament.
Until that happens, high school lacrosse will be played under the auspices of the Ohio High School Lacrosse Association. The governing body has split school teams into Division I, II and club.
The popularity of the sport is apparent when you talk to area coaches or look at the numbers of athletes participating.
Coaches from public and private schools in the Chagrin Valley agreed that interest in lacrosse is continuing to increase.
Gilmour Academy has a Division II program for both boys and girls. So does Chagrin Falls. The Lady Tigers' coach, Wendy Lingafelter, and Gilmour boys' coach Vinnie Lang are among the veteran coaches who say that there's an addictive excitement about the sport.
"The kids get excited seeing other kids play. Then they want to play," Lang said. "It's proliferating. There are more colleges that are starting a program. There's local interest. Kids see it played and they say, 'I want to give it a shot.'"
Bob Fines is one of the parents who helped start the club lacrosse program at Orange High School last season. He shares coaching duties of the team with coach Mike Cunningham.
"I had been coaching sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Solon. I found there was an interest here at Orange, too," he said. "The kids have a blast playing. They love the combination of speed and running, and you get to hit a little bit, but not like in football."
Lacrosse has often been called "hockey on grass." The design of the game is similar to hockey, although there are 10 players, 12 in women's rules, instead of six, who pass a rubber ball with the use of sticks which have nets on the end of them. Players can jostle each other, much the same way hockey players check each other near the side boards.
Kenston also has a club hockey program, both for boys and girls. Schools in Division II include Gilmour boys and girls, West Geauga, University School, Hawken boys and girls and Chagrin Falls boys and girls. Solon has a Division I boys' program.
University School has the oldest lacrosse program in the area, dating back more than 20 years. Orange is one of the schools which just began a club program. The West Geauga and Kenston programs are among the newer ones, while Gilmour has had a program for about 10 years.
Kenston boys' coach John Schneider said the program is only three years old, but he's encouraged by the fact that most of the freshman on the team already have played on organized lacrosse teams.
"The effort the kids are putting out is excellent," he said. "They're pushing themselves out there. It's the fastest game on two feet."
For club teams, such as the ones at Orange and Kenston, the financing is done by player fees, along with donations and fund-raising events. The club teams are allowed to use high school fields, but the team doesn't receive money from the school's athletic department.
In both Division I and II, however, the lacrosse expenses are part of the school's athletic budget. Grouping schools in Division I or II is not done according to size of the schools. Rather, the schools with the best winning records from the past few previous seasons plays a big factor in grouping schools.
But no matter if a school is Division I, II or club, a team is allowed to play any school during the regular season. The three different divisions come into play during the scheduling of postseason playoffs.
There's one local school which is already well-accustomed to playoff bracketing. In 2003, the Chagrin Falls boys' team won the Division II state championship. The Chagrin Falls girls' team made it to the Division I Final Four in 2007 and 2008. The team is now in Division II.
In talking about the growing popularity of the sport, Fines said that it helps the coach's job when the athletes have already been in a feeder youth program, such as the one where he coached in Solon for sixth- through eighth-graders. He said the number of youths in the feeder programs such as this increased each year when he coached there.
"There's speed and technique. This is really a fun game, and we're taking time to teach it," he said. "We're getting new athletes now. For example, we're getting some band guys on the team who have never played an organized sport before."
Woody Calleri, the lacrosse coach at Cleveland St. Ignatius and president of the Northeast Ohio Lacrosse Coaches Association, said the number of high schools with lacrosse programs in Northeast Ohio jumped from nine in 2000 to 40 in 2009.
"It's not just Ohio, though. It has spread all across the public school region," Calleri said. "It's going across multiple states. This is nationwide. It's fast-paced, and kids enjoy it because they are all playing. All players get involved in this sport."
Vinnie Lang, in addition to being Gilmour's coach, is also a student of the game's history. He explained how a Jesuit missionary in the 17th century discovered Huron Indians playing the sport. The Indians played with a stick shaped like a shepherd's cross.
"And the word for cross in French is la crosse," he said. "This is the nation's game. This game was here before the United States was a country."
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