Vail Lacrosse Shootout celebrates 50 years
Event brings many of the best lacrosse players in the world to the area
In 1973, Flip Naumburg and Jim Soran, a couple of Colorado College lacrosse teammates, had a vision.
“In the summer, they wanted to figure out how to have a game in the mountains,” said David Soran, Jim’s brother.
“It’s called the creator’s game,” he continued, referencing the origin of lacrosse, a game — “stickball” — played by the Algonquian tribe in the St. Lawrence Valley.
“If you’ve followed any of the original Native American games, it was played in valleys in the mountains — much like the Vail Valley — and on huge fields where they’d go for maybe a mile chasing each other with sticks and a ball.”
Those games — played for religious and recreational reasons — were major events that took place over several days, with games including literally hundreds of players on fields ranging from 500 yards to several miles long.
Support Local Journalism
It was in the spirit of those Native American forefathers that Soran and Naumburg hosted the first Vail Lacrosse Shootout in Aspen that summer of 1973. A few years later, Moses Gonzales, then the head of Vail Recreation, said, “Hey, I got more fields, if you guys want to think about coming to Vail.”
“And we moved and (have) been there ever since,” said David, who, along with Jim and Brian O’Farrel are the current directors. The tournament is celebrating its 50th iteration this year from June 25-July 4.
David is currently a Denver-based audio/video engineer and his brother Jim is an attorney.
“So this is really just a bad habit for us that we can’t get rid of,” David laughed, admitting the whole event is “quite a family affair.” Flip’s sister and niece, along with David’s wife, daughter and sons are all involved. The team of organizers — from the athletic trainers who have been coming for the last two decades, to the officials flying in from Baltimore and Philadelphia — demonstrate a love for the event and the camaraderie of the lacrosse community in general by dedicating 10 days every year to the Vail reunion.
“We have a staff of almost 50 people who come up for a T-shirt and a free beer to work at these tournaments,” David said.
“We have a family of people that are all I guess grown up together up there and are still all friends even though that’s the only place we see each other every year. Even though we’re not related by blood, we’re related by the tournament.”
Growing the game
“We went from four teams and a keg to a hundred teams,” David said of the tournament’s growth.
Originally a three-day affair, the 10-day Vail Lacrosse Shootout expects 65 men’s teams and 40 women’s teams to compete across nine different divisions, with girls and boys U19 playing June 27-30 and men’s and women’s elite running July 1-4. There are also men’s masters (30-plus), supermasters (40-plus), grandmasters (50-plus), zenmasters (60-plus) and pastmasters (70-plus) age groups. David, who played at South High in Denver before a brief stint at Colorado School of Mines — “(Jim) put a stick in my hand when I was little and it never left” — is putting a team together for the zenmaster division with his neighborhood friends.
“We’re a new team. We’re the last team. No favoritism here, but we will dominate on the field and off,” he joked when asked if he had any bulletin-board material for the competition.
Before the relatively recent emergence of professional lacrosse leagues, the shootout often drew large crowds to watch many of the country’s best players as well as national teams from Japan and Canada.
“We used to be the only thing in the summer,” David explained.
The sport’s growth hasn’t done much to diminish the tournament’s original vision — or its prestige.
“We’ve held onto our dates and our belief that we just want to grow the sport. The growth of the sport is what we always started this for, and I think we’ve done that,” said David.
“I think we do it better than anyone else, and we have the greatest venue. We’ve been there for 50 years, we’ve got the greatest players in the world still coming to play this venue in Vail, and there’s not much more you can say about that.”
This year, an Australian team will fly in, as well as the usual smattering of elite east-coast clubs. The local presence is a promising work in progress, with the newly formed Stash Lacrosse club entering into the U19 girls’ tournament.
“It’s a huge thing,” said Stash Lacrosse coach Katie Clinnin, who grew up playing lacrosse in Baltimore.
“It’s in our backyard. It’s such an exciting event — I guess I just didn’t see why not.”
“I think it’s also a bit of a home-field advantage. We’ve been practicing here every day, and now we get to play here, so that’s nice for our team,” said Reese Malboeuf, a rising sophomore on the team who spends the school year playing for Proctor Academy in New Hampshire. Malboeuf and her teammates are looking forward to her team’s exposure to the competitiveness and culture of teams flying in from the East.
“I think it’s going to be really fun to play some different competition that we’ve never played before — and out-of-state people, too — and see what happens as we go,” said future Battle Mountain freshman Addie O’Connor.
David is encouraged by the local development of the valley’s teams.
“There’s a lot of teams up there; they’re doing well and growing and are good programs,” he said of the area high schools.
What happens in Vail, stays in Vail
When asked about his favorite stories from the past five decades, David said there are more than a few good memories, “but sometimes it’s a ‘what happens in Vail stays in Vail,’ kind of thing.”
In 1982, President Gerald Ford, secret service in tow, handed out the championship trophy.
“Pretty cool day,” David stated, adding that occasionally an errant tee shot from Ford’s annual golf tournament would find its way onto his field. One time, Bob Hope came down to the field to chat with shootout staff — to cover for a tee-shot slicing offender in his group.
Over the course of the tournament’s run, the organizers have developed a reputation for being innovators.
“We were the first ones to have a shot clock on the field,” David said, adding that they’ve tried out two-point shots as well. What really makes the shootout special, however, is the place and the people.
“Truly it’s a magical setting in Vail, and it’s kind of an icon in the lacrosse world, especially because of its longevity,” David said of the tournament, which is free to attend.
“I think it’s one of the most beautiful venues you could play in in the world. We’re blessed to have been there and we’re blessed to still be in Vail. It’s an amazing community and an amazing part of our fabric.”