A big score | VailDaily.com

A big score

BMHS vs Steamboat Lacrosse 1 DT 5-12-07

Lacrosse nets are a familiar site in the Vail Valley come July’s national tournament.

But the white mesh and red metal posts are popping up from March to May and throughout all of Eagle County.

Only a fringe sport a few years ago, lacrosse has exploded onto the local and mountain scene.

“We started throwing it around about six years ago,” said Jerry Nichols, who coaches an upvalley middle school team. “It was very unorganized. We had 10 or 12 kids who would show up once a week after school.”

This season, about 350 boys and girls from elementary school to high school took to the field with sticks, jerseys and a love for the newly found game.

The program, which has seen several incarnations, including a once-a-week gathering upvalley, as well as a Vail-to-Carbondale collaboration, is now handled by the Western Eagle County Metropolitan Recreation District (WECMRD).

“We’ve managed lacrosse for two years,” said Scott Ruff, Gypsum Recreation Center manger. “In the two years prior it was managed by the Eagle County Lacrosse Club. It got to be such a growing sport. Last year there were 296 kids, and this year 349.”

In the next few years, the program may reach what some consider the ultimate goal ” obtaining a high school team sanctioned under the Colorado High School Activities Association (CHSAA).

“It’s still our vision process to bring CHSAA-sanctioned teams into the county,” said Eric Mandeville, the Eagle Valley high school club coach. “But our philosophy is grass-roots, which is why we (started) with third-graders, who are now middle school. Once they get into high school, you’ll see their level of play accelerate.”

When WECMRD took the program over, it helped more kids get a shot at the relatively new sport in town.

“Our board of directors allotted $8,500 to purchase equipment for a rental pool,” Ruff said. “We started out like our hockey program ” we can fit kids for lacrosse or hockey gear so a parent doesn’t necessarily have to go out and purchase the equipment.”

Last season, WECMRD set up 45 kids with $25 equipment rentals and, thanks to increased revenue, bought about 25 more sets of equipment for the 2007 season. Still, the demand was greater than the supply, and Ruff had to use a lottery.

“Maybe in four to five years, I can fit 150 kids, possibly,” Ruff said. “That’s the goal: Any kid who wants to sign up we can fit for $25.”

Even if Ruff can’t provide kids with rentals (which includes protective gear but not a stick), lacrosse isn’t an expensive sport to get into. All the boys equipment (which includes a helmet, shoulder pads, arm pads, gloves and stick) can be purchased for less than $200, while a girls set of equipment (goggles and stick) goes for less than $100.

Along with registration, WECMRD also handles scheduling games, which it does on WECMRD-run fields.

“We have plenty of space, although the hard part is (scheduling) soccer and lacrosse,” Ruff said.

Season fees, which cover jerseys, officials and tournament entry fees, are $76 for elementary school, $99 for middle school boys and girls, as well as high school girls; and $125 for high school boys.

At most levels, there is an upvalley (Battle Mountain) and downvalley (Eagle Valley) team.

Most of the kids in the program started playing lacrosse in the past few years. While some may come directly from other springs sports, a large chunk are athletes who play sports during other seasons.

“My interest is to offer an opportunity to kids who weren’t going to play another (spring) sport,” Mandeville said.

Sarah Resch, who coaches the girls downvalley high school team, has a full squad of 30 girls in the team’s second year.

“The fact that I teach in the high school ” that’s why I have been able to get the numbers I did,” Resch said. “Once I got a team last year, I knew the sport would speak for itself and the kids would love it.”

Resch thinks the less-strenuous club schedule (two practices a week versus four to five for varsity sports) may also lead more kids to play.

The Battle Mountain boys high school team has seen its ranks swell the past few years.

“There have been a lot of kids who, when we first started ,would stand on the sidelines, and were curious to see what it was all about,” said Huskies coach Bob Daino. “They’d say, ‘This looks like fun.'”

This year, Battle Mountain had 55 kids on its team.

“We have four or five kids on a waiting list that I couldn’t accommodate because of numbers with jerseys and equipment,” Daino said.

Lacrosse, which has nine players from each team and a goalie on the field, combines elements of soccer and hockey.

“Once the hockey players got a hold of the sport ” it’s right up their alley,” Daino said. “They love to hit. It’s the same mentality ” you run versus skating.”

“I guess it’s kind of a mix of all the sports I’ve ever played,” said Battle Mountain’s Barrett Chow. “I like the contact and physicality and being able to do whatever you want.”

Daino has seen great progression from some of his kids who have only had a stick in their hands for a year or so.

“If you take an athlete and start them out, it’s phenomenal the amount of progress you’ll see,” he said. “An athlete is an athlete in any sport.”

While in some sports the kids play competitively year-round, it’s not as much an option for lacrosse. But that’s fine with the coaches.

“This is pervasive in the lacrosse-coaching culture,” Nichols said. “We encourage non-specialization. We tell the kids to play basketball, football, hocke, and soccer because the best lacrosse players are great athletes.”

Last year, after some overlap with summer baseball, WECMRD changed the lacrosse and baseball schedules so kids can play both.

There are, however, pickup lacrosse games throughout the summer for high school kids, as well as three-on-three games for younger kids.

“The first year we took a team to Denver for a couple of games,” Nichols said. “They got absolutely schlacked, but they were happy to be out there playing in a game.”

Because the program is still young compared to some Front Range schools, there is a wide array of skill among the players.

“On my seventh grade team, I have five players who have had four years or more of experience, and the other kids range from their first year and everything in between,” Nichols said. “They are at the point where they are working on (stickhandling with) their (opposite) hand, which is a far cry from where we were three years ago.”

“We did a lot of basics, like ‘This is how to throw the ball and catch and cradle,” Resch said “At each practice, we have to focus on one specific skill.”

Most of the teams Eagle Valley and Battle Mountain play, like Glenwood, Aspen and Durango, are of comparable skill. Against some higher-tier teams, the mountain teams don’t match up quite as well.

“Our biggest problem is depth,” Daino said. “We have a great staring line, but, it’s just at this level, a lot of kids have never played before.”

The kids are getting some solid instruction, as most of the coaches in the county have played the game at the college or high school level.

“Because it’s so specialized, if you don’t really grow up with lacrosse, it makes it tougher (to coach),” Ruff said.

Daino, who is from Long Island, played at Towson University, while Mandeville grew up in Upstate New York and played at Marist College.

“I have three boys who play and love it, but who I really admire are coaches … who have no kids and are out there,” Nichols said.

The high school teams, which played up to 14 games this season, were limited to only playing other club teams.

While the majority of teams in the mountains are club teams, the recent trend is for schools to move under CHSAA. Both Steamboat and Summit now have high school teams.

Battle Mountain, with large numbers at the high school level, is looking to become CHSAA sanctioned as soon as possible.

“I think Battle Mountain has a better shot because of numbers, parental support and the feeder program,” said Mandeville, who hopes Eagle Valley can move out of the club ranks in a few years.

“Funding is a huge deal. When Summit came on, they were fully funded and the district didn’t have to absorb the costs. It’s also easier for Summit because they can get to Denver in an hour.”

But funding isn’t the big hurdle as far as CHSAA is concerned.

“There is a moratorium on new teams. They aren’t doing anything unless they add more officials,” said Paul Angelico, CHSAA’s associate commissioner.

Both the boys and girls have had trouble securing certified officials for games.

“We have one ref,” Resch said, noting that many times, coaches end up officiating. “Battle Mountain has three coaches, and they’ve been gracious in taking on some reffing abilities.”

For last month’s Vail Lax Jam in Edwards, Ruff had to get some referees to come from Denver.

“When teams come in from out of town, that’s where we work really hard to get an official,” Ruff said.

But CHSAA requires the officials to be based in the area, and there are very few in the county.

In order for lacrosse to become a varsity sport under CHSAA, there are several steps that need to be taken.

“We have to decide what demand is, whether or not our budget can support it, what path we want to take with it,” said Battle Mountain athletic director Rich Houghton. “We also have Title IX issues to consider.”

In order for a high school to be compliant with Title IX, there must be equal athletic opportunities for boys and girls. Both Battle Mountain and Eagle Valley would have to add a boys and girls lacrosse team at the same time to remain compliant.

The final deadline to apply for lacrosse for next spring is in October. But before that happens, the athletic director, along with other administrators, needs to make a recommendation to the Eagle County School Board.

“Anytime you’re adding a sport, it’s a pretty lengthy process,” said Eagle Valley Superintendent John Brendza. “We have meetings scheduled in the next few weeks to start those conversations. This takes time and it’s not something you start in May and have off the ground the following school year. It’s usually a minimum of a yearlong process.”

In order for the sport to be approved, it must pass a simple majority vote by the school board.

The coaches and players would like the process to move along as quickly as possible, as other club competition like Aspen is also hoping to move under CHSAA.

“We’re looking at each other saying, ‘If you go CHSAA, we’ll go,'” Mandeville said.

And if other schools get approved but the local ones don’t?

“It’s going to be a matter of traveling more and more, to places like Telluride, Montrose, Grand Valley and Durango,” Nichols said.

Which may mean fewer games.

“That’s what the program was the first year,” Daino said. “We practiced and couldn’t play games and the kids hated it. They want to go out there and test their skills, and they can’t really do that in practice.”

Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 748-2935 or icropp@vaildaily.com.

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