Lacrosse enjoying US college boom
AP Sports Writer
CHARLESTON, W.Va. – At spring break, Joe Ernst took his college athletes on a memorable road trip to compete in their thriving sport.
Basketball? Nope. Baseball? Guess again. The Southwestern University team headed north from Texas to play lacrosse in Michigan.
What was once a niche sport in the Mid-Atlantic and New England states is now one of the fastest-growing games in America.
The Associated Press asked all 95 of the NCAA’s multisport conferences to list the sports being added in the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, and lacrosse topped them all, far outpacing golf.
In the three NCAA divisions, 20 women’s lacrosse teams and 12 men’s teams have debuted this year, most of them in Division III. At least two dozen more teams are scheduled to come on board next year.
The reasons are simple. The game has an exhilarating pace and high scoring. It’s not too expensive to put a team together. And in an atmosphere where colleges want to add sports to increase revenue, it’s a good fit. Several schools that are expanding their athletic programs cited the need to boost enrollment and thereby generate more tuition, particularly in Divisions II and III, where athletes often don’t receive scholarships.
“It is just blowing up at the Division III level, particularly moving westward,” said Ernst, Southwestern’s coach. “There’s really no expenditure on our part. It’s equipment and travel.”
Four of this year’s new NCAA teams are outside the Eastern time zone, including a women’s team at Carthage (Wis.) College and a men’s team at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. For some, playing is an unexpected bonus.
“I definitely didn’t come to school expecting to turn into a Division III lacrosse player,” said Milwaukee goalkeeper Ian Wilson, who had last played lacrosse as a freshman in high school in Illinois. “It’s the exact opposite of what I thought I would be doing my senior year.”
The debut of the first NCAA men’s lacrosse program in Texas – at Southwestern – comes nearly four decades after Navy and Johns Hopkins played the first varsity college game in the state at the Houston Astrodome, according to US Lacrosse, the Baltimore-based national governing body.
Division III Southwestern, located about 25 miles north of Austin, had success as a club team and lacrosse was seen as a way to boost male and out-of-state enrollment, Ernst said.
“They wanted to be the first,” he said. “We’re the only one in Texas.”
Being a pioneer is nice, but it also poses a scheduling challenge.
Southwestern’s inaugural varsity season started with a four-day trip to California, followed by a two-game swing in St. Louis, Mo. After the first of only three scheduled home games, Ernst packed up his squad, led by 275-pound attacker Ed Williams, and headed to Michigan this week for games with two Division III opponents. The Pirates are still searching for a victory.
“Once we win a couple of games, I think it will start blossoming,” said Ernst, who previously coached at Mercyhurst North East Junior College in Pennsylvania.
Some other programs have brought in coaches with Division I pedigrees.
Division III Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania hired John Haus to revive its men’s lacrosse team. Haus led North Carolina and Johns Hopkins to NCAA tournament appearances and won the 1998 Division III championship at Washington, Md.
Michele Uhlfelder was hired to coach the women at Division III Occidental, Calif., after earning six conference titles at Stanford.
Amanda O’Leary left Yale in 2007 after 14 seasons, including two NCAA tournament appearances, to start a women’s team at Florida. The game may seem out of place at a Southern football powerhouse – and 23 players are from the lacrosse hotbeds of Maryland and New York – but O’Leary takes heart in the fact that the Gator women’s soccer program won a national championship in 1998, four years after its debut.
“If there’s already a team that has done it, this is awesome,” she said.
Part of the reason lacrosse is catching on is that, although it was invented by North American Indians hundreds of years ago, it has echoes of popular modern sports. It combines the back-and-forth movement of soccer, the motion plays and contact of basketball, and the sticks, hand skills and setup behind the goal found in hockey.
“The sport lends itself to the strategies of other sports that the kids kind of pick up on,” said US Lacrosse spokesman Brian Logue.
And pick it up they have.
The number of high school lacrosse players more than doubled in the last decade and 21 states now host championships, including North Carolina and South Carolina beginning this year. Illinois has added it for 2011.
Meanwhile, participation in NCAA lacrosse has grown 105 percent since 1988-89 to 15,730 athletes in 2007-08, according to the NCAA’s 2009 participation survey.
Over the decade ending in 2007-08, the NCAA says there were 88 new women’s teams and 42 new men’s teams.
Karen Sutphin was looking for a college that offered environmental science and she found it at Shepherd University in West Virginia, two hours from her home in Baltimore. Shepherd didn’t offer lacrosse then, but Sutphin helped organize a club team and less than two years later it debuted as a varsity sport. On Monday, the team earned its first win in program history after an 0-3 start.
“It’s an extra thing to do that’s fun,” Sutphin said.
There’s another potential benefit to varsity lacrosse. According to the NCAA, which counted freshman classes entering school from 1999 to 2002, the graduation rate of lacrosse players was the highest among 17 men’s sports and was tied for second with gymnastics – behind skiing at No. 1 – among 18 women’s sports.
“Across the country, it’s amazing,” Florida’s O’Leary said. “I’m getting e-mails from recruits from Michigan and places that really aren’t hotbeds. It really is growing nationwide and it’s exciting.”