SoundLacrosse recently sat with the coaches of Puget Sound’s top programs and discussed the state of Washington lacrosse. What resulted was a spirited discussion about how to grow the game, WIAA sanctioning, club teams, and Washington’s national standing.
In attendance were Ian O’Hearn, Mercer Island, John Baumann, Bellevue, Brandon Fortier, Issaquah and Dejon Hush, Lake Washington. Jack Visco, Director of Bainbridge Island Lacrosse, was unable to attend due to commitments with their Youth program, but he passed along some comments, which we included.
55 Programs This Year
The discussion started around the fact that in 2012 Washington is fielding 55 high school programs and hundreds of youth teams, some as young as first grade. “Kindergarten,” corrected O’Hearn, “I’ve got a kindergarten program this year.” Baumann added, “We’ve got a successful 1st and 2nd grade program, staffed by our high school players, it’s in its third season.” O’Hearn joked, “You’ve got a Kindergarten program as well; you just don’t know it. Somehow a group of Bellevue K’s snuck into our program. That’s how much lacrosse has grown in popularity.”
As the discussion continued, it was clear to see that these coaches have a jovial, friendly, very social relationship. There are no signs of psychotic competitiveness (that’s best left in the hands of professionals, i.e. parents) at least while they’re off the field, and the dream they have for Washington lacrosse is very much a shared vision.
Fortier speaks about how quickly things have changed just around the city of Issaquah; “I used to know every kid in town who owned a lacrosse stick. Now I can go by a field with 80 kids playing lacrosse and only recognize two or three.” Hush commented, “It used to be that the only kids I’d get turning out for lacrosse were the Dungeon & Dragons kids. You know, the ones who’d never tried a sport or actually had even tried running before. They’d get cut from the baseball team and then show up at my lacrosse practice. These days, WE have the athletes in the spring.”
Models for Long Term Success
The discussion turned to how a program ensures long term success. Visco pointed out “It all starts with the youth programs. That’s why the growth has been successful.” O’Hearn and Fortier said they’ve learned success is much easier when you’re associated with the local high school. “Take your team’s mascot, wear your local team’s colors” said O’Hearn, “Call yourself your team school…and that gets a group of kids, who already have a relationship, advocating for lacrosse. And they’re doing it from the inside.” Fortier jumped in “the more people you have that trust and know you inside the school, the better off you are.” Hush added, “that’s why the Seattle public schools have had less success. The middle schools haven’t fed to any specific high school. You lose lacrosse kids when they get dispersed. It’s hard to regain that momentum. When I taught in Seattle, I’d have my kids, who are all in the same school, saying ‘I’m gonna whup you in the game on Saturday’ instead of ‘We’re gonna whup them.’”
Naturally, the discussion led straight to WIAA sanctioning of lacrosse and how important it is for the growth of the game. “It’s hard because you’re going to have to give up some control,” commented Baumann, “but ultimately the sport will grow.” O’Hearn added “there will be some growing pains. You might not have many sanctioned teams the first year. But very quickly, the sport will explode. We’ve seen it recently in California.” The talk around the table then focused on the actual expense versus the perceived expense to the school. O’Hearn continued, ”The AD’s (athletic directors) are scared because of the costs, but lacrosse can be sanctioned and still be self-funded. The message is successful when we tell the AD’s ‘This will cost you nothing.’ And it’s true . We (clubs) are funding it now and we will continue to fund it. Sanctioned but self-funded.” Hush jumped in, “And the costs to the clubs will go down, because it would eliminate the exorbitant field use fees. The cost to our high school player would probably drop in half.” Fortier chimed in, “It needs to be done, it may stall our growth for a couple of years, but the growth would rocket after that.”
The Off Seasons
Then the discussion turned to the issue of select, club teams and year-around lacrosse. Visco and O’Hearn said that players need some year-around work, especially on stick-skills, and all the programs have some sort of offseason offerings. Yet the coaches agreed that the select/club/pay-to-play mentality has gotten out of hand, and promise of college recruitment is often just a siren’s song. “It’s definitely had an impact on team play,” said Baumann, “lacrosse is a team sport, and when you’re playing so you’ll get noticed, the team suffers.” O’Hearn is a big advocate of multiple sports. “We do offer fall lacrosse, but only to kids that don’t play another sport. I’d rather have them playing football that time of year” he said, “And there’s no point to traveling to play lacrosse in the fall. I heard from players that they’re at a tournament in Penticton, BC for the weekend, and I think ‘What?’ There are no college recruiters in Penticton in the fall. You should be hanging out with your high school friends. You’re taking kids away from the American experience of Friday night football. It’s nauseating.”
Washington vs. The Nation
And finally, we talked about Washington lacrosse and how it fits in nationally. “We’ve all got lots of understanding about East Coast lacrosse,” offered Baumann, “this state is playing as good of lacrosse as anywhere. Things have come a long ways.” Fortier adds, “I played for Issaquah in 1995, and today there are multiple JV teams that are better than we were.” Hush pipes in, “It used to be you had one or two kids, tops, that could pass and catch on a Division 2 team. “ Fortier continues, “Now, with the parity this year, you’ve got to have six or seven just to compete. There is that much quality talent.” “If you take out the top 20 teams in the country, the super teams,” O’Hearn says, “The top four in LA, San Diego, Oregon, San Francisco or Washington can hang with anyone, from any hotbed.”
To wind things up, we talked about achievements that make them most proud of Washington Lacrosse. Baumann says “Big national wins have made people notice: Mercer Island’s trips back East, us (Bellevue) beating Highland Park (Texas), people notice those things.” Hush says “Washington has players on the rosters at Maryland, Fairfield, and Yale, among others. Not just on the rosters but contributing and being noticed. That creates a buzz about us.” “This weekend’s Northwest Invitational consistently brings in big name State Champions for a weekend of games” O’Hearn said, “And this year Guilderland, an established program from New York, is coming out to play.” “Mercer’s win at Duxbury last year was huge,” Fortier offers, “but I’ve got five former players who have come back and are coaching in the state. They’re back and they’re giving back. That’s how you grow the game.”
Thanks to each of these coaches, for taking the time out of their busiest time of year, to sit down and chat.