Fast-paced and physical, lacrosse lures youth to the field
Watch out, football. Lacrosse, the fastest-growing sport in the U.S., is making headway in Nebraska.
Nebraska’s youth lacrosse teams have grown in number since the sport first emerged in the state about a decade ago. More than 400 high school boys and girls are playing in over 20 teams in eastern Nebraska and western Iowa — a record-high number, beating the Nebraska High School Lacrosse Association’s own projections. Ten area schools are participating in the league, up from just six a few years ago.
Nationally, the gains are even more pronounced. According to an annual survey produced by the US Lacrosse organization, the number of lacrosse players has more than doubled from 301,560 in 2003 to 750,000 in 2013. That figure includes 290,000 high school players, making it the fastest-growing high school sport in the nation.
While lacrosse is not as widely known in Nebraska as on the East and West coasts, the sport is making inroads with young athletes here. Organizers say the game is safer than other sports, relatively inexpensive and offers a fast-paced style of play that appeals to young athletes. Unlike the stop-and-start nature of football and other sports, lacrosse is “go, go, go,” said Jake Schneider, lacrosse coach at Burke High School. “Every player on the team has a vital job,” he said. “You rotate players in and out, and nobody is sitting too long. Everybody is engaged.”
Combining elements of more established sports, lacrosse can be an easy transition for athletes. Like football players, lacrosse players wear helmets and padding; like hockey players, they check each other and use sticks to move the ball forward. Lacrosse terminology bears similarities to basketball. And, like soccer, lacrosse is played over a large, open field. The sport’s objective is to score by shooting a small, rubber ball into an opponent’s goal. To do so, players use a long-handled stick with netting to carry, throw, catch, pass and shoot the ball.
Because so many skills carry over into lacrosse, it’s an easy sport to pick up, players say. “If you watch lacrosse, it looks super intimidating and hard,” said 17-year-old Megan Young, a senior lacrosse player at Westside High School. “But if you just pick up a stick and a ball and practice, it’s awesome.”
Unlike other sports, lacrosse doesn’t favor larger or taller athletes. “It doesn’t really matter what size you are, you can play on the field,” said Nick Clausen, head coach at Elkhorn South High School. “It’s all about the finesse of it.”
Lacrosse boasts a unique history in America. The sport was originally one of many stickball games played by Native Americans at the time of European contact. Early French settlers dubbed these games lacrosse. The sport quickly gained popularity in Canada through the 1800s and spread throughout the world.
The Nebraska High School Lacrosse Association is working to bring this long tradition to more young Nebraskans. In addition to its work to coordinate the high school league, the association is working closely with the Omaha Lacrosse Club to offer clinics to middle school students and help young teams acquire funding to get started. The more exposure kids get to lacrosse when they’re young, the more apt they will be to play in high school and beyond, said Stacey Taylor, association president. The association also coordinates a state high school championship, planned this year for June 1 at Creighton Prep.
Top players may also earn opportunities to play in college. Joe Burbach, a senior defenseman at Creighton Prep, will head to Rockhurst University (NCAA DII) in Kansas City, MO, this fall with a scholarship to play lacrosse. A longtime hockey player, Burbach didn’t start playing lacrosse until eighth grade. He quickly realized the fast-paced game offered something he couldn’t get with other sports.
“It’s one of the fastest games in the world,” he said. “The transition between offense and defense makes the game fast. You’re never standing still. It’s a sport that’s very interactive, and that makes it a lot of fun compared to other sports.”
Burbach attracted Rockhurst’s attention with his aggressive style of defense. “I throw a lot of stick checks, poke checks,” he said. “If someone wants to get around me or beat me, I make them earn it. I respect them if they’re fast or they have good stick skills, but I’m still going to be in their face.”
Like other lacrosse players, Burbach noted that playing lacrosse facilitates a bond between teammates. Still in its early stages in Nebraska, lacrosse attracts athletes because it offers something different than the norm. “What attracted me was that we were the first people doing it,” said Jess Noble, a 17-year-old junior at Westside High School. Westside is home to the only girls’ team in the league.
People are curious about lacrosse, said Helene Simmons, team manager for the Westside girls. “It offers the player the opportunity to show off their athletic skills in a different venue,” she said. “When you mention lacrosse to people, they want to know more about the sport. Many have heard of it, but even fewer have played it or seen a live tournament.”
Lacrosse also has the advantage of offering team members ample playing time. As a club sport, lacrosse is open to all, unlike other high school sports with only so many slots for student athletes. “You can shine in (lacrosse) and develop yourself,” said Taylor, the lacrosse association president. “You don’t have to feel uncomfortable just trying it out – you’ll make the team.”
In Omaha, interest in lacrosse is contagious. Kurt Carlson, lacrosse coach at Millard West High School, has seen his team grow from one single team to a varsity team and two JV teams. A Boston native and longtime lacrosse player, Carlson says it’s easy to see why lacrosse is so appealing to more and more Nebraskans. “You put a stick in a kid’s hand, and he’ll fall in love with it,” he said.
Learn more about lacrosse at the Nebraska High School Lacrosse Association website, nebraskalax.com.