Skill, Physical Play Make Lacrosse Area’s Fastest-Growing Youth Sport

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by Ralph Nichols

[NOTE: Interviews for this and a companion story that follows were conducted just before the 2010 youth lacrosse season ended in May. With the growing popularity of this sport locally, many players – returning and new – already look forward to a new season next spring. – RN]

Not long ago, a Burien junior high school student, who already plays baseball, basketball and soccer, told me he plans to play lacrosse next spring.

That he is not alone in this new sporting interest is one of many promising signs for the future of a game that remains largely unheralded in the Highline area.

Every spring, the “traditional” high school sports – baseball, soccer, track and field, tennis – grab all the headlines.

Yet lacrosse – first played by Native Americans in the Northeast – is the fastest-growing sport among young athletes throughout western Washington.

Increasing numbers of Highline-area boys from 5th grade through high school are marking their calendars, like the Burien teen, for the second week in March when a new lacrosse season begins.

And it will build on what, looking back, was the best year yet for teams of the Highline Lacrosse Club.

Highline Medical Center CEO Mark Benedum also coaches lacrosse.

“Just this year we turned the corner” in developing players, said Mark Benedum, who coaches the 5th-6th grade team. He was also the founder of the local club, which is now an ascending youth sports program.

Benedum fielded in the 2010 season an increasing – and increasingly skilled – number of players, who will move from the 5th-6th grade team up to the 7th-8th grade roster, and then to high school-level teams.

The Highline Lacrosse Club even had enough players this year to field a high school junior varsity team for the first time.

Lacrosse isn’t a sport sanctioned by the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association, so competition at both the high school and youth levels is sponsored by leagues with organized clubs that are, for the most part, coached and managed by parent volunteers.

Loy Kalapo coaches both the high school varsity and junior varsity teams of the Highline Lacrosse Club. Charlie Simpson coaches the 7th-8th grade team.

They are assisted by fathers of some players, many of whom are good athletes who participated in other high school or college sports.

“A big difference here is getting dads involved who have never played lacrosse but are teaching [the kids] the game,” Benedum said. “It’s important to have the parents involved.”

All local teams play under the umbrella of the Washington State High School Boys Lacrosse Association, which is working to win sanctioned by the WIAA.

Anthony Gardner, president of the Highline Lacrosse Club board of directors, predicts that “it’s just a matter of time before lacrosse becomes a sanctioned high school sport in this state.”

Highline lacrosse program
Many residents of Burien and neighboring communities already know Benedum as the CEO of Highline Medical Center. But beyond the campus of this growing medical facility, he shares with the young athletes an enthusiasm for lacrosse.

“Lacrosse is one of my passions,” said Benedum, who played collegiate lacrosse at Cornell University. “I’ve been playing it since I was nine.”

After moving to the Seattle area he discovered there were only a handful of lacrosse clubs here. He started playing at the adult club level where most of the players, like him, were transplants from the east coast.

About seven years ago, he got a call from the president of what, at the time, was the local high school lacrosse league. The team at Mt. Rainier High School, which included some players from other Highline high schools, had lost its coach.

Since the team couldn’t finish the season without a coach, Benedum was asked if he would consider taking over, and he volunteered to fill the void.

“The high school kids were good athletes, but they had no experience” playing lacrosse before they got to high school,” Benendum recalled. This impressed on him the need for local junior lacrosse teams to feed players to the high school team, just as youth teams do in other sports.

Three years ago, the team at Mt. Rainier was renamed the Highline Lacrosse Club to eliminate identity with just one local high schools “to make all players feel welcome,” Gardner said. “Any kid in the Highline area can be on the club,” no matter what high school they attend.

The Highline Lacrosse Club also expanded, adding youth teams for younger players to increase participation and skill development.

An estimated 5,000 boys and girls played on lacrosse teams in western and central Washington this spring. The only girls’ team in the Highline area is at Kennedy High School.

There are some 40 lacrosse teams at the high school level from Port Angeles to the Tri-Cities, with about 25 of them in the Seattle metro area, Gardner said. There are around 60 teams at the 5th-6th grade level.

“I see a time when every high school will have a team,” Benedum said. For now, “the kids [from different schools] try to set aside their high school rivalries” as they play at the top level for the Highline club.

As he gazed across the Manhattan playfield in Burien during the final practice of the 2010 season, Benendum observed, “It’s good to see this group out here, to give more kids a chance to play.”

Lacrosse is “a physical game that includes a lot of running,” he added. “It offers opportunities for kids who are not necessarily big. Kids that really do well in soccer and basketball tend to have a lot of fun.

“There is a lot of team strategy. They can use the stick. And, Benedum said with a grin, “you get to hit people.”

Goal: increase players
Gardner said the Washington Stealth professional indoor lacrosse team, which won the league’s national championship at the end of its first year in Everett earlier this year, has “helped a lot in increasing interest in lacrosse” in western Washington.

Looking closer to home, he said “We’re the fastest growing lacrosse club in the country. We’re definitely the fastest growing sport in the Highline area.”

It takes 18 players to field a lacrosse team. And, Gardner noted, the 5th-6th grade team fielded 24 kids this year, the 7th-8th grade team had about the same number, and the high school team, including junior varsity, had 36 players.

“We doubled this year the number of kids playing. Once the kids turn out and get involved, their interest seems very strong. Next year we’ll be more aggressive – reaching out to the elementary schools with a grass-roots marketing campaign.”

The Highline Lacrosse Club is “looking to add a second 5th-6th grade team and a second 7th-8th grade team,” Gardner added. “Our goal is to increase interest and to build a feeder pipeline” for the high school team.

Players from Mt. Rainier in Des Moines, Tyee in SeaTac, Highline, Evergreen and Kennedy in Burien, Foster in Tukwila, and Aviation High support the high school team.

Beyond the playing field, interest has grown to the point where “we’re looking to having an official mascot next year,” he said.

Not only is the number of players improving, so is the level of play, Gardner said. While the 5th-6th grade team “struggled,” they were “building for the future.” And the 7th-8th grade team, which went 11-2, “had an awesome season.

“The high school team had an improved year, and this was the first year that we actually had 9th graders with experience.” In addition, the junior varsity “had a lot of new kids.

“A lot of new kids only means good things for the future of this program,” Gardner concluded. “I’m very excited.”

Rogers Hornsby, the great second baseman with the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1920s and 30s, once was asked what he did during the off-season. “I look out the window all winter waiting for spring,” he replied.

In the Highline area, there’s a growing group of boys who are counting the days until next spring for a different reason – it will be time to start playing lacrosse again.

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