Lacrosse is a boom sport at Washington area high schools

By Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010; D01

Westfield outfielder Ryan Sweet could hear the spirited din from the lacrosse field behind him, guys yelling, running, colliding. Sounded like fun. Meantime, he idled in center field, glove on hand, watching his pitcher retire batter after batter with nary a ball hit his way.

"It felt like I was just standing there," Sweet said, "killing grass."

It was time for a change. So just before the baseball season began last month, Sweet, a senior and returning starter for a team that went 21-2 last year, traded in his cap and glove for a lacrosse stick and helmet.

"I'm having a blast," said Sweet, a defender. "Lacrosse is everything I had hoped for."

Sweet is far from alone in his attraction to a sport called the fastest game on two feet. For years now, lacrosse has been considered the hot sport in the Washington area, and it is showing no signs of cooling off.

Loudoun County's youth league participation has about tripled in the past seven years, said Mark Loving, president of Western Loudoun Lacrosse, one of four youth lacrosse clubs in the county. The Charles County school system in Maryland added lacrosse last year. Montgomery County added junior varsity lacrosse in 2008. Wilson this spring became the first District public school to field a team. Virginia began crowning state boys' and girls' champions in 2006.

More high school teams are having to make cuts. Langley had 100 hopefuls try out and crammed 69 boys onto its varsity and junior varsity squads. The area is producing more top-tier college players, with Loudoun becoming more influential; two seniors there are bound for two-time defending NCAA champion Syracuse.

Cabell Maddux, founder and owner of MadLax, a youth lacrosse enterprise that runs camps and sells gear, said that in 1999, his organization fielded the only all-star travel boys' lacrosse team in the Washington area. Now he counts more than a dozen.

"The boom is on," said Langley Coach Earl Brewer, who helped found McLean Youth Lacrosse in 1982 and who has two young sons involved in lacrosse. "It's the sport kids want to play."

"With all the thousands and thousands and thousands of kids I've coached through camp," Maddux said, "I'd definitely say that less than 5 percent of the kids quit the sport after trying it."

'Something more'

So what is the appeal of this centuries-old Native American game, the oldest sport in North America? For starters, it combines elements of more familiar sports, yet at the same time provides a fresh framework. It can be played proficiently by students who don't have to be the biggest, fastest or strongest in their class.

Lacrosse blends the contact of football, the speed of soccer and hockey, and many of the same principles as basketball and is played with a solid rubber ball whose velocity at times exceeds highway speed limits. The 10-on-10 games feature almost nonstop movement.

"Lacrosse is a game played with a lot of heart," said Loudoun Valley Coach Jeff Lewandowski, a transplant from the lacrosse-rich Syracuse area. "If your skills are sound, meaning your stick skills and lacrosse IQ, you can have a lot of success."

Just as kids find lacrosse fun to play, spectators find it fun to watch. Some athletic directors say that boys' lacrosse is their greatest draw at the gate after football and basketball.

Loudoun Valley senior Garrett Swankowski, a Virginia recruit, got into the sport about four years ago against his will, because his mother wanted him to try out. She had an ulterior motive.

"I played baseball, and she hated watching baseball," Swankowski said with a laugh. "She wanted something more exciting to watch."

There is more lacrosse to see than ever in the area. At a time when many jurisdictions were considering cutting sports to save money, Charles County in Southern Maryland last year added lacrosse, the official team sport of Maryland, to its six high schools to meet a growing demand for the sport.

"It's a really big deal for us," said Lackey senior Mike Mozier, an all-county goalkeeper. "We didn't realize how big lacrosse was in the state. What football is down here is what lacrosse is in the rest of the state."

'Going to get you fired'

Lacrosse was not always so embraced. When the Maginnis brothers, Dave and Paul, moved to Northern Virginia from lacrosse hotbed Towson in the early 1970s, they inquired about forming a school club team at Lake Braddock.

They found a patron in Bud Mayo, a social studies teacher and assistant football coach. At that point, lacrosse had been more of a private school endeavor, and it proved to be a tough sell with some at the public schools.

Area athletic directors, unenthused about overseeing another sport and wondering what problems lacrosse might yield in regard to field-use squabbles and turnout for the other spring athletics, largely stiff-armed it.

"I was told flat-out by some of the [ADs], 'There's not enough interest in a sport like this,' " Mayo recalled. A colleague warned, "That lacrosse is going to get you fired."

As a club team, Lake Braddock had to practice off campus and provide its own transportation and equipment. With nowhere locally to buy gear, Mayo would drive to Severna Park, with players' orders and their checks or cash, to load up on gloves, sticks and helmets. Mayo chuckles now when he sees local TV commercials touting "the largest selection of lacrosse gear" in Northern Virginia.

Clubs also sprouted at W.T. Woodson and West Springfield and other schools. Mayo said one key moment occurred in 1978, when Lake Braddock knocked off established private school program Episcopal, an eye-opener for many.

"That was kind of the pivotal event," Mayo said, "of lacrosse and the legitimacy of it. We began being able to compete. Prior to that, we weren't really competing. We were showing up."

A dozen years later, Fairfax County made lacrosse an official sport.

'Viable' recruiting option

The Washington area might not catch up to lacrosse havens Long Island, Baltimore or upstate New York anytime soon, but the number of participants and quality of play likely will to continue to grow.

MadLax's Maddux, who has coached at three area high schools, has an upcoming camp for 4- to 6-year-olds, an event he said he would have scoffed at five years ago. He had to cap the number of entrants at 32, double what he expected for such a young age group.

Loudoun Valley's Lewandowski said that students are getting to high school with better stick skills and a greater understanding of the sport, which can allow for more sophisticated coaching. Coaches also report more players considering lacrosse their primary sport, not their stay-in-shape sport.

"I think kids are seeing it's harder to get into college with other sports like football and baseball," said Loudoun Valley midfielder Chris Daddio, a Syracuse recruit. "With lacrosse, if you're an athlete, it's easy to learn . . . so kids just catch on to it easily. If you're an athlete and you just work on it, it's an easy thing to get into college with."

The top five men's teams in the NCAA coaches' poll -- Virginia, Syracuse, North Carolina, Maryland and Princeton -- all have a Northern Virginia public school product on their rosters. Those teams and Johns Hopkins have won every NCAA championship since 1977.

"The fact that you've got major universities starting to look at Northern Virginia as a viable option for recruiting speaks volumes," Lewandowski said. "When that kind of stuff starts to happen, interest starts to go up more, and goals are set higher."

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