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Sanctioning lacrosse brings interest, accessibility and challenges to fast-growing sport in Utah

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This spring, the stadium lights are on at area high schools when the sky starts to get dark. It’s not because of a late-ending track meet, marching band practice or spring football.

It’s lacrosse season.

For years, lacrosse has been one of the faster-growing sports in the United States, slowly taking its metropolitan East Coast popularity farther west.

Out at Fremont High, for instance, one gets the entire juxtaposition in one glance: the lacrosse team practicing on the turf field, livestock on the property just south of the field.

In 2020, lacrosse made a step in Utah as the sport became sanctioned at the high school level. Since 2020’s inaugural campaign was canceled due to COVID-19, 2021 feels like the first “official” season of lacrosse.

The Utah High School Activities Association Board of Trustees voted to sanction the sport in 2017, starting a yearslong transition from the sport operating on the club level to the high school athletic department level.

Introducing sanctioned lacrosse on the Utah prep sports landscape has been mostly well-received and had a wide range of impacts, including more interest in a fast-growing sport, increased accessibility to what has traditionally been an expensive sport and frustration about how it’s added to busy sports calendars.

PARTICIPATION WAY UP

Participation numbers aren’t available for this school year yet. Anecdotally, lacrosse participation is up, which typically happens when any sport becomes sanctioned, anywhere.

“Girls now are seeing it more. Still, I think the way to get it to truly grow is we have to get the youth programs there,” said Makenzie Hekking, head coach of Davis High’s girls lacrosse team, after practice one Monday in April.

On that particular Monday, Hekking filled in as goalie during practice because the team’s JV goalie wasn’t there.

Hekking, a Davis alum, played lacrosse on DHS’ club team several years ago, then played on Westminster College’s club team and NCAA Division II team before staying and coaching there for three seasons.

Utah prep lacrosse 1

Bear River's Hayden Lewis (right) cradles the ball and runs while defended by Weber's Karter Madsen (left) during a high school lacrosse game March 22, 2021, at Weber High School in Pleasant View.

The girls lacrosse team practices at Kaysville Junior High, across the street from Davis High. In the past, the team played its home games at KJH but now, home games are on the high school turf field.

Boys and girls lacrosse coaches and players say sanctioning has mostly been a good thing, with the participation boost helping grow an already growing game.

Girls lacrosse has reaped most of the benefits in Utah, going from around 20 girls club teams to 57 sanctioned teams in one of the more dramatic examples of increased interest in the sport.

“It’s brought a lot more people into the sport now. It used to be really small and everything and not everyone knew what lacrosse was, really. It’s just helped get it bigger,” said Piper Searle, a senior midfielder on Davis High’s currently dominant team.

Particularly for the Darts, many girls have played club lacrosse for years, so they have an experience and skill factor that dozens of players in the region don’t have. It’s part of why they’re 7-0 and outscoring teams by an average of 13.4 goals per game.

COST, WHO’S PLAYING

At the University of Utah, Tim Haslam offered to cover the club lacrosse team for The Daily Utah Chronicle because nobody else was at the time.

Eventually, Haslam became the club team’s sports information director before it became a sanctioned sport at the U.

Haslam is the publisher of the weekly Utah Lacrosse Report newsletter. As part of it, he conducts a weekly top 10 coaches poll.

Corner Canyon, Farmington, Olympus, Mountain Ridge and Park City were the most recent top five boys teams, with Davis at No. 8.

On the girls side, it goes Park City, Brighton, Mountain Ridge, Skyridge, Olympus and Waterford in the top six, with Davis at No. 8.

Property values in places such as Kaysville, Farmington, Park City and Cottonwood Heights are among the most expensive in the state and lacrosse success, as well as interest, historically follows the money.

“It’s an expensive sport,” Haslam said. “Brand new helmet’s anywhere from $275-350, and in the club days, the kids were buying that. Now the schools provide that because it’s sanctioned.”

A new lacrosse stick is also in the $150-200 range, and could be more if it’s custom strung. Lacrosse cleats are anywhere from $65-140.

The boys game is more physical than the girls game and protective padding is required: shoulder pads ($65-140), arm pads ($50-100) and gloves ($60-180).

“We’ve got to find a way to make it less expensive for kids. I think the sanctioning will help that. If we’re not asking a kid to buy a helmet and stick, those are your two biggest costs,” Haslam said.

Hekking said she used a fair amount of the team’s budget to buy sticks and goggles for players so they weren’t on the hook for the full cost, but players are still required to buy one stick of their own so they have a backup in case a stick is ruled illegal in the middle of a game.

As far as who’s playing sanctioned lacrosse this season, there are 58 boys teams and 57 girls teams, all of which are located along the Wasatch Front.

Each school in Regions 1 and 5, plus Bear River in Region 11, field boys and girls teams. Utah Military Academy, a 2A school in Riverdale, fields a boys team but not a girls team.

Ben Lomond and Ogden high schools, both of which report more than half of their students qualifying for free or reduced lunch, don’t have lacrosse teams and have very little interest.

‘FIRST’ YEAR OF SANCTIONING

When it came time for 2020, both the Weber and Davis school districts opted to continue playing club lacrosse in 2020 instead of immediately sanctioning.

At the time, officials from both districts said they held off because they wanted an extra year to get facilities and “other elements” in order.

Utah prep lacrosse 3

A high school lacrosse referee sets up a draw to restart play during a lacrosse game between Davis and Fremont on March 23, 2021, at Fremont High School in Plain City.

Box Elder County schools, though, were sanctioned and playing in a region with the Cache County schools in the truncated 2020 season.

There was considerable excitement and buildup for the 2020 season, which made the disappointment of the COVID cancellation a little tougher to deal with.

“We were able to get into an early season tournament, we were able to have games, we went up to Provo and played on a Saturday and then...everything got shut down the next week right as we were getting ready to jump into the season,” said Damon Andreasen, Box Elder’s boys lacrosse coach.

“We had some great talent. Personally, it was a little harder. My older son was a senior that year and part of the team as well, it was hard just seeing all of that just change for us in a blink of an eye.”

Andreasen said the Bees have 43 players in the program right now, around 8-10 more than they had in the club team days. Of the 43 this year, he said roughly 10-11 kids are brand new to the sport.

Sanctioning the sport, he said, helped bring new interest to the sport even last year, purely because the sport was sanctioned and felt “more legitimate.”

The UHSAA didn’t contest spring sports championships last year. This spring’s lacrosse finals are scheduled for May 28-29 at locations to be determined.

A DIFFERENCE IN GAMES

Boys and girls lacrosse differ from each other in everything except the word “lacrosse” and the objective of the game.

Here are some of the main differences:

Playing field: For girls, the playing field is 120 by 70 yards. For boys, it’s 110 by 60.

The ball: The boys game uses a white ball while the girls uses yellow. The ball weighs around 5 ounces, measures around 2.5 inches in diameter, is made of solid rubber and if it hits you, it hurts.

Team size: Girls teams have 12 players on the field, boys teams have 10. That’s broken down to five offensive players, six defensive players and one goalie on the girls side; three each of attackers, midfielders and defenders plus one goalie in the boys game.

Contact: The boys game allows contact in the form of checking (like hockey). The girls game doesn’t. In a lot of ways, lacrosse fouls are a combination of basketball and hockey fouls as there’s cross-checking, slashing, tripping, body checking, hooking, illegal picks, reaching, blocking, etc.

Equipment: The boys game is more violent and players are required to wear helmets, mouth guards, shoulder pads, elbow pads and gloves. In the girls game, goggles and mouth guards are required for everyone except goalies, who have helmets and other protective gear. The sticks are different in the boys and girls games, with one size range in the girls game — between 35.5 and 43.25 inches — and different size ranges in the boys game depending on offensive or defensive players.

NOT EVERYONE’S HAPPY

Before the sport became sanctioned, school officials were wondering where lacrosse teams were going to play home games.

Most club teams practiced and played at local parks, and occasionally would pay to play a home game at the school itself. Everyone knew that tangential relationship wasn’t going to fly once the sport was sanctioned.

The spring sports season is a notorious logjam with school turf fields occupied daily by soccer and track teams, plus a packed schedule of multiple baseball, softball and tennis contests per week elsewhere.

Adding lacrosse has created more work without a direct pay increase for those in charge on a day-to-day basis; the issue was discussed with respect to boys volleyball at the UHSAA Board of Trustees meeting on March 25.

“There is not extra money for additional supervision. (Alpine School District Superintendent Sam) Jarman said lacrosse added 44 games with boys and girls. There is stress on the whole system — trainers, athletic directors checking for eligibility, ticket takers, supervision, transportation, etc.,” the meeting minutes read. “We are not against kids, but the system must expand somehow before we add another sanctioned activity. He does not feel this is the right time to sanction.”

In the same meeting, the board voted down motions to sanction boys volleyball, tabled a motion to sanction esports until next year and unanimously voted to sanction competitive cheerleading beginning in the 2021-22 school year, with the first UHSAA state championship in 2022-23.

School officials locally have expressed the same sentiment about sanctioning to the Standard-Examiner over the years, though none were willing to speak about it on the record.

Schools and districts were also frustrated with the startup costs. Assuming costs for one lacrosse player are in the $700 to $1,000 range, outfitting a team of 30-40 people with gear and uniforms runs around $21,000-40,000.

Multiply that by 18 in Davis County (two teams at nine schools), eight in Weber County (two teams at four schools) and the initial equipment/uniform costs alone were at least six figures. This doesn’t factor in future recurring costs for coaching, facilities use, referees, administration, etc.

Contact reporter Patrick Carr via email at pcarr@standard.net and follow him on Twitter @patrickcarr_.

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