Lacrosse, popular at club level, lags at high schools

Daniel Payne, left, blocks the shot of Natale Ramatici during lacrosse practice at the Sonoma Academy on Monday. Photo by John Burgess / The Press Democrat

Daniel Payne, left, blocks the shot of Natale Ramatici during lacrosse practice at the Sonoma Academy on Monday. Photo by John Burgess / The Press Democrat

By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The oldest game in America is trendy again. Lacrosse, versions of which were played by American Indian tribes before European settlement, is currently one of the fastest-growing sports in the nation.

According to data compiled by the National Federation of State High School Associations, the number of high schools playing boys’ lacrosse increased by 149 percent from 2001 to 2012 (up to 2,338 schools). High schools playing girls lacrosse expanded by 170 percent during the same time frame (to 2,118 schools). Only bowling (no joke) has seen more rapid growth.

And as the web site laxpower.com notes, the raw figures are actually higher because not all high schools fall under the NFHS umbrella. Laxpower says California currently has 206 high school lacrosse teams.

So why didn’t Sonoma County get the memo?

Here in the Redwood Empire, exactly two schools play lacrosse — Cardinal Newman and Sonoma Academy. Both are private schools. While local youth lacrosse clubs are doing fairly well, that interest has not infiltrated our public campuses.

“I was a high school athlete. I played football and baseball,” said Jeremy De La Torre, president of the Santa Rosa Lacrosse Club, also known as the Steelheads. “And just that camaraderie of wearing the school colors, that atmosphere of Friday-night lights — I would love for these kids outside of Sonoma Academy and Cardinal Newman to experience that. We have representatives from a majority of high schools in the area. If they had enough kids on campus willing play for Maria Carrillo or Montgomery, I think they’d eat that up.”

Even for the Newman and Sonoma Academy kids, the setup is less than ideal. Both Cardinal Newman teams play in the Marin County Athletic League. The Sonoma Academy girls play in the MCAL, while the boys are in the Bay Counties League. That means they have no true local rivalries, and the travel can be substantial. The Newman boys played games on three consecutive days this week — at Carmichael, Davis and Fair Oaks.

“Some of the schools we play are much larger than us,” said Sonoma Academy girls’ coach Scarlett Prati, who played lacrosse for the Coyotes before suiting up at Oberlin College and Colorado College. “The competition can be kind of uneven. It’s hard when half of your team is inexperienced.”

Prati does not cut any players. She estimates that close to half of her athletes had never played lacrosse before coming to Sonoma Academy — just as she hadn’t.

Prati quickly fell in love with the sport that she describes as a combination of soccer and basketball, with the added fun of swinging a stick. She has seen her players fall in love, too, and knows that some kids at other schools would do the same if given an opportunity. But that opportunity might not come anytime soon.

Cost is certainly a barrier. It might take $200 to $250 to outfit a lacrosse player with equipment and protective padding, plus another $80 to $100 for a uniform. That’s not exorbitant, but multiply the numbers by 15 or 20 players per team, and it becomes a tough sell to a cash-strapped high school.

A more fundamental hurdle is interest level. A lot of kids are playing lacrosse in Sonoma County, but maybe not enough to justify CIF-sanctioned high school teams.

The SRLC, a member of the Northern California Junior Lacrosse Association and the oldest lacrosse club in Sonoma County, has been around since 1995. It was a one-team club for most of its existence, but began to grow in 2008. The SRLC now includes 133 players, spread across varsity, under-15, U13 and U11 age groups. Jamie Poore, a founder of the club, says it has doubled in size over the past four years.

Petaluma has thriving lacrosse clubs playing under the banners of Casa Grande and Petaluma High, though not officially affiliated with either school, and Rancho Cotate has a club, too. Up the coast, so does Mendocino.

“There are more former players and dads around now,” said Poore, who coaches the SRLC varsity and U15 teams. “More kids are growing up with sticks. I’m starting to see kids I remember coaching, or coaching against, coming back from college and becoming coaches.”

The local teams are good, too. Laxpower’s current California boys’ club rankings have Casa Grande at No. 1 and Petaluma at No. 2. Casa Grande won state championships in 2010 and 2011, beating Santa Rosa in the final both times, and Petaluma made it to the final in 2009.

“I’m a part-time referee,” said Michael Guernon, athletic director of Petaluma Youth Lacrosse, which oversees 13 Petaluma-area lacrosse teams. “And I’ll sometimes referee CIF games and think, ‘Wow, some of our club teams could give these teams a challenge.’ ”

In 2009, PYL pitched the idea of helping to fund the sport at the two high schools there. The club offered to donate $20,000, but the Petaluma City Schools Board of Education balked at the idea, perhaps leery of adding school activities during a recession. A group of Petaluma parents hopes to revise the effort at some point.

But building a strong youth club program is not the same as sustaining CIF high school lacrosse teams across the county. Frankly, the numbers just aren’t there yet — especially on the girls’ side. Petaluma Youth Lacrosse has a strong girls’ program, but Santa Rosa added its first girls’ team just this year. A high school couldn’t introduce a boys’ lacrosse team in the absence of a girls’ team without running afoul of Title IX regulations.

That’s bad news for kids like Brodie Vivio, a senior at Montgomery High. He played a lot of soccer growing up, and played freshman and JV basketball at Montgomery, but would rather play lacrosse in high school.

“Lacrosse is just more exciting,” Vivio said. “It’s physical, but it’s not overly violent. And it requires specialized skills that make it interesting.”

Vivio doesn’t believe there are enough kids passionate about lacrosse at Montgomery to field varsity teams. If there were, he said, and if those teams were competitive, he would play for the Vikings.

“The idea of having a bigger fan base” appeals to Vivio, he said. “Our (club) games, for the most part, it’s parents watching. There are not as many students. It would be more exciting if there were.”

It’s easy to picture lacrosse spreading across Sonoma County, as soccer did a generation earlier. It’s harder to guess when that might come.

“I’d love to see it get into the public high schools,” said De La Torre, whose son Cameron plays for a U13 team. “We’re seeing the numbers grow to where maybe it will get there. Unfortunately, my son is in seventh grade. I don’t know if we’ll have it in time for him to play. I also have a 5-year-old, so maybe by the time he’s in high school. …”

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