North Bay League launches lacrosse as official school sport

Sonoma Academy's Sebastian McCullogh checks Bryan Christenson. The Windsor High boy's lacrosse team beat Sonoma Academy, 6-5, on Friday, March 27, 2015. (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

Sonoma Academy’s Sebastian McCullogh checks Bryan Christenson. The Windsor High boy’s lacrosse team beat Sonoma Academy, 6-5, on Friday, March 27, 2015. (Photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

By PHIL BARBER

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

Sarah Shada was an excellent lacrosse player in high school, good enough to later become a team captain at Santa Barbara City College before transferring back north to Dominican University. But when she played, prep lacrosse was purely a club sport in the Redwood Empire.

“We wore Petaluma High jerseys, but we never actually got to play for our school, or even at our school,” said Shada, now coaching at Petaluma as she toils through her senior year at Dominican. “But a few weeks ago, Petaluma girls lacrosse played for the first time at Ellis Field. Some of my returners played club; now they’re playing for their school, and they’re excited about getting that varsity letter.”

This spring, the North Bay League has become the first local league ever to offer lacrosse as an official school sport.

Not that the game was completely foreign to the area. Thriving lacrosse clubs have existed in Sonoma County for several years. Several of the clubs — Petaluma, Casa Grande and Rancho Cotate — bear the names and wear the colors of local high schools. But they are not truly affiliated with those schools.

Two local private schools, Cardinal Newman and Sonoma Academy, have been playing lacrosse for some time, but both were forced to join out-of-area leagues. The Newman teams and the Sonoma Academy girls have played in the Marin County Athletic League, the Sonoma Academy boys in the Bay Counties League, which is made up mostly of San Francisco schools.

That’s a construct of the past now. Six schools — Cardinal Newman, Sonoma Academy, Casa Grande, Petaluma, Rancho Cotate and Windsor — are playing NBL lacrosse.

To be sure, it’s a work in progress. Casa Grande and Petaluma, capitalizing on two of the top club teams in the state, are expected to immediately be on par with the Marin teams. But Sonoma Academy, despite its pedigree, is a small school that might be challenged when it comes to depth. And many of the Windsor kids are playing lacrosse for the first time.

“We just came back from a tournament in Santa Cruz,” Windsor boys coach Ross Albertson said this week. “We played teams like Sacred Heart. They were short 25-minute games, and in one game against Aptos we didn’t get the ball on our side for 15 minutes.”

Albertson pushed hard to limit the Jaguars to JV play this season. But CIF rules discourage that, and the NBL needed a sixth school to balance its schedule. Anyway, most of the other local programs don’t have JV squads, so Windsor’s hand was forced.

Despite their underdog status, the Jaguars are pumped to have a new sport on campus.

“A lot of people have asked, like, when are your games, asking a lot of questions,” said sophomore attacker Jarod Robledo, who discovered lacrosse on a family vacation to Colorado and is playing competitively for the first time. “We had a scrimmage and a few friends came out. They were interested in just the stuff we do — like we can hit each other with our stick, throw stick checks.”

Robledo’s goals for this inaugural season: “Try to get a lot of assists and not get laid out every time.”

Apparently, the Jaguars are fast learners. They fell behind Sonoma Academy 4-1 in Friday’s league opener, were down 5-3 with less than 10 minutes to go but rallied to win 6-5.

(See more photos from the Sonoma Academy-Windsor game)

The Petaluma girls team is another inexperienced squad.

“Thirteen of my 17 girls are freshmen,” Shada said. “Probably half of them are brand new to the sport — which is awesome, because we’re trying to grow the sport. It’s definitely a building year and I don’t expect it to go super smoothly. We just expect to grow a little each game.”

Shada is a product of the Petaluma Youth Lacrosse League, which was founded in May 2004 and began play in early 2005.

“I used to call it my baby,” said Jill Olson, who co-founded the league with husband Douglas and Ted Spore. “It went from conception to final product in nine months.”

The Olsons had been lobbying the Petaluma and Sonoma public high schools to start lacrosse programs for years, and were repeatedly told it would be too expensive. It can cost $350 to outfit a student with a uniform, equipment and protective padding.

When Jill Olson heard that Petaluma and Casa Grande were taking the plunge, she figured they’d be cast into the MCAL, and that the league would be divided into North and South divisions. The MCAL balked at that idea, and it wound up working out even better for the Sonoma County schools.

The change comes too late for the Olsons’ three sons, all of whom played club lacrosse through high school. (One of them wound up playing professionally in Australia.) But their daughter Caroline, a freshman, can say she was part of Petaluma High’s first girls lacrosse team.

In fact, when Petaluma hosted nine other high schools for a “play day” — half jamboree, half training session for referees — on Feb. 28, it was Caroline who scored the first goal of the day, and the first goal (unofficially) in NBL history. The first of many for local teams, it would appear.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com and on Twitter @Skinny_Post.

  • Robert Dreyer

    I wish the Steelheads were mentioned. The Steelheads in Santa Rosa have fielded strong teams for years and do it without any support. In fact they’re not even allowed to use the Santa Rosa High colors and have to pay to use their fields. It would be nice if the Santa Rosa schools caught up and embraced lacrosse.