Lacrosse in a growth spurt

April 06, 2005|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

THE HOWARD County Lacrosse Program, about to open practices with the largest enrollment in the youth club's 20-plus-year existence, is growing at such a pace that its leaders are beginning to look ahead to the next couple of years.

"We've become more conscious, for sure, about the western part of the county," said Ellicott City's Joe Dougherty, a longtime coach and now director of the county's only youth lacrosse organization, which grew out of a now-defunct Optimist International program that began in Columbia.

"Our growth in the west, especially, is such that within a year or maybe two, we may break into west and east divisions. Playing and practicing on a countywide basis, as we do now, causes some travel problems for parents - getting to and from practices - that parents of younger kids, in particular, would like to get away from."

As youth lacrosse practices begin countywide, heading into the start of league play April 23, treasurer Jack Milani, a west county resident, said enrollment for the club's recreation and travel teams totals about 1,970 pre-high school players, a record.

Both leaders noted that the largest growth, as has been the case for several years, is occurring among young girls. "I wouldn't be surprised if next year, the girls outnumber the boys, especially in the younger age groups," Milani said.

It's a phenomenon also occurring elsewhere, to the consternation of some. More on that in a moment.

HCLP's enrollment for boys is slightly more than 900 this spring, with about 865 girls signed up. Figures still are bobbling slightly as leaders adjust for last-minute withdrawals. But Dougherty said the club expects to have a small waiting list.

Asked if growing enrollment is causing coaching problems, as it has in the past for the club, Dougherty said that's still true, to a degree. But, he said, the primary problem has become finding enough referees to cover hundreds of games the club schedules. Rec-level teams are scheduled for nine or 10 games this spring, and the club's Cobra travel teams will play as many, with the most successful competitively then facing playoffs.

Dougherty said HCLP has broadened its travel program to include not only two "A level" teams for players who are 9 and 10, as well as for 13- and 14-year-old teams, but also three B-level teams for players 11 and 12. That goes for boys and girls.

"We wanted to open more opportunities for players who are excelling to develop," he said.

Unexpectedly, he added, the club also has experienced an up-tick in players 13 and 14 wanting to play recreation-level ball. That's an age bracket that, in many youth sports, sees a decline in participation. But Dougherty said he believes HCLP is seeing a desire by some players in that middle-school bracket wanting to pursue the game for fun while not having to devote as much time as is required by travel-level practice sessions.

Strong growth in girls lacrosse throughout metropolitan Baltimore - for years, one of the nation's hotbeds in the sport - is a cause for concern in some circles, including at the sport's youth governing body in Maryland. With colleges adding dozens of women's lacrosse programs in the past decade, the perception among many young parents is that a gold mine of scholarships is available.

Locally, Dougherty and Milani agree, that perception has been enhanced by the competitive success over the past 10 years by Mount Hebron High's girls teams and those at several Baltimore private schools where the sport is emphasized --- and a flow of scholarship money for those schools' players.

But the coveted "full ride," or free college education many parents dream about, is unrealistic in all but a few cases, say experienced coaches and counselors. The reason is that colleges rarely award a "full ride" in any sport, especially "nonrevenue" sports such as lacrosse and soccer.

Still, several aggressive youth club programs in the Baltimore area pull skilled girls, still in middle school, into virtually year-round play. Summer and fall tournaments, with indoor play during the winter, undoubtedly have raised skill levels - but also stress levels for a number of players.

One women's lacrosse referee, Bonnye Lang, from Arnold in Anne Arundel County, said that spectator behavior at many games along the East Coast involving younger players is the worst she's seen in nearly two decades of officiating.

"The antics on the sidelines and in the stands are appalling," Lang told a writer for another county edition of The Sun. "People act like they wouldn't act anywhere in the world, with the things they say and the way they act. I don't know if you've ever watched a kid and watched their body language when their parent starts going berserk. I've been at Division I [college] games where a kid comes up to me and apologizes for their parents."

HCLP's Milani is one local lacrosse backer who would like to see a mellower tone among some parents, quipping: "It'd be really nice if they'd take a log off the fire and let the kids play the game to learn and have fun."

Call the writer at 410-332- 6525 or send e-mail to lowell. sunderland@baltsun.com.

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