Sticking around – The sport of lacrosse is attracting more and more local players with its unique blend of fast action and physical play

It’s been called the “fastest game on two feet” and likened to battling with a sword and suit of armor. Others say it has an “X Games” feel with its quick tempo and hard hits. It’s no wonder, then, that boys in Baton Rouge are embracing the sport of lacrosse in increasing numbers. The only real question is, what took them so long?

Once perceived as an exclusive sport of East Coast prepsters and the Ivy League, lacrosse was actually devised several centuries ago by Native Americans as a spiritual pursuit aimed at praising the Creator.European settlers in Canada and the eastern United States eventually embraced and refined the game of using a netted stick to pass and shoot a ball into a goal. But it wasn’t until 1971 that the NCAA held its first men’s lacrosse championship, and not until 1998 that US Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, was formed.

In this century, lacrosse has been one of the nation’s fastest-growing sports. The total number of players in the country, according to US Lacrosse participation surveys, more than doubled from nearly 254,000 in 2001 to more than 684,000 in 2011. Like early Americans, the sport of lacrosse is moving westward, establishing strong bases of youth and collegiate involvement in Colorado, California, and elsewhere. But until a few years ago, this game with the funny stick was simply not on the radar of kids in south Louisiana.

The Baton Rouge lacrosse landscape began to change in 2007, when a group of students at Catholic High School requested permission to form a lacrosse club on campus. One of them had played the game in Europe while his family lived there, and his tales of on-field triumphs intrigued his friends back in Baton Rouge. “Catholic High is very receptive to clubs and student interests, so they said, ‘How many players do you need?’ ” recalls Mike Treloar, who served as the CHS lacrosse club’s moderator for four years. “A meeting was held to discern the interest level, and 120 boys showed up.”

Of those, 60 made the commitment to play in the school’s first season. Volunteer coaches and parents also committed to the initiative, striping the field, selling concessions and keeping statistics. The vast majority of these parents had never played or even seen a game of lacrosse before. “It’s impossible to appropriately recognize the importance of dedicated parents,” says Treloar.

Sean Averette was one of the players on that first Catholic High team, and by his senior season he had become so skilled at the attack position and so passionate about the game that he was named team captain.

“I can honestly say that I was instantly hooked,” Averette says. “It was a totally new sport to me that was fast paced and full of incredible feats of athleticism.”

At the time the Catholic High program began, there were 10 other fledgling lacrosse programs in schools around the state, some sanctioned by their institutions and some not. Today there are 16 total, including Dutchtown and Central High in our area; all are governed by the five-year-old Louisiana High School Lacrosse League. But because the sport is still not accepted by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, each student player must purchase his own helmet, stick and other equipment, at a cost that can total more than $400.

The financial outlay is only one of the hurdles faced by proponents of the game. Other local schools have turned down requests to form lacrosse programs, citing concerns that lacrosse’s spring season interferes with football spring training or baseball games. “The season overlaps so many other sports’ seasons, the other sports fight for fields already … The list goes on and on as to why a school athletic director would say no,” says Lee Scioneaux, current CHS lacrosse program moderator. “I hear stories that some schools are afraid that lacrosse will hurt participation in the other sports. … But we have some football players on our team, and with the nature of the sport of lacrosse, those players are getting a conditioning workout second to none. The sports can co-exist easily, and it would be to the players’ benefit.”

While high school-level lacrosse works to find its footing here, even greater growth is coming with the younger set. As many as nine community-based youth lacrosse programs have been launched in the last five years in Louisiana, says Treloar, with 600-plus players suiting up each Saturday during the season. “The future of Louisiana lacrosse lies in these youth programs,” he says. “It’s in these programs, typically run by dads and dedicated enthusiasts, that children learn the skills to play and the love of the game.”

In Baton Rouge, a local lacrosse camp in 2011 spawned a youth program the following spring. Val Browning’s two sons had become interested in the sport, and when he discovered that there were no youth teams here, he took matters into his own hands by joining forces with JR Ball, a Baltimore native and former collegiate lacrosse player. Ball, who is also executive vice president of the company that publishes inRegister, agreed to oversee coaching while Browning handled the administrative side, including recruiting players for the new Baton Rouge Mustangs.

“The initial response was better than I anticipated,” Browning recalls. “I was looking to form one team and ended up with two.”

Now in their second season, the Mustangs number 56 players on three teams for kids under ages 15, 13 and 11. Practices and local games take place at various venues, from BREC parks to Lee High School; and the teams travel to Lafayette, New Orleans and Covington for games and tournaments.

Despite the fact that virtually none of the Mustang players had ever held a stick before attending their first practice, most pick up the game easily, Ball says.

“You give me an hour and a half, and I can get a kid passing and catching,” he says. “But it’s a sport where you do have to continually work on it to keep your coordination sharp.”

It’s also a sport that’s well suited for boys of all sizes and physiques, so those that aren’t big enough for football or agile enough for basketball can often find their niche with lacrosse.

“Lacrosse is a much easier game to play than football, and the risk of injuries is far less,” notes Ball.

Even players’ parents and others in the community are catching lacrosse fever. After Treloar’s two sons graduated from CHS and he left his position with the school’s team, he signed on as a coach with the younger Mustangs program.

One of Treloar’s fellow Mustang coaches, Baton Rouge native Scott Mannear, played lacrosse while attending college on the East Coast before returning home and founding the Baton Rouge Lacrosse Club in 2011. This 27-member men’s team attracts an eclectic bunch, including former players and those new to the sport, with an age range between 20s and 40s. The group plays in tournaments around south Louisiana during the spring and practices all year long.

“I can’t see the sport slowing down,” Mannear says. “People want to feel like they’re part of something that’s growing and cool. They want to have the best gear. And I think there’s just something innate about boys wanting to run around and hit each other with sticks.”

Meanwhile, Ball and other lacrosse lovers are considering launching a parishwide high schoollevel team for students who attend schools without lacrosse clubs. That could mean applying for grant funds to subsidize equipment purchases.

“If the game broadens to a wider demographic, that will force the improvement of the game,” Ball says. “I want to expose as many people to the game as possible.”

Now a sophomore at LSU, Averette plays for the university’s lacrosse club alongside players from more traditional lacrosse states like New York and Maryland. He also helps to teach middle-school players the fundamentals of the game, and he says he hopes to one day return to coach at his alma mater, Catholic High. “I want to create a hotbed for lacrosse in Louisiana,” he says. “I love to grow the game.”

Treloar says Baton Rouge lacrosse could someday be as popular as another local favorite athletic activity.

“When I was of youth sports age, I had never even seen a soccer game, and now it is ubiquitous,” he says. “I suspect that lacrosse will be similar.”