Lacrosse – described by local enthusiast Kevin Boyle as “basketball played on a soccer field with hockey pads” – is one of the fastest-growing sports in America.
And thanks to Boyle, several fans and parents plus two youth leagues, the sport is catching on among Wichita kids, too.
“It grows in hot spots, but it takes off when it starts,” said Boyle, a former club player at the University of Illinois. “In Wichita, I expect that it’ll be like Madison, Wisconsin, where it’ll go from nothing to having teams in high schools.”
Lacrosse actually is centuries old, with deep roots in American Indian culture. It became popular on the East Coast in the early 1900s and has slowly spread across the U.S.
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In Wichita, there are opportunities for second-graders through high school-aged boys and girls to adult men to play lacrosse, primarily through the Wichita Lacrosse Association. The Greater Wichita YMCA also offers a fall youth co-ed lacrosse league for grades 2-8.
The number of kids playing in the city’s spring league – a cooperative effort among Wichita’s park and recreation department and three area lacrosse organizations within the Wichita Lacrosse Association – has more than doubled since it was first offered three seasons ago, said Mickey Lara, athletic supervisor with Wichita’s park and recreation department. The spring league, which got underway in April and concludes May 25, is open to kids in grades 3-8.
“In the first year, we had about 60 kids, the next year about 100, and this year, there’s about 130,” Lara said. “I think one of the reasons it’s been so successful is that we provide the equipment. They can rent it for $20, so they don’t have to buy equipment that costs $200 or more.”
“The city made it very affordable,” agreed Boyle, who helped coach club lacrosse as a graduate assistant at the University of Michigan while going to law school. “The biggest contributor is the city’s commitment.”
Besides providing equipment rentals, the city also provides playing fields for the spring league. The Saturday morning games are at Stryker Soccer Complex, off K-96 at the North 29th Street and Greenwich intersection.
Before the city committed to buying equipment and renting it to kids in the Wichita Lacrosse Association’s three organizations, about 20 to 30 kids whose parents were willing to shell out money for the equipment would play the game in an area park, Boyle said.
Lacrosse equipment includes a helmet, shoulder and chest pads, gloves and a stick with a sort of net at the end for scooping and carrying the small, hard rubber ball.
The YMCA’s fall league has fewer kids, in part because it competes against the fall football season, said Bruce Mace, sports director at the North Branch YMCA and the youth lacrosse program administrator. He said about 30 kids participated last year. Participants provide their own equipment.
Fast on your feet
Lacrosse is a game of speed, 12-year-old Finley Kiefer explained to a bystander on the sidelines who’d never seen the game before.
“I like it better than football because the bigger kids can’t plow you down. They have to catch you first,” said Finley, who was watching his brother Palmer, 9, play on the team coached by the boys’ mother, Susan Kiefer. Finley would play later that day on a team for older kids.
“It’s an exciting game,” Susan Kiefer said. “Kids run, they jump, they can box out, they hit, they kick the ball.”
The sport relies a lot on agile footwork and hand-eye coordination, said Mace, who used to coach lacrosse club teams in Oregon.
Twenty players are usually on the field, 10 players per team, Boyle explained. Each team has three players in attack positions, three defense men, three midfielders and one goalie defending the net. The city league’s teams for younger kids, like Palmer’s, have only six players on the field: two in each position and no goalie.
Most of the kids playing on this Saturday morning were either chasing down the player carrying the ball or slipping in the wet, muddy field. Substitutions were frequent to keep players from getting too fatigued in the fast-paced game.
“All we’re doing is going for the ball like a bunch of bees,” Susan Kiefer said to anyone within earshot.
“Man up,” she yelled at the Outlaws, her orange-shirted team that is part of the College Hill lacrosse organization. She was encouraging them to play player-to-player defense rather than the mad scramble underway.
“Almost every parent has no idea what their kid is doing,” said Kiefer. “But as soon as kids pick up a stick, they’re hooked.”
Kiefer herself got hooked on lacrosse after some college games at the University of Kansas and Kansas State University. When she saw a game going on at the North Branch YMCA three years ago, she didn’t hesitate to sign up her sons.
As for the rules, Kiefer said it took her a couple of years of coaching to understand them.
In this morning’s game between the Outlaws and the Fighting Shamrocks, Boyle, who was officiating, helped coaches, players and bystanders figure out what was going on. After nearly every call, he would head to the sidelines to announce the rules and violations.
Similar to hockey, players must sit in a penalty box on the sidelines for calls such as slashing or hitting. When a ball went out of bounds, the team getting possession of the ball was determined by whomever was the closest to the out-of-bounds line.
Cynthia Wilson, an assistant coach for the Shamrocks’ older youth league team, said she was one of the parents who encouraged the YMCA to start offering lacrosse. She had played it on her brother’s team growing up in Colorado.
Now she’s trying to help organize a summer lacrosse tournament in Wichita that will draw teams from Tulsa, Kansas City, Omaha and other regional cities – another sign of the sport’s growth in Wichita and the Midwest.