From preps to pros, lacrosse makes net gains
When the Cubberley family moved from Wooster, Ohio, to Champaign County last September, the sport of lacrosse very nearly determined where they chose to live.
Bruce and Yvonne Cubberley ultimately settled on purchasing a house in Seymour, but before making any decision, Mom had one critically important question for the president of the Champaign County Lacrosse club: “Do I have to live in Champaign?”
It was a logical query, given that until one year earlier, the club had gone by the name Centennial Chargers Lacrosse. And, as everyone around these parts knows, Centennial High School is located in Champaign.
“I did my research,” Yvonne said.
Assured that the club now was open to any resident of Champaign County and that their children need not be Champaign residents to join, the Cubberleys were free to explore housing options throughout the county. Had it been otherwise, however, this lacrosse mom was prepared to narrow her residential sights.
“That is how into this sport I am,” Yvonne said. “I determined where we were going to look for houses based on the fact that my kids could or could not play lacrosse.
“I think the kids would have been very disappointed if they could not continue playing the sport. ... It was important to me that they had an ability or an outlet to do the thing that they loved the most.”
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Thirteen-year-old Phillip Cubberley and brothers Josh (12) and Timothy (9) are members of one of the fastest-growing sports demographics in the United States.
According to U.S. Lacrosse — the national governing body for the sport — youth participation nationwide grew by more than 77 percent from 2006 to 2012, to nearly 400,000.
The number of high schools sponsoring varsity teams rose from about 3,400 during the 2007-08 academic year to more than 4,400 in 2011-12. In that same span, high school participation grew from just under 144,000 to more than 175,600.
U.S. Lacrosse also claims that lacrosse is the fastest- growing college sport over the past nine years. According to NCAA figures, the number of schools in all divisions with men’s and women’s varsity teams grew from 469 to 671 between 2004 and 2012. Participation rose from 12,648 players to 19,384 during that span. U.S. Lacrosse points out those numbers don’t include more than 500 college club programs nationwide.
This growth has been spurred by an expansion of interest in the sport from the traditional hotbeds of the Northeast and mid-Atlantic Coast to other regions of the country.
“It’s growing coast to coast,” University of Michigan men’s lacrosse coach John Paul said. “This groundswell started about 10, 15 years ago and hasn’t stopped.”
“In the Midwest, it’s kind of caught on like wildfire,” Big Ten deputy commissioner Brad Traviolia said. “It, in many ways, seems like the future-growth sport.”
Why has lacrosse taken off in previously indifferent areas? Paul says one reason is the receptiveness of younger generations to new sports, a development he links, in part, to the creation of the made-for-TV X Games.
“People started getting exposed to more sports, more regular television coverage of other sports,” the Wolverines coach said. “And I think there was just an openness to trying new sports. ... I think this general attitude helped spur the growth. That, and it’s a fun sport to play and watch.”
Phillip Cubberley was introduced to lacrosse by a neighbor friend who belonged to a club team in Wooster.
“It was interesting and different from some of the other sports,” he said. “It was kind of like hockey, with the hand-eye coordination. The field space was like soccer. It was a team sport, so you work together.
“I thought it was great.”
That sentiment apparently is spreading locally. This year, Champaign County Lacrosse doubled its number of teams, adding a girls’ squad and a boys’ youth team (junior high ages and younger) to its high school-aged boys’ varsity and junior varsity rosters. The club’s success is a selling point to potential members, too. The varsity team is the two-time defending champion in the Central Illinois Lacrosse Conference, and the youth squad won a CILAX title this year.
Paul and others say the sport has a particular appeal to youngsters because it’s fast-paced, with constant action. And don’t underestimate the intrinsic attraction that wielding a stick holds for kids.
“In the past, your (sports) options in the spring were baseball and track,” Paul said. “And here, you could pick up a stick and run around. It’s like playing basketball. You’re running up and down the field and the action never stops, and it’s physical and high-scoring.
“And it’s really appealing to a lot of young kids when they pick up a stick for the first time.”
Unlike some sports, too, lacrosse can be easily learned and played by a wide spectrum of sizes and skill levels.
“My kids are not tall; they’re not necessarily the star athletes,” Yvonne Cubberley said. “But they love to run around. They love to be active. ... It’s a sport that has something for all ages and all abilities.”
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The westward migration of lacrosse interest is evident in the Big Ten. The conference will sponsor the sport beginning with the 2015 spring season.
The move comes in the wake of Maryland and Rutgers becoming league members in the 2014-15 academic year. Their addition gives the Big Ten six women’s lacrosse teams, the minimum required to conduct a conference championship and receive an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
At the same time, the Big Ten took the unprecedented step of adding men’s lacrosse powerhouse Johns Hopkins as an affiliate member in that sport only. The Baltimore-based school, a nine-time NCAA champion in men’s lacrosse, allows the Big Ten to reach the critical threshold of six members on the men’s side, too.
The Big Ten’s geographic expansion — as represented by Rutgers and Maryland — spurred the conference to sponsor lacrosse.
“It has a great tradition, a great history out there. And we’re now going to be part of that,” Traviolia said. “We’re always trying to figure out how can we be relevant in our (geographic) footprint.”
At the same time, Big Ten sponsorship gave lacrosse-playing schools like Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Northwestern (women only) a tangible conference membership. Previously, for example, the Michigan and Ohio State men’s teams played in the Eastern College Athletic Conference. The Northwestern, Penn State and Ohio State women’s teams were members of the American Lacrosse Conference.
“We’re all thrilled about it,” Paul said.
For those who closely follow the sport, the addition of Johns Hopkins was an eye-opener. The school has fielded a men’s lacrosse team as an independent since 1883, and it has long been one of the most successful programs in the sport. The Blue Jays had appeared in a record 41 consecutive NCAA tournaments until that streak was snapped this year.
“I think it’s a big get for both (sides),” Paul said. “We’re adding the most storied lacrosse program in the game. Their homecoming is in the spring because that’s when lacrosse is played. It’s that kind of school.”
Traviolia doesn’t expect the Big Ten to add similar affiliate members in the future, saying this was an extraordinary case.
“I think the stars just aligned in the right school and the right sport and right area of the country,” he said. “The timing worked that both Johns Hopkins and the Big Ten feel like this could be a great partnership.”
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Michigan is among the latest Division I schools to take the lacrosse plunge. Men’s lacrosse became a varsity sport during the 2011-12 academic year, and a Wolverines women’s team will make its varsity debut next spring.
That doesn’t mean lacrosse is a newcomer to the Ann Arbor campus. A men’s club program debuted in 1940 but was disbanded before World War II. It was restarted in 1965 and was still a fixture when Michigan announced it was starting a varsity program.
“It was always a goal of our club program to help make that happen,” said Paul, who coached the Michigan men’s club team for 14 years.
Women’s lacrosse also had been played at the club level at Michigan since the mid-1990s.
Although college lacrosse has experienced overall growth, Michigan’s decision represented a breakthrough at the NCAA’s highest levels. It was the first Bowl Championship Series conference school to add men’s lacrosse since Notre Dame started competition in 1981.
Pinched by budget limitations, the arms race in facilities and federal gender-equity mandates, college athletic departments are rarely in position to add new sports these days. But the Michigan men’s lacrosse club presented a compelling argument to at least consider creating a varsity program. According to Paul, alumni and parents of players were donating generously to his club team, and during the program’s last few seasons, the club was operating on an annual budget of $1 million.
“And that, obviously, raised a lot of eyebrows around the university,” Paul said.
It definitely caught the attention of Dave Brandon, who became Michigan’s athletic director in March 2010. With a background in business — including serving as chairman and chief executive officer of Ann Arbor-based Domino’s Pizza Inc. — Brandon came to view lacrosse as a smart investment for his athletic department.
“He was looking at it almost as a business opportunity,” Paul said. “One, he’s about growth and he’s about being a leader. ... And two, he kept hearing about lacrosse — demographics, but also retail (opportunities).
“Those are all signs to him, as a successful business leader, that it’s a good sport to invest in.”
Brandon set a fundraising target of $5 million to start men’s and women’s lacrosse programs. According to Paul, it was raised in “a matter of months, and we were off and running.”
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Don’t expect the University of Illinois to follow Michigan’s lead on lacrosse. At least in the near future.
With a major renovation of the State Farm Center looming, other pressing facilities needs, and a total of 19 sports with almost 600 student-athletes to tend to, expansion currently is not on the radar of the athletic department.
“We’re really not in a mode where we’re entertaining those type of things right now,” Illini athletic director Mike Thomas said.
One of Thomas’ first acts after taking leadership of the department in August 2011 was to initiate a study of each sport and develop a strategic plan to identify and address its needs.
“We’ve got to take care of our own (sports) right now,” he said. “Not to say (expansion) opportunities won’t come down the road in the future .. but at least as we sit here today, our focus is really on the teams we currently sponsor.”
Thomas has worked at schools with lacrosse. He was an associate AD for seven years at Virginia, a perennial national power in the sport, and was the administrator who traveled with the men’s team in the postseason.
“They won two NCAAs when I was there,” Thomas said.
And during his tenure as Cincinnati athletic director, the school added women’s lacrosse.
Thomas’ three sons also played the sport, two in high school.
“So I have a great appreciation for lacrosse,” he said. “It’s one of my favorite sports to watch.”
Thomas declined to estimate how much it might cost to start a men’s and/or women’s lacrosse program at Illinois. Given gender-equity requirements, the addition of one might necessarily require adding the other. The UI wouldn’t necessarily need to build a new facility for lacrosse, however, because it already has a soccer field, and many schools with both sports share the same field.
Thomas also pointed out that travel costs — always one of the most expensive items in a sport’s budget — might be lessened in lacrosse if the sport continues to grow among Midwest schools.
Thomas indicated that lacrosse and ice hockey are the two sports he is most asked about when the topic is Illini expansion.
So lacrosse has the long-range attention of the UI athletic director, but for now Thomas’ focus is on maximizing the potential of 19 existing sports programs.
“At this point in time, ... we’re trying to work with them and get them to a certain point,” he said. “And maybe if we feel we’ve arrived there, then some day we can entertain these other types of opportunities.”
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While that wait continues, there is lacrosse being played on the UI campus. Men’s and women’s club teams offer the sport to students like senior Sam Weinstein, who’s been playing lacrosse since he was in the fifth grade.
“Most of our guys played in high school but didn’t want to commit to a varsity-level program, but they still want to compete,” the Northbrook native said.
The Illinois men’s club team typically has a roster of 25 to 30 players, playing home games on the Turf Fields on First Street in Champaign or at the student recreation fields in Urbana at Florida and Lincoln avenues.
A regular season schedule of about 14 games includes matches against fellow members of the Great Rivers Lacrosse Conference as well as other Big Ten club teams. In 2011, the Illinois men won their conference tournament to advance to nationals.
Weinstein says club teams like those at the UI fill a void on campuses without varsity lacrosse. Ultimately, however, he hopes the UI will follow Michigan’s recent example.
“Five, six years down the road, we’d all love to see Illinois have a varsity program,” said Weinstein, in his first year as president of the Illinois men’s club program. “It’s definitely something that we think is possible pretty soon.
“The Midwest is really growing lacrosse, and people, especially in Illinois, are starting to pick it up more and play more. So we think that we could maybe go about raising some funds and bring the program up to the varsity level.”
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Champaign County Lacrosse addresses a similar void for area middle- and high school students. The club originally was created by Champaign high school students without a varsity outlet for the sport.
Had the Cubberleys remained in Wooster, Ohio, Phillip would have entered a high school this fall that offers varsity lacrosse for boys and girls.
“In Ohio, it’s more of a school sport than here,” he said.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, there were 63 Illinois high schools that offered boys’ lacrosse and 44 with girls’ lacrosse during the 2011-12 academic year.
Those numbers are significant because they create the possibility of a state tournament for what the IHSA now classifies as an “emerging” sport.
In October 2009, the group’s board of directors approved a lacrosse state tournament for the 2010-11 school year if at least 65 boys’ teams and 40 girls’ teams were participating in the sport. When those thresholds weren’t met, the IHSA indefinitely delayed the implementation of a tournament.
However, assistant executive director Scott Johnson said last week the IHSA had revived its commitment to a state tournament for next spring if the same participation minimums established in 2009 can be reached this school year.
It appears unlikely, however, that high schools in East Central Illinois will add to the lacrosse ranks any time soon.
Champaign Central athletic director John Woods recalls a push by some of the school’s students about four or five years ago to add a varsity team. Such interest, he says, has since waned.
Hurdles to adding the sport, Woods said, include facilities, significant equipment and travel expenses, and federal gender-equity requirements.
In Central’s case, Woods said, the school would be unable to use its soccer field for lacrosse because girls’ soccer is played during the same season (spring). A bigger obstacle, however, would be travel costs because most, if not all, of the state’s high school teams are in the Chicago area.
“Transportation would be a huge cost,” Woods said, “There’s no team within a two-hour drive (of Champaign).”
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Even as supporters of lacrosse trumpet its status as “the fastest-growing sport,” it’s clear that financial barriers stand in the way of accelerating the pace of expansion at the college and high school levels. For that reason, it appears club lacrosse will continue to be a vital outlet in many areas, including East Central Illinois.
“I think it will grow slower than lacrosse people want it to,” said Michigan’s Paul, speaking specifically of college lacrosse. “A lot of people thought (Michigan was) going to be the pied piper, and all these big football schools were going to follow along.
“But they all have so many financial challenges and other challenges that they would have to face to add sports. So I think it’s a tough move, especially for the biggest schools to get this done.”
The silver lining, Paul says, is that lacrosse does have the attention of an ever-growing number of college administrators. And that, he says, is the necessary first step toward adding varsity lacrosse.
“If you asked athletic directors, would they add lacrosse if they could, my guess is the majority would say yes,” Paul said. “They would be very interested in doing it. They just have to figure out how.”
A look at participation numbers in Division I in five-year intervals since 1982:
YEAR SCHOOLS PARTICIPANTS
1982 50 1,658
1987 49 1,981
1992 50 1,940
1997 54 2,079
2002 55 2,139
2007 56 2,491
2012 61 2,791
YEAR SCHOOLS PARTICIPANTS
1982 39 930
1987 35 1,002
1992 34 841
1997 56 1,366
2002 75 1,830
2007 79 2,145
2012 91 2,495
A look at national participation numbers since the 2007-08 academic year:
YEAR SCHOOLS PARTICIPANTS
2007-08 1,815 82,860
2008-09 1,984 88,596
2009-10 2,068 90,670
2010-11 2,192 95,683
2011-12 2,338 100,641
YEAR SCHOOLS PARTICIPANTS
2007-08 1,624 61,086
2008-09 1,780 64,929
2009-10 1,885 68,768
2010-11 1,999 74,927
2011-12 2,118 74,993
Source: National Federation of State High School Associations
1 The game originated in North America with Native American Indians. Some historical sources claim a version of lacrosse was played as early as the 1400s. European immigrants modified the game to its current rules.
2 Early lacrosse balls were made out of wood or of deerskin stuffed with hair. The first lacrosse sticks resembled large wooden spoons with no netting.
3 A French Jesuit missionary, Jean de Brébeuf, described the stickball game played by the Huron Indians in 1636 in his writings, giving it the name lacrosse.
4 Canadian dentist W. George Beers wrote a set of rules for the game in 1867 that, among other things, defined the size of the playing field and set limits on the number of players on each side.
5 New York University is credited with fielding the first college lacrosse team in 1877. The first high school teams appeared in 1882 at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, Phillips Andover Academy in Massachusetts and The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey.
6 The first intercollegiate tournament was held in 1881, with Harvard beating Princeton 3-0 in the championship game. From that year through 1934, a succession of collegiate lacrosse associations chose an annual champion based on regular season records. From 1936 to 1970, the U.S. Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association chose the Wingate Memorial Trophy national champion.
7 In 1971, the NCAA held its first national lacrosse championship for men’s teams, with Cornell defeating Maryland 12-6. National championships were added in 1974 for Division II men; in 1980 for Division III men; in 1982 for an all-division women’s event; in 1985 for Division III women; and in 2001 for Division II women.
8 Syracuse has won the most men’s Division I titles with 10, while Johns Hopkins has made the most NCAA tournament appearances with 41. Maryland holds the record for most titles (10) and most appearances (29) in the NCAA Division I women’s tournament.
9 There are three men’s professional lacrosse leagues in North America. Major League Lacrosse has played an annual schedule since 2001 and includes eight franchises. The National Lacrosse League has nine franchises. The NLL began in 1987 as the Eagle Pro Box Lacrosse League, became the Major Indoor Lacrosse League in 1988 and changed to its current name in 1998. The Canadian Lacrosse League played its inaugural season in 2012 and expanded from six to seven teams in 2013. Meanwhile, the North American Lacrosse League announced in June it had suspended operations after two seasons.
10 Lacrosse twice has been a medal sport in the Summer Olympics, in 1904 and 1908, with Canada winning the gold each time. It also was played as a demonstration event at the 1928, 1932 and 1948 Games.