- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 26, 2007

The sun is setting between the trees at Claude Moore Park in Sterling as children wearing bulky helmets and loose shoulder pads run around carrying sticks nearly as long as their gangly bodies.

Eight-year-old Matt Harris is among the pint-sized jitterbugs who are flipping a ball around, occasionally colliding into each other while trying to scoop groundballs. They sometimes fire at a goal, where the attendant wears something resembling a beekeeper’s mask and stands several feet below the orange crossbar.

“I like hitting,” Harris says while catching his breath after a 90-minute practice. “And it’s fun running around.”

The sport Harris enjoys will showcase itself starting today when an NCAA-record crowd of more than 60,000 is expected to fill Baltimore’s M&T; Bank Stadium for the college men’s final four. The Division I tournament already has received unprecedented television coverage, and the semifinals will be on ESPN2 with the final on ESPN on Memorial Day.

Despite the growth of the sport in Division I, the best places to see how much lacrosse has grown in a short time are at out-of-the-way sites like the one in Sterling. That’s where youth teams like the Eastern Loudoun Warriors under-9 squad have become fixtures not far from diamonds where baseball once was the main spring option.

Lacrosse is planting roots outside its established strongholds in Baltimore, Long Island and upstate New York while attempting to shed its perception as a sport exclusively for rich kids. The game is firmly established in Montgomery County and has spread across the river to Fairfax and beyond.

The sport has established pockets of popularity across the country in places like Colorado, Ohio and California. And the biggest growth appears to be near already established areas, as the boom has hit the Virginia counties of Loudoun, Prince William, Stafford and Spotsylvania.

Nationwide, there were 220,000 youth lacrosse players 15 and under in 2006, according to US Lacrosse, the sport’s governing body. Two years ago, 1,334 high schools played — more than four times as many as took the field in the mid-1980s. The Virginia High School League, which previously had recognized the sport, began sponsoring a state tournament for boys and girls for the first time last season.

It is the fastest growing sport in the country, according to both the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations. Seventeen states — up from 10 in 2000 — recognize or sanction lacrosse as a high school sport.

In Loudoun County just a decade ago, there were no high school teams or youth clubs. Today, all 10 public schools in Loudoun have varsity teams for both boys and girls. And this season the county fielded junior varsity squads for each gender for the first time.

The growth at that level largely resulted from “trickle-up” effects from the youth level. Until Loudoun made lacrosse a high school sport five years ago, players had no place to play once they finished youth programs.

Loudoun got its first youth lacrosse chapter nine years ago but was forced to split five years ago because it had too many participants. Now, they are loosely divided into groups east and west of Leesburg, and another division seems inevitable.

“Once you get over the 500- or 600-kid mark, it kind of gets out of control. We will have to split again,” says Eastern Loudoun commissioner Paul Ruffing, who coaches his son Alex on a U-13 team. “It’s an addictive sport. Any time you can put a stick in a kid’s hands and you can throw it, it’s a lot of fun.”

Eastern Loudoun, the newest chapter, fields 26 teams in four age groups for both boys and girls. The youngest is the under-9 group, and the oldest is the under-15, which feeds directly into the high schools. There are six girls’ teams.

The chapter is a member of the Northern Virginia Youth Lacrosse League, which was founded 20 years ago. There are 23 chapters in the NVYLL with 6,000 children on 328 teams. League commissioner Roger Smith says there is little room to grow in Fairfax and Arlington counties, but it continues to expand westward.

The sport also is attracting younger players. The NVYLL fields 40 under-9 boys’ teams and 25 for girls. There are 84 squads — 54 boys, 30 girls — in under-11 programs and 117 girls’ teams overall.

“We were growing at about 10 percent a year for the five or six years before this one,” says Smith, who played at Georgetown in the late 1960s and founded the Great Falls chapter 15 years ago when NVYLL had “seven or eight” clubs. “This year we grew about 4 percent because it is hard to find places to expand. Also, it is hard to find coaches who can teach the sport.”

Players are benefiting from former players relocating from New York and Baltimore to the area. Nick Lantuh, who coaches the U-9 Warriors, played at Cornell until 1990. Jack Jackson, a former Navy defenseman and father of U-13 player Hutton, was thrilled to see lacrosse programs in Loudoun when he moved three years ago.

Others like John Farrell became converts. The pediatrician grew up in Reston playing baseball. He was recruited to coach when he went to an organizational meeting and someone asked whether anybody had coaching experience before.

“I raised my hand and said, ‘Yes but not in lacrosse.’ They said, ‘Great, you’re an assistant coach,’ ” says Farrell, who got involved because his oldest son, Victor, who plays for Freedom High in South Riding, Va., was interested. “I did not know anything about lacrosse. Now, I am a big enthusiast. And that’s hard considering I’m a baseball guy. From a pediatrician’s standpoint, this is great exercise. And kids are constantly involved unlike sometimes in baseball.”

Lacrosse is similar to basketball with constant motion, sudden transitions between offense and defense. It is a nonstop running sport like soccer — but with a lot more scoring and momentum switches — and it mixes in elements of football with physical play and hitting.

“We do get a lot of kids from baseball,” says Ruffing, who also coaches youth football and wrestling. “Lacrosse is a fast game. It’s a contact sport. Kids are looking for something a little more exciting. That is what I’m hearing. They don’t want to wait in the outfield for a ball.”

As an example of the increased interest in lacrosse, self-described “lacrosse mom” Beth Oswald was about to leave the park after dropping off her 12-year-son Anthony for practice. Her older son, Michael, played in the youth leagues and now plays for Potomac Falls (Va.) High School. Oswald saw her kids start with baseball, only to catch the lacrosse bug.

“I’m still not sure I like it,” she says before jumping into her minivan. “It is a fun game to watch, but I see some of the bruises my son Michael comes home with and just cringe. But it really has caught on. They love it.”

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