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High school boys lacrosse on the rise in Westmoreland County

| Saturday, April 20, 2013, 11:56 p.m.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Latrobe's Adam Drake (29) looks for an open teammate in front of Greensburg Central Catholic's Tucker Bocan during a game April 10, 2013, in Latrobe.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Latrobe's Alec Hoopes (28) makes a pass during a game against Greensburg Central Catholic on April 10, 2013 in Latrobe.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Latrobe coach David Leksell speaks to his lacrosse team during a break in the actionagainst Greensburg Central Catholic on April 10, 2013, in Latrobe.
Guy Wathen | Tribune-Review
Latrobe lacrosse players raise their sticks before heading back onto the field April 10, 2013, in Latrobe.

High school boys lacrosse in Westmoreland County seemingly is gaining fast on the girls, who've had a headstart in interest with the help of an experienced mentor at St. Vincent College.

Many girls programs already are rooted; seeds continue to be planted for the boys — some club programs in both ranks, in addition to the established ones, are under way with intentions of joining the WPIAL in the near future.

“A person challenged me once that, ‘It won't develop way out there in Latrobe. It's a Pittsburgh sport,' ” recalled Tom Harbert, a longtime St. Vincent coach of multiple sports, including men's and women's lacrosse. “I took that as a personal challenge. I did as much as I possibly could to bring it this way.”

Long known for his lacrosse expertise, Harbert was instrumental in creating the men's and women's programs at St. Vincent while promoting clinics that spawned girls programs at a number of local high schools.

He is among a wave of local enthusiasts of the still relatively underground sport who see similar rapid development at the boys level, which unlike girls, requires helmets and allows contact.

“It's picking up in and around Pittsburgh, and it's headed this way. It's exploding,” said Norwin boys coach Jeff Braid, an Ohio native who also has experience as a lacrosse referee. “You look around and there is absolutely a fan base forming here.”

The development of the boys game might be a big reason. Six WPIAL boys teams are at high schools in the (Greensburg) Tribune-Review's coverage area, including a team at Indiana, northeast of the county.

Among them, Penn-Trafford, a first-year club team, intends on joining the others as a member of the WPIAL.

“There's been good growth in recent years,” Greensburg Central Catholic coach Mike Evans said. “Most of the boys teams are in the immediate Pittsburgh area, but we're starting to see increased interest over this way and in other regions.”

Franklin Regional and Latrobe round out the list of local boys teams.

Lacrosse is believed to be the oldest sport in North American, originating with American Indian tribes. It's roots can be traced to as far away as Canada. Yet it's been slow to catch on in Western Pennsylvania, although Pittsburgh once possessed a professional men's team known as the Bulls.

A handful of colleges in the region sponsor varsity lacrosse as an NCAA sport, including Seton Hill, whose men's team was ranked No. 6 in the latest United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association Division II poll.

“It is known as the fastest-growing sport on feet and now is the fastest-growing sport in the U.S.,” Harbert said. “It used to be an East Coast thing, but it's spread across the entire country now.”

Harbert recalled an iconic utterance from legendary NFL running back Jim Brown, who also was an outstanding lacrosse player at the University of Syracuse and currently a minority owner of Major League Lacrosse's New York Lizards.

“He said, ‘I'd rather play lacrosse six days a week and football on the seventh,' ” Harbert said.

Enthusiasts such as Harbert and Evans, a former All-American at Brown, are eager to see the region close a gap on other areas that have progressed to elite status.

“The talent level is pretty good here,” said Evans, a native of Long Island, N.Y. “It does not compare with Long Island, Maryland, upstate New York or even eastern Pennsylvania. To be honest, we are embedded in an area traditionally known for its football first.

“But it's indicative of the great athletes we have in Western Pennsylvania. Once those great athletes realize that lacrosse is a way to get a scholarship to college, I believe we'll see more and more interest at the high school level as we go along.”

Dave Mackall is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dmackall@tribweb.com.

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