Youth leagues, coaching spark lacrosse's growth in Western Pa.
In the world of high school athletics, it's no secret that football and basketball are at the top of the pecking order.
But no sport is growing more rapidly in the U.S. than boys lacrosse.
What used to be a niche sport for select guys has become one of the more popular and competitive sports across the country, even in Western Pennsylvania.
“We see more teams popping up every year,” Hempfield coach John Foris said. “Especially within the last four or five years, it's been more prevalent. I think it's good. Having PIAA sanction has really exposed the sport and given us more opportunity.”
In the last five years, 13 new teams have been created, up from 32 in 2010 to 45 in 2014, though some have yet to join the WPIAL and still have “club” status.
There are many contributing factors to the growth of lacrosse, including its accessibility for multi-sport athletes, but the biggest key according to area coaches has been the development of youth leagues in the region.
“Upper St. Clair was one of the first communities in Pittsburgh to begin playing lacrosse,” said Brian Yates, head coach at Upper St. Clair, the No. 3 ranked team in the WPIAL according to laxpower.com. “What we see within the community, both in the high school and youth level, we've got a lot of passionate and committed families to the game of lacrosse. You see many of the best athletes in the community playing lacrosse.”
Although not every kid who participates in the youth leagues continues to play at the high school level, it has caused a large influx of talent in recent years, allowing programs to get off the ground quickly.
“When they come up to high school, I can work on the finer points of the game with them,” Latrobe coach David Leksell said, “instead of just concentrating on teaching them to catch and throw.”
Sewickley Academy coach Tim Hastings has coached in several stints over the past 25 years in Western Pennsylvania and has witnessed the dramatic growth.
“The numbers are incredible in youth programs,” Hastings said. “We're one of the smallest, and we have two under-11 teams.”
Parity within the WPIAL has increased along with the talent. Twelve of the 15 teams in Division I have made playoff appearances in the last five years, as well as 15 of the 19 in Division II.
This season, Moon (14-0, 5-0) and Mars (10-5, 5-1) will be making their first playoff appearances in the programs' fourth and third years, respectively; the playoffs will begin with opening-round games Wednesday and Thursday.
The WPIAL also has been infused with a new generation of coaches of late, many of whom are Western Pennsylvania products themselves. Pine-Richland coach Robbie Marasti, Seton-La Salle coach Sam Foreman and Hampton coach Peter Tumbas were all members of Mt. Lebanon's 2006 championship team.
Also, Gordon Lloyd, Mike Sciully and Kyle Christie, all Upper St. Clair alumni, have returned to the Panthers' staff.
“Having young coaches in the area that have played the game at a high level within the past 10 years has really helped increase the level of play,” Foreman said. “When I was at Mt. Lebanon, I was being coached by guys who played at the collegiate level.”
Hastings added: “Lacrosse in the area is getting better because you have those kids that played in the WPIAL coming back to coach.”
Since boys lacrosse was sanctioned by the PIAA in 2009, no WPIAL team has advanced to the state final. North Allegheny advanced the furthest last season, losing in the semifinals, 14-1 to the eventual champion La Salle.
But as players from the region have gone on to play in college, they have brought back an outside perspective and instilled a desire into the current generation of players to broaden that perspective even more. Youth leagues have given rise to club programs, allowing players to compete year-round.
“A lot of these kids have started to play summer lacrosse outside of the area, as well,” Marasti said. “There are a lot of good club programs, and I think these kids are seeing some better competition outside of Pittsburgh, and then being able to bring that back to their high school programs, has made a big difference.”
While the popularity in the area can't be compared to that of Maryland, Virginia or even Eastern Pennsylvania, the rapid growth has people taking notice.
“In terms of the atmosphere and environment, it's getting there,” said Shady Side Academy coach Michael Williams, an Annapolis, Md., native and member of the Syracuse University 2009 national championship team. “Slowly but surely, people are starting to recognize lacrosse more and more.”
Gary Horvath is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at email@example.com.