By Cheryl Crabtree
Whoosh! Smack! It’s a sunny spring day, and dozens of girls and boys are running as fast as they can across a grass field at Elings Park. Each carries a stick with a net on the end, which they use to toss small rubber balls to teammates and into small goals at each end. The pace is frenetic, as this is the sport of lacrosse—widely regarded as “the fastest game on two feet.”
Lacrosse is North America’s oldest sport. According to U.S. Lacrosse, the national governing body of the sport, many Native American tribes often played it to “resolve conflicts, heal the sick, and develop strong, virile men.” The modern name derives from the 1600s, when French explorers encountered a Huron contest (crosse means “stick” in French). A Canadian dentist created game standards for modern lacrosse in 1867. The first college and high school teams were formed in the 1870s and 1880s back East, and lacrosse programs for all ages took root in many U.S. regions over the ensuing decades.
In California, however, only a handful of schools, mostly private, had lacrosse programs before 1998. Locally, two boarding schools—Cate in Carpinteria and Thacher in Ojai—were early adopters of the sport; both started fielding teams in the mid-1960s. In fact, today, a bronze plaque at the Thacher School field commemorates the first interscholastic lacrosse game ever played in California.
Since then, lacrosse has become the fastest-growing team sport in the state and the United States, with national membership in U.S. Lacrosse increasing from 44,000 to 401,000 in the last 15 years. According to LaxPower.com, the number of high school programs in California has grown from 44 in 1999 to 244 in 2013 for boys, and from 12 in 2000 to 189 in 2013 for girls.
Why the sudden interest in a sport that’s likely been on the continent for at least a millennia? Dr. Scott Palmer, a local veterinarian and avid lacrosse supporter, says today’s young athletes are attracted to lacrosse for a number of reasons. “Lacrosse is unusual and exceptional because of the pace, the intelligence required, the conditioning and the skill set. Everyone is involved at practice, there’s very little standing around. Heart, smarts, desire and conditioning…seem more important than size. A common expression in lacrosse is there is no ‘me’ in the game.”
Santa Barbara youth had virtually no access to lacrosse opportunities until recently. Ray Robitaille, a lacrosse player from back east, came to Santa Barbara in 1980 to teach and coach at Laguna Blanca School. He started Laguna’s first lacrosse team in 1984. Later, he ran a tiny youth club team that lasted only a few years.
When Dr. Rick Lehman arrived in Santa Barbara in June 2009 to work as a pediatric critical care physician at Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital, there were no youth lacrosse programs here at all. He and his wife and four children had come from Charlottesville, Virginia—home of University of Virginia and one of the nation’s top collegiate lacrosse teams. Lehman had coached lacrosse in Charlottesville, and his kids, who thoroughly enjoyed playing the game, were devastated about the lack of lacrosse opportunities in Santa Barbara. “I told my kids I would change that,” says Lehman.
Lehman contacted Robitaille and eventually connected with Jeff Sears, who had played on the Oberlin College lacrosse team. In 2010, Sears filed the paperwork and founded the Santa Barbara Lacrosse Association, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation that aimed to promote lacrosse throughout the community. Lehman became the association’s first president.
“The organization seeks to promote the game and its great heritage, providing opportunities to play, coach, officiate or watch, all in an atmosphere of inclusivity, integrity and sportsmanship,” says Sears. “This spirit is embodied in all SBLA programs, from P.E. lessons to instructional clinics and camps, competitive leagues and tournaments.”
That year, SBLA began building the program from the ground up, heading to elementary and middle schools to introduce lacrosse to P.E. classes, and incrementally adding leagues, clinics and travel teams. Nearly four years later, SBLA’s efforts have paid off. More than 3,000 students have learned basic lacrosse skills, and many are now inspired to pick up sticks and practice more. Sears notes “SBLA’s programs have grown tremendously since spring 2010.” He states that in 2013, about 200 players participated in the association’s spring league and high school girl’s club team, while 250 joined clinics and camps and 75 traveled to out-of-town tournaments with SB Elite all-star teams.
As SBLA continues to extend its outreach to P.E. classes, exponentially more young people are expected to discover a passion for the sport and join SBLA programs. An example is Peyton Rodriguez, age 10, who says he loves lacrosse “because it’s fun, fast and I’ve made a lot of new friends.” Justin Lehman, age 13, adds that he likes “the contact and the fast-moving pace.” Daniel Dewan, age 15, began playing several years ago and was quickly hooked by the sport’s combination of athleticism, teamwork, skills, power and intelligence. “Lacrosse has everything you could ask for in a sport.”
Secondary-level athletic departments are preparing to meet the approaching tsunami of avid lacrosse players by launching their own programs. All three public high schools—Santa Barbara, San Marcos and Dos Pueblos—now have official boys’ and girls’ club teams. Wheels are in motion at each school to achieve official CIF status for lacrosse within the next few years.
Freshman Will Beightol looks forward to playing lacrosse on the Santa Barbara High School team after his football and basketball seasons end. “The physicality is great, it builds people’s characters and is just fun to play.”
Lacrosse opportunities in Santa Barbara are available year-round, but the main play takes place in spring and summer. Although SBLA charges registration fees for programs, “we don’t turn anyone away,” says Paul Ramsey, UCSB women’s lacrosse coach and SBLA board member. “If a family can’t afford the fees, we provide waivers.” The association also provides equipment free of charge for those who are unable to rent or purchase.
“Santa Barbara is now on the lacrosse map,” says Lehman. “I am extremely proud of our tremendous growth in three years.”
Think that girls’ lacrosse is too aggressive and dangerous? It’s actually very different from the boys’ version of the sport. Local coach Jeannette Villapiano says, “Surprisingly, the only similarity between the two games is the goal!” She explains that girls’ lacrosse is a finesse game that involves great teamwork among a group of versatile athletes. “Girls’ lacrosse is actually a non-contact sport, meaning the only contact that is allowed during play is ‘checking’ (stick-to-stick contact). Girls are required to wear goggles to protect their faces, and mouth guards.”
Alex Reyner, a senior at Santa Barbara High School, encourages all girls to give the sport a try. “I love it, and it’s not really well known on the West Coast which makes it unique. I hope more people get to experience it.”
For more information, visit sblacrosse.org and uslacrosse.org.
Originally published in the Winter 2013/14 issue of Santa Barbara SEASONS Magazine.