Room to Grow

When Adam Drooks ’07 started playing club lacrosse in 2003 as an eighth grader, he did not know any other classmates who played. He joined the team based on the recommendations of a couple of out-of-school friends and a family tradition to watch the televised lacrosse final four games on Memorial Day every year.

The school lacrosse program has only existed for four years, since a group of then-juniors spearheaded an effort to create it in 2004. This year, Head Coach Mark Haddad said, about 75 people tried out for the program — a growth of more than 20 percent from last year. The program includes varsity and junior varsity boys’ teams.

This increase in popularity of the sport is in line with a general westward expansion of the sport. Lacrosse has traditionally been a solely East-coast sport, with Johns Hopkins University as the usual college powerhouse and Duke University’s lacrosse team as the most infamous sports team in the country. On laxpower.com’s national high school ranking list for 2007, the top 23 teams are all from the East Coast. Harvard-Westlake is ranked at 888. According to westsidelax.com, a website that tracks national lacrosse news with a focus on the West Coast, only three states west of the Mississippi River now sanction lacrosse as a boys’ varsity sport: California, Colorado and Minnesota. CIF sanctioned the sport in 2000.

“Five years ago the state of California was not on the lacrosse radar,” Haddad said. “Now California has the fourth largest number of high schools playing lacrosse in the U.S. It’s only a matter of time before California has the most.”

David M. Carter, a member of the USC Sports Business Institute and The Sports Business Group, cited this expansion as the beginning of a larger rise in popularity of lacrosse.

“This national footprint will help the sport continue to grow, attract athletes and, eventually, more revenue,” and he said. Because lacrosse is currently in a “rapid growth phase,” the business has not yet become very profitable, Carter said. Youth participation on lacrosse teams — with youths defined as those 15 and under — has grown from 40,000 to more than 125,000 since 1999, and there are now approximately 169,000 high school players in the country. Lacrosse is the fastest-growing sport at both the high school and NCAA levels, according to uslacrosse.org.

“Provided the sport is well-run and managed,” he said, “it can be quite a success in this country, and that will bring with it meaningful sponsorship and TV money, which will lead to this profitability.”

Drooks joined the school team in the year of its inception and found himself to be one of three freshmen on the team who had experience with the sport. Now, however, “the senior class is big on lacrosse,” he said.

Drooks said he has heard many coaches say that lacrosse is a relatively easy sport to pick up, and his personal experience has agreed.

 “I think if you’ve played any sports, you can pick it up quickly — if you have decent hand-eye coordination,” he said. For this reason, many people who play lacrosse in high school start with other sports.

“Other athletes are now looking to keep in shape out side of their chosen sport,” Haddad said, “and lacrosse gives them a complete workout on agility, skills, speed, strength, toughness, teamwork and communication.”

Many see lacrosse as a composite of soccer, ice hockey and football — a sport that can offer something to nearly any athlete.

“The one main thing you need more that anything else to become a great lacrosse player is courage,” Haddad said. “Because of this, there are many high school athletes out there looking to play lacrosse with interest because it gives them a challenge and a new skill learn and is not one-dimensional like basket ball or football. Every lacrosse player needs to know how to attack and defend.”

Because if its relative newness, Haddad said, there are members of the team who have only been playing for one season as well as those who have played for several.

“Across the U.S. in every high school that plays lacrosse, this will be the case,” he said. “Obviously the schools back East who have had programs for a long time would have less students picking up the stick for the first time at high school level. Because [lacrosse] is new in L.A., you will find that some athletes will make varsity level quicker than [in other sports].”

Haddad is quick to clarify that this does not mean lacrosse is by any means an easy sport to play.

“Lacrosse is a very physically demanding and skillful sport,” he said. “We have a few athletes who play other sports at H-W on our teams, and they say that our conditioning is harder than theirs.”

Last Tuesday, Harvard-Westlake played Windward in a home game that started at 4 p.m. The bleachers facing Ted Slavin field were populated by a group of dedicated parents — several sporting Harvard-Westlake hats — and a couple dedicated friends and girlfriends.

The scene was not quite like that of any home basketball game, where tradition holds that a large portion of the upper school student body attends nearly every home game and yells until their collective throats are beyond sore and their voices gone.

Drooks said he does not necessarily see lacrosse becoming the next big fan sport at the Upper School, but there is a possibility.

“Maybe in five years,” he said. “Everything takes time.”

The same possibility holds true on a nationwide scale.

“I believe the sport will continue to grow impressively over the next several years but will never come close to the established major leagues that have enjoyed a high profile for decades,” Carter said. “Lacrosse is squarely positioned to become a compelling, national sport but not one that will rival MLB or the NFL.”

The athletic department does seem to see a future for the lacrosse program, as they invested heavily in it this year, spending $38,000 on new lacrosse nets for Ted Slavin Field and bringing in Haddad as the new head coach. Before coming to Harvard-Westlake, Haddad played for the Australian national team.

Haddad has high hopes for the future: “HW is well on its way to being a powerhouse in L.A. for lacrosse,” he said. “This will take a few years to establish.”

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