When the Kentucky Lacrosse Association held the first state championship for high school boys in 2001, the scene was far from inspiring – a mere four teams competing on a makeshift field at Tom Sawyer Park with a smattering of fans along the sidelines.
“It was just friends and families in camp chairs,” recalled Trinity head coach Pete Schroeder.
Fast-forward to 2011.
Kentucky now boasts 24 varsity teams, nationally respected coaches, thriving middle school programs and a handful of year-round travel teams. In addition, this season the Louisville area is home to some of the country’s most talented seniors.
“It’s been pretty neat to see from whence we came to where we are now,” said St. Xavier head coach Scott Howe, who assembled the city’s first team in 1998.
“Back then, no college coach would even think about coming here to recruit players…now we have kids getting scholarships to Division-I programs.”
What’s behind the rise of lacrosse?
“The game itself,” explained Tom Windham, head coach at Kentucky Country Day. “It combines a lot of the good qualities of other sports. It’s got the running of soccer with more scoring, the offensive and defensive movement of basketball, but more space. It’s a fresh sport for a lot of these kids and it’s just a great spectator sport.”
Last season’s state championship game between St. X and Trinity drew a record crowd of more than 4,500.
While not sanctioned by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association (KHSAA), lacrosse has gained a foothold among more traditional sports. All KHSAA sports started out unsanctioned.
“The numbers are exploding,” said Howe, who had 140 players try out this year.
“Not being sanctioned gives us the freedom to play as many games as we want and travel anywhere, which is good for the growth of the game,” explained Howe.
Local teams began play earlier this month and Howe’s Tigers, three-time defending state champs, are again the team to beat in KLA Division I.
“This is the best team I’ve ever had,” said Howe. “We have 15 guys that could be on the field at any given time and our level wouldn’t drop.”
Nipping at the Tigers’ heels will be Trinity and Collegiate.
“I think we (St. X, Collegiate and Trinity) can all beat each other,” said Trinity’s Schroeder.
Schroeder, in his 10th season, has an experienced squad that will take its cues from senior Austin Fackler.
“This is his fourth year as a starter and second year as a captain, so his teammates look to him for leadership,” Schroeder said. “More than his physical skills, his smarts and intensity carry him.”
Collegiate, an athletic and senior-laden side, will be lead by senior face-off specialist Patrick Rhea, a Dartmouth signee, who was named a U.S. Lacrosse All-American last season.
Also in the mix will be a KCD team featuring one of the state’s best players in senior Ryan Scinta.
A two-sport standout, Scinta plays on both sides of the ball for the Bearcat football team. Windham thinks Scinta will impress. “He’s got it all. He’s a great shooter, has speed and is very competitive. He’s been a leader for us since his freshman year.”
While this season looms large, Schroeder and other coaches keep an eye to the future of the game.
“It’s really just a matter of time,” said Schroeder. “I think in another five years, you’re going to see teams from Kentucky that will compete with some of the best in the country. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there.”
Last season’s record: 14-7
Head coach: Scott Howe, 11th season.
Top performers: Bobby Schmitt, senior defensive player headed to Bellarmine; Reid Wesley, senior midfielder headed to Bellarmine; Chance Smith, senior attacker headed to Lynchburg.
Coach Howe’s outlook: “We return seven starters from last year’s state championship team and expect to compete for the title again in 2011. We play a difficult out of state schedule including a tournament at Culver Academy (IN) featuring top teams from Missouri, Kentucky and Indiana.”
Tidbits: Since the first KLA state tournament in 2001, the Tigers have claimed six titles and reached the state final in nine seasons out of ten (‘06).
Last season’s record: 10-9
Head coach: Chad Wabrek, fourth season.
Top performers: Patrick Rhea, senior midfielder, headed to Dartmouth; Harris Levine, senior midfielder headed to High Point; Peter Schubert, senior defensive player headed to Washington and Lee; Max Burge, senior defensive player headed to Denison; Rodes Robinson, senior attacker headed to Centre.
Coach Wabrek’s outlook: “We have an exciting schedule for 2011 – we play teams from Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina and Kentucky – and are determined to make the most of this season. We return a veteran team, so our senior leadership will play a big part in how things turn out this season.”
Tidbits: Rhea and Levine, heading to Dartmouth and High Point respectively, are Collegiate’s first ever Division-I signees.
Last season’s record: 17-5
Head coach: Pete Schroeder, 10th season.
Top performers: Austin Fackler, senior defensive player headed to Salisbury; Matt Herner, senior midfielder; Alex Karman, senior attacker headed to Ithaca.
Coach Schroeder’s outlook: “We return a veteran team and hope to contend for the state title. The kids are starting to make quality decisions with the ball and that’s what’s going to carry us when it matters the most. ”
Tidbits: The Rocks, state runners-up last year, won four titles in a row from ’04-’07. They will play teams from six different states this season.
Last season’s record: 9-6
Head coach: Tom Windham, fourth season.
Top performers: Ryan Scinta, senior midfielder; Chase Bennett, senior defensive player; Russell Leggett, senior attacker.
Coach Windham’s outlook: “We have a very strong senior class which should provide excellent leadership. We are optimistic.”
Tidbits: Senior attackman David Smith returns after taking a season off to focus on football.
St. X at Trinity, May 4, 7 p.m.
Trinity at Collegiate, April 20, 7 p.m.
Collegiate at St. X, May 12, 7 p.m.
KCD at Trinity, March 30, 7 p.m.
State Tournament at Trinity, May 16-20