Lacrosse takes off

North­west Arkansas club team tran­si­tion­ing to high school.

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - MIKE CAP­SHAW

BEN­TONVILLE — The fastest-grow­ing sport in the United States is pick­ing up steam in North­west Arkansas, but lacrosse is likely sev­eral years away from be­com­ing a sanc­tioned sport at the high school level.

“It’s re­ally grow­ing in Cen­tral Arkansas and North­west Arkansas. There’s in­ter­est, but just not quite enough,” said Arkansas Ac­tiv­i­ties As­so­ci­a­tion ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Lance Tay­lor. “There’s go­ing to have to be prob­a­bly 40 schools with lacrosse pro­grams to get it done be­cause that’s how many we needed with wrestling, which I be­lieve is the last sport we’ve added.”

The NWA Lacrosse Club in Ben­tonville has been the cat­a­lyst of lo­cal growth over the past decade. This spring, the club’s boys pro­gram had enough par­tic­i­pants to field three high school-aged teams — two var­sity squads and a ju­nior var­sity unit — and has teams that start as young as kinder­garten age.

The club is in the plan­ning stages of tran­si­tion­ing to play un­der the Ben­tonville Pub­lic Schools um­brella,

with enough play­ers from Ben­tonville High and Ben­tonville West com­bined to field both boys and girls teams. It will com­pete against other club teams in the Heart­land League, which is made up of teams from Ok­la­homa, Mis­souri and the Lit­tle Rock/ Con­way area.

“The stated goal is, by 2019, to have enough play­ers to field sep­a­rate teams with a Ben­tonville Tigers team and a Ben­tonville West Wolver­ines teams,” said BPS boys coach Dave McDaniel, who coached the past three sea­sons with NWA Lacrosse. “It’s am­bi­tious to have that done by 2019, so we’re be­ing cau­tiously op­ti­mistic with the growth.”

More than 50 high school boys from across the re­gion par­tic­i­pated in the NWA club this past sea­son, but the BPS club will fea­ture only play­ers who at­tend Ben­tonville schools. Still, McDaniel be­lieves there could be as many as 50 play­ers by Jan­uary, while be­tween 20 and 25 will still play with the NWA club.

“Ben­tonville schools has been phe­nom­e­nal in its sup­port,” McDaniel said. “And that’s be­cause we’re help­ing kids get schol­ar­ships. We had three play­ers get schol­ar­ship of­fers this past sea­son. We have 16 se­niors com­ing back, and I could see half of them get at least some schol­ar­ship money to play col­lege lacrosse.”

Par­tic­i­pa­tion in the NWA club’s girls pro­gram has dou­bled in the last four years, with more than 30 girls from fifth grade to high school par­tic­i­pat­ing this past sea­son. Gravette’s Sam Roth be­came the first fe­male player from Arkansas to re­ceive a col­lege schol­ar­ship for lacrosse when the 5-foot-4 mid­fielder signed in the spring to play with Rock­hurst Univer­sity in Kansas City, Mo.

“It’s a fun sport,” said Emily Gen­try, who coaches the Black Di­a­monds and has been with the NWA Lacrosse Club for four years. “It kind of com­bines the run­ning and ath­leti­cism of soc­cer, the play move­ment of basketball and some of the el­e­ments of hockey.”

The Black Di­a­monds, which has 20 high school girls, went 8-3 in league play and won the first Heart­land League Girls Cham­pi­onship by de­feat­ing a team from the Ok­la­homa City/Ed­mond, Okla. area in the fi­nals.

Spring­dale’s Don Tyson School of In­no­va­tion was the first to add a high school-af­fil­i­ated team dur­ing a ded­i­ca­tion cer­e­mony for the new school in Fe­bru­ary. The pro­gram was the main fea­ture in the May/June is­sue of US Lacrosse Mag­a­zine af­ter re­ceiv­ing a grant to be­gin the first high school lacrosse pro­gram in North­west Arkansas last year. The “First Stick” grant pro­vided enough money for 40 play­ers, so War­ren Ut­sler sent out an an­nounce­ment seek­ing play­ers from the school.

“And we had 70 that said they were in­ter­ested,” Ut­sler said. “We took the first 40, and we ended up be­ing able to take 45 with 23 boys and 22 girls with the help of an­other grant from Sam’s Club.”

Lacrosse costs about $125 for girls and $450 for boys, Ut­sler es­ti­mated. The cost for boys is higher be­cause boys play­ers re­quire more equip­ment and pads than the girls be­cause of the more phys­i­cal style of the boys’ game.

Be­cause the Tyson School of In­no­va­tion didn’t have any ath­letic teams, stu­dents have to leave the school to par­tic­i­pate in sports at other schools in the Spring­dale dis­trict, Ut­sler said.

He pre­vi­ously helped start a soc­cer pro­gram at Tru­man High in In­de­pen­dence, Mo., so he had an idea about what it would take to get the ball rolling.

“We wanted to start some­thing of our own, so we were look­ing into what would be good for a school of our size,” Ut­sler said. “One of our stu­dents [ Caden Car­reno] played for the NWA club and his dad [Vic Car­reno] played for the Univer­sity of Arkansas’ lacrosse club and wanted to help coach, so lacrosse was a nat­u­ral fit.”

With only a hand­ful of the 45 play­ers hav­ing lacrosse ex­pe­ri­ence, the Tyson School of In­no­va­tion didn’t play com­pet­i­tively this year. In­stead, coaches fo­cused on teach­ing fun­da­men­tals and skill de­vel­op­ment while mix­ing in a few scrim­mages against other teams from the area. The school will play games this fall to pre­pare for the Heart­land League’s spring sea­son.

In the US Lacrosse Mag­a­zine ar­ti­cle, Ut­sler challenged other North­west Arkansas schools to launch lacrosse pro­grams, and he’s been pleased with the early re­sponse to that chal­lenge.

“So far, Ben­tonville is do­ing it and some of the other schools are dis­cussing it,” Ut­sler said. “Rogers High is dis­cussing it and so are some pri­vate schools with one prin­ci­pal call­ing and talk­ing about get­ting it set up, so it’s been a re­ally good start.”

With the NWA Club and the Ben­tonville Pub­lic Schools club join­ing the Spring­dale school, the area has three club teams. McDaniel said adding even more teams could re­sult in a league made up en­tirely of North­west Arkansas teams, which would ease travel ex­penses.

“That would be ideal,” McDaniel said. “Right now, the far­thest we go is to play is the Lit­tle Rock/Con­way area and the Ok­la­homa City area, so it’s ex­cit­ing to see the growth and, hope­fully, we’ll keep get­ting more and more clubs here in North­west Arkansas and be able to do that.”

Cour­tesy photo

Lu­cile Latham (fore­ground) of Ben­tonville pre­pares for a face-off dur­ing a lacrosse game against Jenks, Okla., last sea­son.

Cour­tesy photo

Mem­bers of the NWA Black Di­a­monds vie for the ball against play­ers from Jenks, Okla., dur­ing a game last sea­son.

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