Lacrosse takes off
Northwest Arkansas club team transitioning to high school.
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.”
Lucile Latham (foreground) of Bentonville prepares for a face-off during a lacrosse game against Jenks, Okla., last season.
Members of the NWA Black Diamonds vie for the ball against players from Jenks, Okla., during a game last season.