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Waiting for his chance to be a part of the game, Aaron Propson paid close attention to the whereabouts of the ball during the Eagan High School playoff opener Wednesday. With his stick in the air and his helmet fastened to his chin, he patrolled the endlines for anything heading his direction.

Opportunities for action were limited, but he didn't care. Propson was one of four seventh- and eighth-graders in the Eagan youth lacrosse program eagerly offering services to be a ball shagger.

"I want to be out there one day," the 12-year-old said, looking onto the field of varsity athletes.

Propson's passion for lacrosse mirrors a growing trend in communities throughout Minnesota. Fueled by elementary school and junior high youngsters choosing it over pastimes such as baseball and softball, the sport -- still somewhat unfamiliar to the masses -- is one of the fastest-growing in America.

Minnesota is among the states leading the way. A 2011 study conducted by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association said participation nationally increased 218 percent in the past decade. Minnesota membership growth in U.S. Lacrosse, the sport's national governing body, ranks ninth.

At the state's high school level over the past 10 years, boys' and girls' varsity participation jumped from 61 to 154 teams, according to the Lax Hub.

"We're way up there," said Jenni Lorsung, president of Youth Lacrosse of Minnesota. "Our lowest growth year was 13 percent. And there have been years we've had 25 percent growth in the boys' level."

Grass-roots growth

Preparing himself for a first-round playoff rout, Simley boys' coach Garnet Asmundson explained why his Inver Grove Heights program, which relies on players groomed while in high school, is still "light years" behind the likes of neighboring schools in Eagan, Apple Valley and Rosemount.

"The program is still in its infancy stages," Asmundson said. "You've got to build from the youth up, and we're doing it in the opposite way, and that's tough."

While the sport's popularity has boosted high school team numbers, newcomers are struggling to keep up with the more experienced and rooted programs, such as Blake. The void isn't that large, though, argues Blake interim boys' coach Chris Garland.

As more knowledgeable coaches and referees surround the game, players are learning at an accelerated pace. Garland said the foundations of the sport -- running, passing, catching -- aren't much different than other sports, and kids are enticed by the fast pace.

"It's an easy game to learn," said Garland, who played NCAA Division III lacrosse at Hampden-Sydney College (Va.). "The concepts are so easy, so once you apply them from other sports, it's just a great sport to play."

Growth in Minnesota has been nurtured over the past eight years by Homegrown Lacrosse, a local nonprofit organization that formed in 2004 to raise awareness and help develop programs with "grass-roots'' training. This sort of guidance has matured the metro area into a regular producer of college talent.

"With more and more associations getting stronger and developing, [participation] numbers are continuing to rise," said Colin Achenbach, co-founder of Homegrown Lacrosse. "And the high schools are a testament to that the skill level of lacrosse in the metro area is increasing. The competition and parity is stronger across the state."

The Minnesota State High School League has acknowledged this improvement by continually sanctioning more teams. Its website lists 57 boys' teams and 63 girls' teams. The MSHSL first sanctioned a lacrosse state tournament in 2007. Next year the league will add four new sections and expand the state tournament to eight teams.

Where are they coming from?

Which stick to pick was an overwhelming decision for Eagan senior Mack Nelson. He approached high school with backgrounds in baseball and lacrosse, both spring sports.

"For me, lacrosse is more exciting of a game," Nelson said about his choice. "It's more fun. ... It's more up-tempo."

Baseball has apparently suffered the most, as youth are beginning to pick lacrosse over baseball for spring and summer activities. The Eagan Athletic Association has seen a decline of its youth baseball numbers with the new rival sport in the mix.

High school baseball coaches are starting to address concerns about losing depth and quality players. For example, baseball has typically attracted hockey players who now might see lacrosse functioning as a better cross-training fit. There's also lacrosse's appeal as more fun or social, another issue baseball programs have begun to address.

"Our numbers have not been hampered enough by lacrosse so far, but I am seeing a trend and a correlation that I don't like, and it makes me nervous," Elk River baseball coach Ryan Holmgren said.

At Shattuck-St. Mary's, baseball coach Michael Carpentier said numbers have been down the past five years as a direct effect of lacrosse. 

"Lacrosse is fun, physical, and takes athleticism to compete," he said. "But it certainly is taking many talented athletes off of the baseball diamond."

The universal athletic concepts of lacrosse have attracted kids from all sports. Blake sophomore standout Lydia Sutton has put varsity soccer on the back burner of her athletic focus. Eagan's Calvin Lamb did the same to football.

Propson and his three friends all picked lacrosse over baseball. It was an easy decision for them.

"There is a lot more action," 13-year-old Joey Hofmann said about his new favorite sport. "I was [a baseball player] until I played lacrosse. I didn't like standing around."

Jason Gonzalez • 612-673-4494 On Twitter: @JGonStrib

 

 

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