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Duluth-area lacrosse wins big despite losses

06/18/2016, 10:15am CDT
By Jimmy Gilligan, Sport Ngin

Four local varsity teams debuted this season in the MSHSL, proof that the sport is growing in northeast Minnesota.

The Duluth Wolfpack, which includes players from Duluth East and Denfeld high schools, was one of four northeast Minnesota lacrosse programs to debut this season in the Minnesota State High School League. The others are the Wolfpack girls' and boys' and girls' teams from Hermantown/Proctor. Photo by Andy Holak

 

The Duluth and Hermantown/Proctor boys’ lacrosse teams met three times this year, their inaugural seasons as varsity programs in the Minnesota State High School League. 

But neither the scores of those games, nor the teams’ records, were of much significance when compared to the impact these high school squads made on the sport in the northeast corner of Minnesota, because even a losing season represents in a big win and a great leap forward for the game. 

And not just for boys’ lacrosse, as this season also saw the start of varsity girls' lacrosse teams playing in the MSHSL.

While these additions fanned the flames of the sport’s popularity in Duluth, interest in lacrosse was sparked years ago.


The initial spark


Wolfpack senior co-captain and midfielder Bryce Holak is one of the players helping grow the sport by bringing more exposure to the local lacrosse scene.

The Duluth Chargers, a club lacrosse organization drawing players from cities such as Duluth, Proctor and Hermantown, has assembled teams at various levels for nearly two decades. Last season, the Chargers boys’ team won the Minnesota Boys Scholastic Lacrosse Association state title, another vital step in helping solidifying the sport as a viable high school activity along with football, hockey and baseball.

Wolfpack senior captain Bryce Holak has played on Chargers youth teams since the seventh grade, and the Duluth native can attest to lacrosse’s local growth. The midfielder is one of the area players responsible for helping grow the sport by bringing more exposure to the local lacrosse scene.

“Duluth has really picked up lacrosse as a legit sport now, so it’s fun to be a part of,” Holak said. “It’s insane actually, our seventh-grade year, we were at the bottom of the food chain playing club lacrosse, losing a lot of games. Now our youth programs are actually pretty good.”

In their first year at the varsity level, both the Wolfpack, which includes students from Duluth East and Denfeld high schools, and the Stealth, a co-op of Proctor and Hermantown high schools, inevitably struggled to adjust to playing larger schools and tougher opponents, many which have had lacrosse programs for several years.

Starting anew is a tall task, especially when programs are filling rosters with players who have little or no lacrosse experience.

The Chargers varsity team was split down the middle to make the new high school teams, and as a result, many of the players competing for the Wolfpack and Stealth have played lacrosse for two years or less.


Wolfpack coach Scott Wishart (center) is hoping to build his program by attracting multi-sport athletes who will bring the same level of commitment they have to their other activities. Photo by William Garnett 

“We’re bringing kids that have been playing lacrosse for six weeks against kids that have been playing lacrosse for six years,” Wolfpack coach Scott Wishart said. “It’s a mental thing, it’s field awareness, sense situations. That’s the biggest difference, not the athleticism.”

The new teams also have relatively small rosters, and Wishart said a big part of developing the program will be attracting multi-sport athletes who come with the same level of commitment they have to their other activities - something that would not have happened without the programs attaining varsity status. 

“Lacrosse up here for many years would have been that sport that not necessarily all your typical athletes would play,” Wishart said. “People who maybe didn’t make the baseball team would play, so we have to kind of alter that mindset that this is a varsity sport, and we need varsity athletes to come out and play and take it seriously and work on it in the offseason.”

Co-captains Holak and Jack Norlen are the only members of the Wolfpack who have varsity club experience, and to help establish a solid foundation, Holak said the team was focused on teaching the basics and establishing reasonable goals.

“We’re new, but we have a lot of great athletes,” Holak said. “We’ve made some major improvements, some of our goals were just improving game by game and playing more as a team and getting our IQ up for the younger guys. In the years to come, our athleticism up here will definitely feed into the lacrosse community.”


“We’re new, but we have a lot of great athletes. We’ve made some major improvements, some of our goals were just improving game by game and playing more as a team and getting our IQ up for the younger guys. In the years to come, our athleticism up here will definitely feed into the lacrosse community.”

-- Bryce Holak, Wolfpack senior co-captain


Holak decided to play at Massachusetts-Lowell, becoming the first Wolfpack product to commit to a Division I program.

While the skill level of area players is not strong enough to attract the eyes of Division I coaches, it soon could if younger players model themselves after Holak, who finished the season with a team-leading 31 goals in 11 regular-season games.

“Bryce has been that athlete that has been pushing himself and working hard to get to this point, doing everything necessary to get to that level, which is involvement in star traveling teams, going out east and playing in tournaments,” Wishart said. “He’s kind of shown that it’s possible to play with these kids (from the East Coast), it’s definitely a lot of opportunity for other kids to kind of see that path he took and understand what he put into it to get to that level.”

Wishart, a Twin Cities native who stuck around the area after attending the University of Minnesota-Duluth, said he wants to increase interest in the game, and finding a way to introduce it to younger kids in the tight-knit communities around Duluth will be key. 

“Whether it’s the (current players’) siblings or their siblings’ friends or family members, whatever it may be, you just want that fire to continue to spread,” Wishart said.

It happened in the Holak household, as James, Bryce's younger brother, was also a member of Wolfpack this season and one of three freshmen on the roster.

In the end, Holak hopes his path inspires more than just his family or friends to try their hands at lacrosse. 

“I guess the chance is always there, and when someone does it like that, it opens up the doors for more new kids that might want to pick it up and take it to the next level," he said. "So, I certainly hope I’m a role model for kids to try to take it to the next level.”


“We didn’t do too horrible this year. We had a handful of wins, the girls worked really hard, and other than our stick skills being a little bit behind, I don’t think we got really annihilated by anybody. We can hold our own for a new program.”

--Sarah Cheeney, Wolfpack girls' head coach


Starting with a blank slate


Wolfpack girls' coach Sarah Cheeney said establishing opportunities to introduce lacrosse to girls at younger ages is key to building a successful program.

While the Wolfpack and Stealth boys’ teams anchored their rosters with relatively experienced players from the Duluth Chargers, the new girls’ programs were a tough position, as their squads consisted of athletes entirely new to the sport.

Duluth coach Sara Cheeney said all 47 girls on the junior varsity and varsity teams this season had very little, if any, lacrosse experience. 

Cheeney compared it to some of the Chargers youth teams she has coached over the years.

“You kind of just treat it like you would any starting youth team,” she said. “So our captains did really well holding captain’s practices, kind of getting the girls familiar with what’s going on, and when we started our season, we have been drilling the basics and the fundamentals.”

Even with an inexperienced squad, Cheeney’s Wolfpack ended the regular season with the second-best record (4-9) of the four new teams. The Stealth girls' team went 0-9 in the regular season.

The Hermantown boys’ finished with the top winning percentage, going 5-6 in the regular season with two victories over the Wolfpack, who finished 3-10. Duluth turned the tables in the section playoffs, with an 11-3 victory in the play-in game.

“We didn’t do too horrible this year,” Cheeney said. “We had a handful of wins, the girls worked really hard, and other than our stick skills being a little bit behind, I don’t think we got really annihilated by anybody. We can hold our own for a new program.”

The girls’ programs also seek to get athletes playing lacrosse years before they reach high school. But unlike the boys’ programs, the first step for Cheeney is to establish youth programs to work with. 

“We don’t have anything for basically any girls younger than seventh grade,” Cheeney said. “So, I have heard a lot of interest in getting youth programs this year after having a lot of high school teams, that’s something that is definitely in the near future.”

As the end of their inaugural seasons neared, the Wolfpack and Stealth weren’t worried about making it to the state tournaments or what their final records would be. These first-year teams, instead, focused on building a good foundation for strengthening their programs going forward.

And this means growing the sport of lacrosse in the Duluth area.

After the first foray into bringing the game into the mainstream, things are looking good.

“So far, it really seems to be spreading the word and getting more interest in girls’ lacrosse,” Cheeney said of the exposure garnered by their varsity status.

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