Ohio Machine midfielder Jake Bernhardt moves with the ball behind the net during the Major League Lacrosse playoff semifinal event in Blaine on Aug. 13. The Machine defeated the Charlotte Hounds 16-10 to reach the league championship. Photo by Drew Herron
They came to Blaine from all corners of Minnesota, identifiable by the names and logos of local lacrosse programs ornamented across the chest of the T-shirts they wore and proudly displayed like flags.
Droves of young players of the state's fastest-growing sport flocked to the National Sports Center on Aug. 13 to catch a glimpse of professional play.
The neutral site hosted Minnesota's first Major League Lacrosse game, and a diverse crowd watched the Ohio Machine, top-seeded in this year’s playoffs, defeat the Charlotte Hounds 16-10 to reach the league championship.
Since the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) began administering the game at the varsity level 14 years ago (spring of 2003 was the first season for girls while the boys started in 2007), the number of schools fielding teams in the league has grown from a mishmash of a few dozen to nearly 160 (79 boys' squads, 78 girls'), according to the organization's website.
With an estimated 10,000 kids playing lacrosse at various levels, Minnesota is the fastest growing market in the nation, according to US Lacrosse, the sport's national governing body.
High school lacrosse is attracting more and more athletes, including those looking for alternatives to traditional sports such as baseball or softball.
“It’s a fast-paced game where you are always involved,” says Prior Lake coach Chris Fleck. “I played baseball growing up, but for some of the kids, baseball seems slow, and only one guy really gets to do something at one time. Whereas in lacrosse, the ball never stops moving.”
While the sport in the metro has taken to flight early, outstate Minnesota is starting to take interest, as well. Though striking later than the wave that hit the Twin Cities around the new millennium, it’s happening with the same kind of enthusiasm.
In the northeast, varsity co-op teams from Duluth and Hermantown/Proctor completed their first seasons in the MSHSL, and in Red Wing, there is hope of eventually adding a varsity program in the near future.
Pagel says participation and skill development have grown significantly in the two years since he helped found the community's youth program, suggested in part by the team's Youth Lacrosse Minnesota (YLM) state tournament berth this season following a winless inaugural season.
“We’re at the front end of it right now in Red Wing,” Pagel says. “But I think it’s growing as fast as it is in Minnesota because it’s a genuinely entertaining game. It offers movement, contact and a lot of action. For some of those kids who find baseball boring, it’s a great spring and summer option.”
Though data suggests youth baseball participation appears to be as healthy as ever, a growing number of the state's children are picking up lacrosse. Many find the crossover between hockey and lacrosse to be natural, though others are attracted by the pace of the action.
“It’s high intensity and fast-paced,” says 14-year-old Marcus King, who has played with the Red Wing program its inception. “Since I became aware of the sport, I’ve been really interested in it.”
Red Wing’s likely next step toward a varsity program is to field a team in the Minnesota Boys’ Scholastic Lacrosse Association, a competitive club level league which has served as a springboard for many metro schools that now have MSHSL varsity programs.
“It’s something we are hoping to have for next season,” Pagel said.
In Prior Lake, the Lakers boys’ team posted a 15-4 record in MSHSL play, and in June, captured its first state championship in the sport. It was the culmination of a steady and impressive climb for a community program that boasts more than 300 players who feed high school teams that host about another 100 players.
Prior to the game, thousands arrived early to take part in the fan zone experience outside the gates at the NSC. Lacrosse players were able to test new equipment, play games, or take part in activities centered around the sport. Photo by Drew Herron
“The big thing is to build from the ground up,” says Fleck, who remains deeply involved in the youth program and likes to know the names and faces of his players — from the seniors to the first-graders. “It’s special to be a part of this kind of growth.”
At the college level, the Upper Midwest Lacrosse Conference and Central Collegiate Lacrosse Association provide a burgeoning level of competitive play.
The non-NCAA organizations fall under the Men’s Collegiate Lacrosse Association, a federation of more than 200 varsity teams at schools where NCAA lacrosse doesn’t exist, including at several post-secondary institutions in Minnesota. The UMLC has two classifications, with the University of Minnesota competing in Division I (or the upper level) and Minnesota Duluth, Minnesota State Mankato, St. Cloud State, St. Thomas, St. John’s and Winona State fielding men’s squads in Division II.
The women’s game is growing beyond the local NCAA Division III programs at Augsburg, Hamline and the University of Northwestern (Roseville) with the launch of the program at St. Paul's Concordia University — the state's first in Division II. It’s a significant step because Division II programs offer athletic scholarships.
As more Minnesotans grow up with lacrosse, and players continue to become familiar with the sport, the hope is the landscape will continue changing.
Fans and players point to Mark Coyle's hiring as athletic director at the University of Minnesota as a possible step to bring Division I teams to Dinkytown. Coyle, who previously held the same position at lacrosse-mad Syracuse, has seen firsthand what the appetite for the sport is like on the East Coast — which is a cult following akin to college hockey in Minnesota.
“We feel like there is an opportunity here to show people that we deserve to have a DI program,” says Gophers midfielder Chandler Sampson, a four-year starter and first team all-state player as a senior at Orono High School in 2014.
Sampson began his collegiate career at Division I Massachusetts-Lowell before joining Minnesota men’s squad.
The Gophers sophomore has deep roots with the game. He began playing lacrosse in sixth grade when his father helped start Orono's youth program, and his younger brother Corbin, who just completed his junior year, is a three-year starter in goal for the Spartans.
To a new generation of Minnesotans, lacrosse is no longer a fringe sport, but rather a front-line one.
“It’s so fast, and so intense,” Sampson says. “How can you not absolutely love this sport?”
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