Hamline coach Karen Heggernes and her Pipers preparing to take on rival Augsburg in spring 2016. Hamline and Augsburg are two of the four Minnesota colleges and universities offering NCAA women's lacrosse. Photo by Cole Mayer
When a new sport or activity enters the fold in high school athletics, the biggest challenge is not drumming up new interest. Rather, the true test facing so many new sports on the landscape is maintaining consistent growth in the wake of initial frenzy.
Girls’ lacrosse in Minnesota has been the wellspring of growth in the last decade, with numbers rocketing from 15 schools and 636 participants in 2004-2005 to 98 schools and 3,598 participants as of 2014-2015, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
That’s a growth rate of nearly 465 percent, with numbers still climbing with the additions of outstate programs such as Grand Rapids/Greenway and Rocori in 2017.
Part of the growth of the sport came on the heels of girls’ lacrosse being sanctioned by the Minnesota State High School League for the 2002-2003 season and athletes looking for a different sport besides the traditional spring season strongholds of softball and track and field.
Girls’ lacrosse in particular is a popular topic of discussion due to its demographics and upward trajectory, with around 40 varsity teams being added to the MSHSL ranks in the last decade.
“[United States] lacrosse has been really happy with our growth,” said Joni Canney, fifth-year president of the Minnesota Schoolgirls Lacrosse Association (MSLax), which is the governing body for girls’ lacrosse from third through 12th grade across the state. “Our growth sends kids to them because we require our kids to be U.S. Lacrosse members.”
Canney’s daughter, Maddy, was a five-year standout at Lakeville South, graduating in 2015 as one of the program’s most highly decorated players and giving Joni a front row seat for the expansion process of the sport.
With such a large role in the grassroots levels of the game, Canney and MSLax are arguably the best indicators of growth trends on the girls’ side of the game.
MSLax fielded its highest number of teams ever this past spring season, featuring 76 squads at the 10U, 12U and 14U levels.
Playing a role possibly overlooked by much of the rest of the state has been the colleges and universities in the metro area adding women’s lacrosse as a varsity sport, which in turn encourages athletes to put down roots through coaching, according to Canney.
“Just this year we got teams in Duluth and Grand Rapids,” Canney said of MSLax’s expansion. “We’re finally getting girls who’ve graduated from college, and they’re coming back to coach, so we do have a lot of young coaches [especially in the summer].”
Canney added that NCAA Division III programs such as Hamline and Augsburg in the Midwest Women’s Lacrosse Conference (MWLC) are key in offering Minnesota high school players a chance to continue with the game after their prep careers have ended.
Augsburg head coach Kathryn Knippenberg got in on the ground floor of girls’ lacrosse in Minnesota, joining the Hopkins girls’ varsity squad as a player in 2002.
“It’s crazy that I’ve gotten to watch [the sport] grow into what it is today, and it’s unbelievable that there’s now over 70 teams in the state that are varsity sanctioned,” Knippenberg said.
Knippenberg went on to be team captain and president of the women’s club lacrosse team at the University of Minnesota, and was the co-head coach of the girls’ team at Holy Angels from 2009 to 2012 before being named the first women’s lacrosse coach in Augsburg history.
“We’ve been the guinea pig for a lot of other institutions,” Knippenberg said of Augsburg’s initial seasons. “People have looked to us to see how [we] did it, like what the budget was, what the travel is, and all of the little things that you don’t think about that go into creating a team.”
St. Paul harbors the other Division III women’s programs in the state at University of Northwestern and Hamline University.
Hamline's Karen Heggernes was named the program’s inaugural head coach in 2015 after a stint as an assistant at Olivet College in Michigan.
Heggernes said that keeping talented players in Minnesota does not require an entirely new development strategy.
“It’s the same formula that we’ve been [executing] for many years,” Heggernes said. “We know that Minnesota athletes are hard workers, and they have a really good multi-sport background.”
Like Knippenberg, Heggernes was a team captain of the Gopher women’s club team, and both coaches believe that having local programs entices players to put down coaching roots.
“It’s definitely something I push my players to do,” Knippenberg said. “They can’t necessarily coach at the high school level when they’re in-season, but I encourage them to get involved once we’re done, and then also a lot of them coach in youth programs in the summertime.”
Heggernes, who led the Pipers to a MWLC playoff title and an NCAA tournament appearance last season, added that keeping homegrown talent can only help the tight-knit world of lacrosse.
“We’re in this community together growing the sport,” Heggernes said. “Having collegiate programs locally, it helps because those who want to stay around can compete at a high level.”
Sometimes those coaches and former high-level players aren’t even Minnesota natives.
Sarah Fellows, a transplant from Apex, North Carolina, is coming off her second season at the helm of Blake, which along with Eden Prairie has dominated the Minnesota high school scene. The programs have rotated as champions since 2007, with Eden Prairie claiming the last three titles and five overall and the Bears being crowned as champions six times.
“I didn’t really anticipate being here very long, but I ended up loving it here,” Fellows said. “I got involved with lacrosse again at Blake and right now I can’t imagine leaving.”
The Hopkins private school has given Fellows another chance to continue being involved in a sport in which her playing career was cut short due to injury while playing for Ohio State.
Like Canney, Fellows believes that expanding the local collegiate reach and retaining players from those programs will help develop the next generation of athletes, especially during the offseason.
“I think that’s a big way to for that growth to happen is kids getting involved outside their high school programs,” Fellows said. “Having opportunities in the offseason to have talented coaches and grow their skills.”
Blake coach Sarah Fellows played at Ohio State before she found a path coaching. Photo by Brian Nelson, SportsEngine