Blake's Michelle Tremblay charged towards the goal for a shot in the first half Tuesday evening at Hopkins. Defending for Centennial were Madeline Ulfig (2) and Kelly McGough, right. Star Tribune file photo
Maddie Ulfig had her first experience with lacrosse when she was in sixth grade. It was a modest beginning: a parent in her hometown of Lino Lakes was familiar with the sport and created a boys' team, which they housed by laying down turf in a Shoreview ice arena – box lacrosse style – and joined an informal indoor winter league.
There was no girls' team, so Ulfig, enraptured by the novelty and physical play, signed up with her brother – and five other interested girls.
"That was the only option at the time," said Ulfig, who plays lacrosse at Gannon University in Erie, Pa., and who is now a volunteer counselor at a new girls' summer camp that is taking place this week in Coon Rapids.
Consider also Greg Zandlo, who unexpectedly became a lacrosse parent when his daughter Jen picked up the sport in the ninth grade. He said at the time many were still totally naïve.
"Most parents – I was one of them – didn't have a clue what lacrosse was," he said. "We knew it was a city in Wisconsin."
Things in Minnesota have changed drastically since then. In recent years, the lacrosse scene in the state has gone from obscure – with just men's and women's clubs and no formal teams for high school-aged kids – to what could be called a full-fledged craze. Lacrosse is a sanctioned Minnesota State High School League sport. Camps are cropping up every year as lacrosse lovers and would-be businessmen try to keep up with the teeming interest.
But to the disappointment of Ulfig and others who hail from the northern suburbs, lacrosse's growth north and east of the Cities remains sluggish compared with that of the burgeoning southern and western regions of the metro.
That's why Zandlo, Ulfig and several other aficionados decided to create Minnesota Lacrosse Academy, a new girls' camp in the northern suburbs aimed at helping to ignite interest in those communities and to ease the struggles of the young athletes there who travel to far-away camps and scramble to get recognized by college recruiters. All of MLA's counselors will be current D-I, II or III players.
"It's tough, especially the traveling," said Greg's daughter Jen Zandlo, another counselor at MLA and a player at Marquette. Zandlo formerly played on a club team in Hopkins, and her parents drove here there, about 45 minutes away, several times a week.
Added counselor Anna Eiden, a senior lacrosse player at University of Detroit-Mercy: "And there still aren't many opportunities for girls. It's getting popular in some places, but for our cities it's still pretty new. That's what we're trying to change."
For now, the expectations are modest. As of last week, fewer than 20 kids from grades 6-12 had registered for the MLA camp. With the help of sponsor Dave's Sports Shop, Greg Zandlo is essentially funding the project out of his own pocket, with hopes that it will catch on in the future, or at least bridge the gap until more organizations are started.
But the folks at MLA have to be encouraged by the state's fast-growing history with the sport. If the past is any indicator, camps can be very successful here. When Mark Hellenack – an East Coast lacrosse enthusiast who had worked with US Lacrosse – moved to Minnesota in 1993, he felt something like a "visionary," he said, laughing.
"People looked at me funny" when he talked about getting teams together, he said. "But I knew it would take off here, simply because kids [with a hockey culture] have the mentality where they're used to playing a physical game, and all they really needed was a lacrosse stick to have at it."
It did just that. Hellenack became involved with the Minnesota chapter of US Lacrosse and watched it flourish quickly. In 1996, seven boys' clubs at the high school level were formed. In 2001, there were 23. Between 2007 and 2008 – the latter being the second year that the boys' state tournament was sponsored by the MSHSL – boys' teams jumped from 32 to 48.
Northstar Lacrosse store owner and camp director Ian Flam started his business nine years ago with a small camp and retail shop that was open for just a few hours a day. Now the shop is open nine hours a day, seven days a week, and camp interest has exploded.
"My first camp had 50 kids. Now we're over 500, and we're maxed out," he said.
Being recruited can still be a challenge. Some coaches and scouts are reluctant to travel to the Midwest when there is an avid lacrosse base on the East Coast.
"We had to take kids to where the coaches are," Hellenack said of the traveling teams he has coached. "They're not coming to Minnesota to watch a kid play lacrosse – it just doesn't happen."
A college recruiting program that Flam runs in the summer saw 13 kids receive scholarships for lacrosse last year.
"That's a big deal," he said. "We're going to tournaments out east and placing consistently in the top three to five, and even winning."
Said Hellenack: "We have more and more Division I girls and boys going to college because the skill level is going up. Just like we are known for hockey, we are starting – I won't call it a hotbed – but we are getting respect. Coaches are starting to say we have good school systems, the kids are bright ... and lacrosse is starting to creep its way out here."
Ulfig – somewhat of a pioneer still, in the northern suburbs – hopes to continue that movement near Lino Lakes. One of the next critical steps is to establish good youth programs to help feed the high schools.
"We all have this great passion for it – it's almost our lives," she said of herself and the other counselors at MLA. "I want to teach girls to play ... and have them find that passion on their own."