Is lacrosse at a crossroads?


Dylan Voneiff (left) is one of the leading scorers this season for state finalist Hinsdale Central. | Rob Hart ~ Sun-Times Media

Every three years, Hinsdale South athletic director Tim Feigh surveys students at his school to gauge their interest in various sports.

Last year, Feigh’s survey results revealed that only 12 boys and six girls were interested in playing lacrosse.

For a school of 1,777 students in DuPage County, those numbers are surprising.

“It’s a numbers game. We don’t have enough kids to show enough interest in lacrosse,” Feigh said. “With lacrosse, we don’t have enough kids to field all the levels.”

For some, it might be puzzling that Hinsdale South cannot support a lacrosse team considering the school draws from upper middle-class communities such as Darien, Willowbrook and Burr Ridge. South’s sister school in District 86, Hinsdale Central, has had lacrosse for years. Hinsdale Central fields four levels of boys teams and the girls won the Illinois High School Women’s Lacrosse Association’s state championship in 2007 with a 13-12 victory over perennial power Loyola.

Hinsdale Central hosted this year’s state semifinals in girls lacrosse and the Devils reached Friday’s championship match against Loyola at Northwestern.

But is lacrosse still growing or has the sport stagnated?

The IHSA was ready to recognize both boys and girls lacrosse as official sports entering this season, but those plans were shelved Jan. 10 when there were not enough schools entered into the state series by the IHSA’s standards. Only 47 boys teams and 33 girls teams registered at that time.

This spring, 60 boys teams and 40 girls teams participated in their respective state tournaments for the Illinois High School Lacrosse Association and the Illinois High School Women’s Lacrosse Association.

Hinsdale South, of course, was not one of them. The Hornets are among nine schools in the 14-team West Suburban Conference without boys lacrosse. Even Downers North and Downers South do not have teams.

Of the four Glenbard schools, only West has a boys team and it recently added girls.

Will Hinsdale South ever have lacrosse in its future?

“Hard to say,” Feigh said.

There are only five South suburban public schools or districts with varsity-level lacrosse: Homewood-Flossmoor, Lemont, Lincoln-Way, Minooka and the Chiefs (combining Andrew, Sandburg and Stagg). The only Downstate lacrosse schools are O’Fallon and Champaign Centennial.

If Hinsdale South adds lacrosse, Feigh said he worries about the support for other sports. The school had only eight freshmen try out for boys volleyball and the Hornets did not field a Freshmen B boys volleyball team this season for the first time in Feigh’s memory.

“What does lacrosse do to the soccer program?” Feigh asked. “We don’t [currently] have enough students that come out for the sports we offer at different levels.”

Feigh’s counterpart, Hinsdale Central athletic director Paul Moretta, serves on the IHSA’s advisory committee for lacrosse. His interest in the sport grew as the former assistant athletic director at New Trier. Moretta made an initial presentation to the IHSA about adding the sport with New Trier girls coach Pete Collins.

“Eventually it will be an IHSA sport, it’s just a matter of time,” Moretta said. “I think there is still a chance [for lacrosse in 2012]. It’s kind of status quo. I think it’s eventually just a matter of when.”

But difficult economic times have led to even tighter budgets for many schools. If the IHSA approves lacrosse, Lockport athletic director Brian Goff said it will be difficult to add the sport considering the school recently laid off five teachers. Goff said Lockport has a lower-level boys club team.

“I don’t think we’ll re-evaluate if it eventually becomes a sport,” Goff said. “Our sports are at a standstill. Because of our budget, it will be difficult to add.”

IHSA Assistant Executive Director Matt Troha said the state association has no set timetable to add lacrosse.

“I think it will take three to five years, if not sooner,” Troha said.

The IHSA’s policy is to have 10 percent of its membership sponsoring a sport before adding it. That’s why the organization is still aiming for a 65/40 split between boys and girls teams.

“I think there is room for growth in a belt of schools [outside Chicago],” said Troha, who cited areas such as Crystal Lake, Peotone and Seneca. “We’ll look at it year-by-year and once we get 65 [boys] and 40 [girls teams], we’ll move forward with it.”

Business has been booming for True Lacrosse, an Elmhurst-based organization dedicated to increasing participation in the sport. Even though future Hinsdale South students don’t currently have a team to play for, True Lacrosse will run a four-day camp through the Darien Park District July 25-28.

The camp is for participants ages 9-14 and costs $175 for residents, $195 for non-residents. It features instruction on “proper cradling, passing, shooting and groundball techniques, as well as clearing, riding, fastbreaks, extra-man offense, man-down defense and more,” according to the park district’s brochure.

Through its 26 travel teams, 16 in the Chicago area, True Lacrosse has produced 45 Division I players in three years, said club co-director Mike Gabel, the former boys coach at Glenbrook South.

In the recent NCAA Division I men’s national tournament, at least eight Chicago area products were on rosters for participating teams: Denver’s Matt Barry (St. Viator), Hartford’s Tim Engel (Stevenson), Hofstra’s James Raveret (Glenbard West) and Lance Yapor (Glenbrook South), Notre Dame’s Dan Schmitt (Fremd), Siena’s Pat Kileen (St. Charles North), Syracuse’s Matt Harris (Stevenson), and Virginia’s Jarrid Puzes (Stevenson).

Gabel (right) co-founded True Lacrosse with former Chicago Machine teammate Jake Dean. The pair played college lacrosse on the East Coast, but have expanded their grass-roots club to states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota, and cities such as St. Louis and Kansas City.

“Our level of coaching is our strength. A lot of men’s [players] haven’t seen it before, but with our ability kids are getting recruited,” Gabel said. “We do a lot for the boys.”

In April, Lake Forest native Justin Smith, a former player at Denison University, opened the LAX Shop, the first lacrosse-only store in the city of Chicago.

It has been difficult to find lacrosse success among area professional programs. The indoor Shamrocks folded several years ago and Gabel’s former team, the outdoor Machine, moved to Rochester, N.Y., after years of indifference. The Machine struggled to draw crowds to South suburban Toyota Park, far from the sport’s hotbed in the North Shore.

Area colleges have found their own level of success as Northwestern recently won another women’s national title and Notre Dame’s men reached the national quarterfinals.

Collins is just the second coach in school history to lead New Trier’s girls. He has coached the Trevians since 2002 and the school has won five state IHSWLA titles. Collins (right) would like to see lacrosse added to the IHSA much sooner than later, or as Collins said: “Keep getting the sport to grow.”

“I’m excited. The kids should be treated the same [as other IHSA sports]. I personally think it’s frustrating when the kids here are not IHSA [approved],” Collins said. “Anyway we can get more recognition for the girls is positive.”

Like Darien, South suburban Oak Forest offers lacrosse at the park district level, but the high school does not have a team. The high school also draws residents from Country Club Hills, Midlothian and Tinley Park.

The irony doesn’t escape the attention of St. Laurence athletic director and football coach Jim Grannan, an Oak Forest resident.

“The high school won’t add it. They don’t take on the responsibility,” Grannan said.

But Oak Forest athletic director Susan Bonner must look at the bottom line.

“We do not have lacrosse at our school. The board does not allow us to start up new sports because of the financial bind we are all in,” Bonner said. “That’s the reason District 228 does not have lacrosse at this time. Even though there is interest in our community, unfortunately lacrosse’s [expense] is prohibiting it.”

One area of growth is in the Catholic League. Mount Carmel, St. Laurence and Brother Rice will field varsity teams in the next few years, joining established teams at Loyola, Fenwick, St. Ignatius and St. Rita. Currently, Catholic League teams play in the same conference with East Suburban Catholic schools, but Grannan said the Catholic League hopes to break away to form its own conference.

At St. Laurence, the Vikings had Freshmen and Sophomore teams this season and will add Varsity and JV next season.

“The problem with lacrosse, coaching wise, there are not enough quality people to coach it,” Grannan said. “We have football kids playing it and we have a lot of [former] baseball kids, who are playing it.”

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