With burgeoning participation numbers, lacrosse showing staying power in Duluth areaCooper Carlson has seen lacrosse’s image change the past couple of years. The Duluth East sophomore says there’s more talk about the sport at school and more students show up at Duluth-Superior Chargers games.
By: Rick Weegman, Duluth News Tribune
Cooper Carlson has seen lacrosse’s image change the past couple of years. The Duluth East sophomore says there’s more talk about the sport at school and more students show up at Duluth-Superior Chargers games.
“It’s a lot more popular this year,” he said. “More people are asking about what the rules are, how we play it and when we have games.”
Carlson, a midfielder in his second year of participating for the Chargers’ boys club team, hopes the sport eventually grows from the club level to become a high school varsity offering.
“I’d love to see it as a varsity sport before I graduate, but that’s kind of far-fetched,” he said. “It just started getting big in the last year.”
Carlson hopes his younger brother, seventh-grader Wyatt, will have that opportunity in the future.
Lacrosse’s popularity with the youth is such that Duluth Denfeld athletic director Tom Pearson says it’s an inevitable outcome.
“I don’t think it’s a question of ‘if’ but a question of ‘when,’ ” Pearson said last week. “The first question we’re going to ask is, ‘Do we have the numbers of Duluth public school students to run a varsity lacrosse program?’ ”
The local lacrosse association has yet to devise a long-term plan for taking that step. The Chargers, a member of the Minnesota Boys Scholastic Lacrosse Association, are comprised of 108 players in grades 5-12 from six area school systems. A spinoff club team in the East school district, where a preponderance of players reside, is the most likely first move.
“Probably the next step for us is to stay in the club division and form a third high school-level club team in the Twin Ports,” Chargers first-year president Brad Mackinaw said, referring to a Proctor club team that began this spring.
With Duluth schools facing budget crunches and potential layoffs, adding a sport would be a hard sell right now.
“The big question always is money,” Mackinaw said. “How are they going to come up with the money to afford that and how are they going to come up with the resources in an environment where they are getting their budgets cut?”
The Chargers operate on a $17,000-a-year budget, of which $7,500 is paid to the district to rent Public Schools Stadium for practices and games. That budget does not factor in transportation costs — players are required to find their own way to home and road games. Approximately 90 percent of the budget comes from players, who pay $300 up front. That budget would increase greatly as a varsity sport, considering road games usually would require a trip to the Twin Cities area.
Pearson equates the situation to when Duluth added soccer in the early 1990s. At that time, the district said the sport’s proponents needed to fund-raise a certain dollar amount and then re-examined it in later years to see if interest was still there. Start-up money needs to be there before the district agrees it’s a viable option, Pearson says.
“With the funding right now, we’re not going to be in a position to say, ‘We’re going to add a $25,000 program, or whatever that number turns out to be, to the school district,’” he said.
Other factors must be considered as well, including Title IX issues and competitive play.
Federal law stipulates equal opportunities exist for boys and girls programs if the interest is there. But at the moment, the girls’ club program, the Nighthawks, doesn’t have nearly the same numbers as the Chargers so that probably wouldn’t be an impediment to adding a boys program.
Whether a Duluth team could compete against Twin Cities suburban schools that have a longer lacrosse history and much deeper youth programs is a legitimate question.
“The majority of our players started playing in the eighth or ninth grade,” Mackinaw said. “When you go to schools like Eden Prairie and Eagan and Benilde-St. Margaret’s — schools that dominate lacrosse — a lot of those kids first pick up a stick in the fourth or fifth grade. Do we want to jump to the next level of competition, knowing that we’re not going to be competitive in that situation? Those are questions we haven’t resolved yet.”
Chargers coach Scott Wishart, a former Minnesota Duluth player, doesn’t believe jumping up a level is the immediate answer.
“Right now we’re pretty new compared to a lot of programs from the Cities, especially if we were to split all our talents among the high schools,” Wishart said. “Those other teams have had club lacrosse for many years and playing varsity-level lacrosse for five or six years. They’re very developed in the Cities. It will take some time for this program to catch up.”
Even by drawing talented fall and winter sports athletes, local lacrosse teams would be hard-pressed to find similar depth as more advanced rivals.
“There are very good teams throughout the state that are in club-level lacrosse,” Wishart said. “As far as the sake of our sport, right now, we should continue to proceed at this pace and keep developing players.
“It’s something we’re going to have to wait out and keep working on. Until we can have a larger interest and more players out here, I would think we’re in (a club level) for a few years at least.”