Pick Up Sticks

Lacrosse flourishing among Steamboat's youths

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Andy and Jake Flax haven't put their lacrosse sticks down in five years.

As hockey players, the Flax brothers were intrigued by lacrosse, another stick sport, after their eighth-grade year, despite the sport's anonymity among boys in Steamboat Springs.

In summer 2002, Andy and Jake signed up for Bob Hiester's summer lacrosse clinic. Hiester had just finished coaching the Steamboat Springs High School boys lacrosse team's inaugural varsity season, and he wanted to continue educating Steamboat's youths about the game's fundamentals.

The Flax brothers didn't have to commit to being Sailors, but it took one day of lacrosse for the boys to make a decision.

Five years after the clinic, the Flax brothers graduated from Steamboat Springs High School and have aspirations of joining the club lacrosse program at Colorado State University in the fall. CSU won the 2006 club national championship, defeating rival University of Colorado.

"Lacrosse has the physicality of football, the stick work of hockey, and the endurance and (long playing) field of soccer," Jake Flax said. "It goes with so many other sports."

Jake Flax was selected to participate in this year's All-State lacrosse game in Denver, and Andy traveled to the Front Range to watch.

"Jake was by far the smallest on the field," joked Andy, who is a goalie and also stands about 5-foot-5.

For all sizes

The lacrosse stick isn't known to have special powers, but Hiester might argue.

"It's a magical game," he said.

After coaching then-fledgling programs at Aurora's Smoky Hill and Grandview high schools, Hiester helped start Steamboat's boys program in spring 2002. In Steamboat, Hiester sees an affluent community where lacrosse can flourish. Thirty-seven years of coaching, including a stint at state power Cherry Creek High School, gives him credibility.

Lacrosse values speed, agility and hand-eye coordination -- traits Steamboat's athletes often exhibit as opposed to size. Above all, lacrosse is a finesse game predicated on crisp, accurate passing, quick decision-making and timely checking, though the girls can only stick check. There is no body contact in girls lacrosse, but boys lacrosse is a full-contact sport.

Steamboat Springs High School offers both sports.

"There is room for kids who don't have great foot speed or size or strength if they develop other things," Hiester said. "If you have such great stick skills, they can never take the ball away from you. Big, strong and fast with coordination is your Division 1 player."

Hiester and first-year varsity girls coach Jenn Kirkpatrick are more interested in teaching lacrosse than they are in sending Division 1 recruits out en masse, though each envisions a time when Steamboat boasts of such talent.

The varsity girls didn't win a regular season game during the spring, and the varsity boys failed to make the playoffs, but each coach sees a promising future in Steamboat.

Lacrosse is the country's fastest growing sport at the high school level, according to the National Federation for High School Sports in Indianapolis.

"The girls were so excited," Kirkpatrick said. "By the end of the season, they were such a different team for sure. That's because they worked really hard. We improved so much. Their stick skills got so much better, and I have eighth-graders coming up who played this spring."

Developing talent

Meet Neill Redfern, the mind behind Steamboat youth lacrosse, an organization for children in fourth through eighth grades. He is patient, well-spoken and organized. He also was a two-time All-American lacrosse player for the University of North Carolina in the 1980s, when UNC was churning out national championships in various sports.

His playing days are over, but in teaching lacrosse to Steamboat's newest participants, Redfern has found an outlet to continue a sport he spent so much of his life playing.

Redfern served as Hiester's assistant for two years and saw a need for the high school players to continue playing after the spring season was finished. They were still learning the nuances of the sport.

Youth lacrosse has become so much more since 2003.

"(The high school program) was going to be an exercise in futility without a spring program and a great summer program," Redfern said. "When we started, the original impetus was to help these kids field a competitive high school team. Now, the goal truly is to have a positive athletic experience for those kids who show up because at least half will never play on the varsity team."

That is because the number of youths playing in lacrosse has soared, particularly among boys.

Clinics started in 2003, and a spring program with 35 boys in sixth through eighth grades was launched in 2004. During the 2006 spring season, 71 middle school boys, including a staggering 37 eighth-graders, played lacrosse. An additional 32 boys were playing at the fourth- and fifth-grade level.

This summer marked the first for middle school girls, and it was received well, Kirkpatrick said. Parents and players have expressed interest in future clinics and leagues for girls.

"I think, first and foremost, it's the sport that is the reason behind the growth," Redfern said. "The kids love it because of the nature of the sport. The program is pretty well organized, so parents and kids, for the most part, are very happy with how it's run."

Steamboat hosts a spring tournament for boys and girls and also runs a summer league, but the teams don't travel during the summer. They play each other in a 4-on-4 or 3-on-3 format.

The summer league is for boys, and Redfern runs it with the help of coaches such as the Flax brothers and their former teammate Neal Ficker. Kirkpatrick hopes to continue building the girls program.

"Having a feeder program into the high school is huge," Kirkpatrick said. "The stick can be a little bit awkward, so the earlier you learn and get that hand-eye coordination the better."

Both coaches acknowledge that the installation of an artificial turf field, expected by fall, also will help, considering neither varsity team played one home game in the spring. Each team spent a majority of its practice time indoors or on parking lots because of wet fields.

The youths, on the other hand, will spend the spring, summer and fall on grass, learning how to pass and catch. By the time they become freshmen, most already know the rules and have dozens of games behind them.

That experience is invaluable, said Hiester, who remembers his first night of practice with the varsity boys in spring 2002.

"We put helmets and gloves on everybody," he said. "I wasn't about to let them throw and catch without them. It was like standing inside a popcorn machine. The balls were everywhere. It was unbelievable. I was standing on the top bleachers. I wasn't going down there."

In hockey, a player must be able to skate forward and backward without thought. That skill must be learned before a hockey player can even be on the ice. For a lacrosse player, catching and throwing the ball has to be automatic to enable the player to move, shoot and run.

The stick skills are what Redfern and other youth coaches are emphasizing above all else. Well, that, and having fun.

"Sports have to be fun," he said. "That is why you are out there. We aren't about to practice five days a week because we aren't trying to be the best seventh- or eighth-grade team in the state. They probably would want to be the best. I feel like the focus is to keep it fun for everybody and not exclude anyone."

Lacrosse history

Lacrosse was created by American Indians, according to U.S. Lacrosse, the sport's governing body in America. French settlers are credited with naming the sport, because they thought the stick used to play the game looked like a Bishop's crosier, hence the name lacrosse.

There is no evidence of non-Indians taking up the game until the mid-19th century, when it flourished along the East Coast. Areas such as Long Island, N.Y., and Baltimore remain the most popular areas for lacrosse in the United States.

The rules have changed through the years, such as the number of players allowed per side -- now 10 -- and the way a ball can be shot -- a player can't be in the crease before or after a shot. The sticks are made of plastic, and the netting at the end is different for boys and girls because of the sport's physicality.

East Coast residents moved to Denver and got lacrosse moving, Hiester said. A high school league started up with eight teams -- all on the Front Range, but it wasn't sanctioned by the Colorado High School Activities Association, the governing body for Colorado prep sports.

Girls lacrosse was sanctioned by CHSAA first, and the boys followed in the mid-1990s, legitimizing both sports.

"We did have much resistance," Hiester said. "It was a new sport, and, at that point, it was in the spring. It was baseball and track, so facilities were a problem, but, like here, the game sells itself."

Lacrosse expanded along the Front Range. With Steamboat, the girls and boys leagues have one Western Slope team. More may be on the way.

"There are a bunch of clubs going in Eagle-Vail, Telluride, Summit, and as I understand, there's a guy starting a middle school program in Grand Junction," Hiester said. "That's huge to us."

The Steamboat girls scrimmaged mountain club teams after their CHSAA season was over, winning easily because the Sailors are further along in their development.

With ties to the Denver lacrosse community, Kirkpatrick thinks Front Range coaches and players are excited about an expansion.

"They are really pumped to see lacrosse grow and be a fun, exciting thing for girls," she said. "Playing sports was my ultimate favorite thing to do growing up. I really want this to become a winning program and be competitive with Colorado Academy and Kent (Denver). Creek, Kent or CA are always the state champions, and that's how it was my whole life. We won three years I was (at Kent Denver), which is great, but it's great to have competition."

Room for lacrosse?

Steamboat is an active mountain community of about 10,000 people. Soccer, baseball, tennis and track and field were established sports before the arrival of high school lacrosse. Soccer and baseball have established spring and summer programs.

Kirkpatrick, who went to Colby College, thinks there is room for lacrosse in a town short on people but long on athletic ability.

"When I was in high school, lots of girls played soccer and lots of girls played lacrosse," she said. "I just think there are enough girls to do both. Some will be drawn to one, and some will be drawn to the other. We are here to create more options. What you can do by introducing more sports is give more girls an opportunity to play."

Girls soccer and girls lacrosse have conflicting prep seasons, but boys lacrosse and sports such as football, soccer and hockey do not cross paths. It is boys lacrosse and baseball and track and field that have simultaneous varsity seasons, but lacrosse wasn't created to eradicate baseball or track.

At the youth level, the boys and girls still can do everything they -- and their parents -- have the time and financial wherewithal to do. The seasons overlap, but not always, and youth lacrosse isn't as strict as it is at the high school level.

"I think there's this perception in this town that is very one-dimensional," Redfern said. "People think you have to start playing whatever sport when you are very young, and you can't play another sport because you won't make it to the big time. Other sports are great crossovers for each other. If you are playing a different sport in the fall, competing is only going to make you a better lacrosse player in the spring." '

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