Booming in the 'Boat

Tournament reflects lacrosse's growing popularity

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— The interest in one of the country's fastest growing sports has hit Steamboat Springs.

As president of Steamboat Youth Lacrosse and director of this weekend's third annual Steamboat Classic Lacrosse Tournament, Neill Redfern is responsible for introducing more fourth- through eighth-grade players to the game every year.

Last spring, Redfern had 62 players sign up for the program's four-tournament spring season, with 19 teams participating in the Steamboat tournament. This year, Redfern added a fourth-grade division, increasing the number of participants to 103 and tournament teams to 29. That doesn't include the 36 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade girls, many of whom participated in a four-team girls tournament and clinic organized by sixth-grade coach Katie White.

"With the eighth-graders, it's really an anomaly -- we've got 40 of them out here, so I had to split the guys up evenly into separate red and white teams," Redfern said.

In addition to the two eighth-grade teams and two youth girls lacrosse teams, Steamboat Youth Lacrosse fielded fifth-, sixth- and seventh-grade boys teams at the tournament that began Saturday and concludes with championship matches this afternoon at Emerald Park. The girls games are at Whistler Park.

The eighth-grade boys Steamboat Red squad debuted in a tough game against the Cheyenne Outlaws in which possessions were sparse, and the Outlaws scrapped together a 3-2 win using more physical play.

After shaking hands with the opposing team and giving his eighth-graders quick words of encouragement, Redfern moved into the coaches' box of the adjacent field. Knowing every player's name, he immediately began calling midfield line changes for the seventh-grade game already in progress against a skilled Columbine youth squad.

His commitment to his players' improvement is paving the way for the sport's growth in years to come.

"I think he's awesome," said eighth-grader Tyler Samlowski, captain of Steamboat White. "He's everything you'd want in a coach. He's strict, but doesn't get too angry. He's been my coach ever since I learned to play here."

Redfern is not alone in his efforts. Volunteer Steamboat Youth Lacrosse coaches such as sixth-grade boys coach John Worden believe in exposing youths to the sport early -- discipline that Worden says results in tremendous skill development and field sense.

White said she used the opportunity to have two visiting girls teams give her two combined sixth- and seventh-grade teams much-needed game experience.

Although the Steamboat Youth Lacrosse season has only one event after this weekend's tournament -- the 12th annual Warrior Rocky Mountain Lacrosse Jamboree, from Friday to June 4 in Arvada -- the program has had a tangible im--pact.

"When we started five years ago, no one had ever seen the game," Steamboat Springs High School boys lacrosse coach Bob Hiester said. "Practice looked like a popcorn machine with the balls everywhere. Neill's program has made a big difference at the high school -- we lettered five freshmen this year that came in ready to play."

Redfern will organize a high school and youth summer program with smaller team competitions for players to polish their stick skills. Those interested should contact Redfern via e-mail at neillredfern@--mac.com before Thursday.

Today's championship games will be at Emerald Park. The sixth-grade game is at 10 a.m.; seventh grade is at 3 p.m.; and eighth grade is at 4 p.m. The girls tournament games are from 9 a.m. to noon at Whistler Park with the winner determined by the best overall record.

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