Steamboat Springs Lacrosse in general is thriving in Steamboat, with busy summer camps, legions of stick-wielding youngsters throughout town and a boys high school team that made the state semifinals a year ago and still is undefeated this season.
That success hasn’t crossed gender lines, however. The high school girls team has won once this season and played in one close loss. More often, it trails early and loses big, thanks in large part to the fact that there are usually only enough girls healthy and eligible from game to game to fill out a lineup, and many of those Sailors count their lacrosse experience in weeks, not years.
Saturday, a dozen middle school girls gathered at Gardner Field outside Steamboat Springs High School not necessarily intent on changing all of that. The girls just came for the fun, and an afternoon practice concluded with a short six-on-six scrimmage, a group cheer and a piece of candy.
Nevertheless, girls lacrosse organizers in Steamboat hope a practice like Saturday’s is the next sign of change for a sport trying to maintain and increase its momentum.
“We just want to get them to try lacrosse,” said Deb Kuzemchak, who led the day’s activities. “Lacrosse is a beautiful sport. To have the girls come together on a team sport, it’s great.”
The first step is to start a middle school girls lacrosse traveling team to attend tournaments in the area and, hopefully, host one next month.
Organizers reached out to girls who had participated in clinics and teams in Steamboat before, but the girls themselves hope to throw their net a little wider at Steamboat Springs Middle School this week when they set up a table and spread the word about their team.
It seems simple. There were a dozen girls there Saturday, and there are about a half dozen more who have participated in the past who couldn’t make it. A team needs 12 girls and would like to have at least half as many more for substitutes, so that should be no problem, right?
“It’s never that simple,” Kuzemchak said.
She should know. She helped start a girls program in Boulder. When it started, the comparative boys program was bursting at the seams with 300 athletes.
“We sat back and looked at the numbers. We thought if some of those boys had a sister, it would be enough,” Kuzemchak said. “We really struggled.”
They hoped for 30 percent of the boys’ turnout. They ended up with less than 10 percent — about 25 athletes who were stretched across two age group teams.
If the first part of the lesson there is that it’s hard to start a middle school girls lacrosse program, the rest of the lesson from Boulder is that persistence pays off. Kuzemchak and her daughter Delanie Pratt moved to Steamboat Springs in August to pursue Delanie’s ski racing.
When they left Boulder, the program Kuzemchak helped start and that Delanie had grown up in boasted nearly 100 young girls lacrosse players and five teams.
Having another ally in the fight is welcome news for Steamboat Springs High School girls coach Betsy Frick, who has at times been alone leading the charge to help girls lacrosse catch on in Steamboat Springs.
After restarting a dormant high school program five years ago, she helped guide one class all the way through, signing many as freshmen or sophomores and helping them weather a few rough years.
At first, the program only competed on the junior varsity level. Then, after bumping up to varsity in 2012, it lost regularly in lopsided fashion, finishing its first year 0-14.
Finally last year, with a team filled with those young girls who’d begun to play as freshmen, the squad not only won its first game, but five more, finishing 6-9.
This year, with many of those veterans replaced with rookies, it’s been another tough year of learning the game on the fly.
Thanks in part to Kuzemchak and other coaches who have expressed interest in building a middle school program, the future is bright.
“I’m thrilled,” Frick said. “Just getting the sticks in their hands is great so we’re not teaching brand new players in high school.
“It’s very difficult to be competitive if you don’t have a feeder program or a junior varsity.”
Frick has worked hard to change that. She’s run clinics for middle school and elementary players for the past six summers. She’s constantly recruiting, whether it’s in the line at the grocery store or even while in the chair at the dentist’s office.
Helping start a middle school team has proven particularly vexing because April’s the time to do it, to be ready for the early-summer tournament season, and Frick has been too bogged down with the high school team to fully launch any such project.
Kuzemchak is one of several new coaches who’ve helped change that.
“It’s always been a Catch 22,” Frick said. “Good athletes want to play competitive games, and as a new program, we don’t always have enough kids to field a club team, so it’s all scrimmages and practices. To attract good athletes, we need an established program, and to have an established program, you need athletes who know how to play.
“We’re still trying to get the traction we need.”
At a glance, Saturday didn’t look like anything big. It looked like a group of girls having fun and, for some at least, learning a new game.
For girls lacrosse in Steamboat, however, it could represent much more. It could be traction.
For more information about the girls middle school lacrosse program, call Frick at 970-819-8354.
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9