On Thursday afternoon, the Winslow High School girls lacrosse team traveled to Rockland, where it lost to Oceanside, 14-5.
Coach Shawn Carey couldn’t have been happier with his team’s effort.
“(Thursday) was the first day any of them have been in a game situation,” Carey said. “I’m really impressed with how fast the girls have picked things up… In three weeks, they’ve come a long way. By the end of the season, you’re going to see a world of difference.”
This season, 39 girls teams and 42 boys teams will compete in Maine high school varsity lacrosse. A handful of schools, including Winslow, Lawrence and Erskine, will field club teams. It’s been 15 years since the Maine Principals’ Association began sponsoring lacrosse as a varsity sport. Lacrosse has long been a game dominated by schools in the southern part of the state, but in recent years, the sport has gained a foothold in central Maine, the Midcoast, and the Bangor area.
The MPA began sponsoring boys and girls lacrosse in 1998. The sport grew enough so that in 2006, both boys and girls lacrosse divided into two classes. Still, the sport is dominated by the teams from southern Maine where it has a longer history. Every one of the 44 champions crowned in either boys and girls lacrosse has been from either York or Cumberland County.
“The popularity continues to move north,” Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the MPA and the staff liaison to the lacrosse committee, said.
A Maranacook/Winthrop combined team won nine games in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference last season, just its second as a varsity program. At Winslow, Carey hopes to see lacrosse become a varsity sport in 2015. Lawrence athletic director Bill MacManus said his school will consider upgrading lacrosse to varsity status in the coming season. At Erskine, athletic director Doran Stout said there’s no time table for bringing the lacrosse program, which premiered this week with 25 girls and 20 boys, up to varsity.
“We’re just now getting started.” Stout said. “It will be a month before we get a scrimmage for these kids.”
Like Lawrence and Winslow, the Erskine lacrosse teams will compete against other club teams or junior varsity squads.
According to Matt Petrie, who coaches the Lawrence boys and oversees the budding girls program at the school, there are more than 100 players ranging from grade 3 through 8 in the Central Maine Youth Lacrosse program.
“We have four freshmen (at Lawrence) who came in with three, four years of experience,” Petrie said. “Their skills are as good as some seniors, minus some maturity and athletic ability.”
Petrie had 15 players on the Lawrence boys club team last year. This season, he has 28, and next year, he expects more than 30.
“What I’ve noticed at the youth level is, kids are so eager to get out there and try it out,” Petrie, who took up lacrosse as a senior at Mountain Valley High School, said.
Carey has 22 girls out for his team at Winslow. Last summer, he organized a lacrosse skills camp. Of the 18 girls who attended those sessions, 15 came out for Winslow team this year. Carey said the way lacrosse will grow is through word of mouth, as it did when he played at Cony High School.
“I remember when we started the team at Cony, it just blew up. It’s not that hard to pick up. If you’re an athlete, you’re fine,” Carey said. “The girls who played (Thursday) loved it. I said ‘Good. Make sure we’re sharing that,’ ” Carey said.
With lacrosse’s growth in central Maine, some problems have come up. Petrie has seen a lack of officials and coaches, particularly in the girls game, which is played under different rules than the boys, and even uses different equipment. For example, a boys’ stick has a pocket in which the ball is caught. The girls’ stick does not.
“The girls are experiencing a shortage of officials,” Burnham said. “It’s something we talk about at every (lacrosse committee) meeting.”
Part of that shortage stems from the sports relative newness, particularly in central Maine. There’s no institutional memory of lacrosse in these communities like there is in southern Maine. The first generation of players, those who will teach and officiate down the road, are still on the field.
“When I was in high school in the early ’90s, there was maybe 10 teams in the state of Maine,” Petrie said. “We’re outnumbered by the kids.”
Another problem some teams face is the perception lacrosse will take athletes away from baseball, softball, track and field or tennis. Carey said he hasn’t seen mass exodus from other spring sports to join his team.
“I’m not trying to take girls from other sports,” Carey said. “A lot of my girls didn’t play anything in the spring.”
As the sport grows, breaking southern Maine’s stranglehold on championships isn’t as important as giving student athletes another option.
“It’s just a matter of creating another opportunity for kids,” Stout said.
Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242