Issaquah High School junior Sydney Lee scores a goal against Eastside Catholic on April 2. Courtesy of Issaquah Youth Lacrosse
When Shelby Marber joined the Issaquah Youth Lacrosse league in 2004, she played on a boys team because there was no girls team.
She got used to playing with full pads and a helmet, and learned to be tough and rough up a few boys here and there.
But four seasons later, Marber, a Beaver Lake Middle School eighth-grader, plays on the league’s 7/8 girls team — one of three now busting at the seams, due to the sport’s growing popularity on and around the plateau.
“When I first started boys lacrosse, it was fun because it was really rough,” Marber said. “I still like to get rough with the other girls on the team.”
Marber was part of the first group of girls in the Sammamish area that took an interest in lacrosse, a fast-paced sport that entails cradling, constant running and lots of scoring opportunities. “It’s just kind of a fun sport,” she said. “It’s a sport that I knew that I was good at and just wanted to stick with.”
Local boys are leaving soccer or baseball to play lacrosse, too, but girls’ lacrosse participation in the United States grew by 12.5 percent in 2008, according to the recently released U.S. Lacrosse 2008 Participation Survey. That’s the most growth of any group from youth to collegiate level.
Since U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, began taking statistics in 2001, participation more than doubled to 524,100 nationwide, the survey said. In one year, girls youth lacrosse participants increased from about 85,000 to more than 96,000.
“A lot of these kids, once they see it, they get hooked,” said U.S. Lacrosse Public Relations Manager Colleen Sperry Aungst. “It’s still in (regional) pockets a little bit, but it is growing like wildfire. It’s not just on the East Coast anymore.”
The Issaquah Youth Lacrosse league is one of three full-fledged leagues operating in Sammamish. Although it already has three girls teams, the demand is so great, that “next year, we could double the amount of teams,” said Lauren Mincin, IYL girls program director.
But the Eastlake Lacrosse Association and Eastside Crusaders Youth Lacrosse have their sights set on fielding at least one team each next season, too, according to league managers.
“There’s an incredible demand for lacrosse,” said Mike Shigley, ECYL vice president.
Having three leagues here is good for youths who want to try a new sport, but it also poses some unique challenges for a sport that’s relatively new to the state. Coaches and league managers said parental interest and support has been no less than enthusiastic, but coaching lacrosse is a specific skill set that takes time to learn.
“The biggest challenge, I think, is going to be fielding qualified youth coaches,” Shigley said. “And we are very field-constrained on the plateau. It’s tough to find a place to play after six o’clock.”
Eastlake Lacrosse tried to field a girls team this spring, but came up against the same problems, said league Public Relations Coordinator Jim Sheehan. Eastlake currently fields nine boys teams, including the three high school-level squads.
“Our program is not as old as other leagues,” Sheehan said. “We’ve been concentrating on building the boys first, but will focus on girls in the next year or so.”
Aside from the challenges of maintaining competitive play on the plateau, coaches say the momentum girls lacrosse has gained over the past few years has provided a steady flow of youth players into the high school clubs.
Momentum is exactly why the sport is so popular around Sammamish, said Colette Foreman, Eastside Catholic High School girls head coach.
“It’s attractive to parents and attractive to players,” she said. “It’s enjoyable to watch, and it’s opposite season to soccer and basketball. Girls want something new, something creative, something they’ve never done before.”
Lacrosse also remains a welcoming sport for middle and high schoolers, who join with no experience and want guaranteed playing time.
“The community of lacrosse is growing so fast and people are really excited, because it’s a new and fast growing sport, and it’s not soccer,” said Penny Moss, IYL girls and Issaquah High School boys coach. “It’s all-inclusive. Everybody gets to play.”
The rise in popularity of girls’ lacrosse has also created increasing opportunities for standout players in the Seattle area to earn scholarships to respected Division 1 university lacrosse programs, Foreman said. Some girls at Eastside Catholic are aiming for schools like Stanford or Duke, she said.
“I’ve got girls who have decided it’s a premier sport now. There’s more opportunity for the girls to do well in the sport, because it’s so new,” she said.
Even if some are in it to play competitively in college, the league managers said the goal is to give area youths plenty of opportunity to learn the new sport.
“The whole message is the camaraderie,” Mincin said.