The growth of the game in California is impressive. Since the state governing bodies officially sanctioned the sport at the CIF level, over 173 varsity teams have picked up the mantel. Another 30+ club level teams are also still in operation.
This level of high school participation has helped elevate the skill level of the game. In Cali lacrosse is now being played by players versed in the game over multiple years. At Cali Gold, the younger the age range, the more proficient the talent.
“The younger guys have been playing youth lacrosse for a while,” says Greg Angilly, AD at the Urban School and former head coach at Cali powerhouse St. Ignatius. “We’re starting to shed the image of athletes playing lacrosse, and we’re getting more lacrosse players. In particular, out here in East Bay, they say there’s more kids playing youth lacrosse than baseball.”
Lacrosse has not been unfamiliar in this part of California. Cal-Berkley has had a team since the ’60s and Stanford and Berkley played each other in club tournaments for over 20 years. But the youth lacrosse level has seen the biggest growth.
“I was the president of the Northern California Junior Lacrosse Association and we had 7,000 kids playing [last year],” says Dan Nourse, head coach at Cal-Berkley, a top MCLA team. “That’s sustaining a 20% growth over the last five years, and it continues to grow at that level, especially at the youth level.”
Former Bucknell head coach Sid Jamieson has been attending Be the Best for eight years, and in that time has noticed the difference in the growth of lacrosse here.
“California lacrosse is at a completely different level. All these kids get up and down the field. They have good field sense, and the skill level gets better and better and better. The first years I was out here, the kids were having trouble just passing and catching. We talked amongst ourselves as coaches that there are fewer and fewer and fewer of those.
“It’s thrilling, for a guy who’s been in this business for a long time, to come out into this environment and watch the caliber of play. If you were back at a camp back east some place, and you took this group of players and put them in there, you wouldn’t notice any significant difference whatsoever.”
There are three key ingredients for the growth of the game in Cali. 1) Enthusiasm. Kids without DI collegiate exposure hang on every word of their instructors. 2) Weather. Like all warm weather locations, kids in California can play year round. This should be more of an advantage in the future as the game continues to grow. 3) Game instruction. Coaches here are more savvy about the game.
“More college guys now from the West Coast who have gone out and played at the college level are back here coaching,” says Jamieson. “You go to coaches clinics out here now, and they are not what they used to be, because the coaches are asking smaller, more finite questions about coaching, instead of questions like ‘how do I clear, how do I ride’ . They want to know, what kind of clear, what kind of ride.“
Still, like in other non-hotbeds, the difference between good and great can be the athleticism. That’s a trait that will stick out for any top program, even in California.
“You know how we are, how we operate, we’re always looking on the athletic side,” says Syracuse assistant Roy Simmons Jr., who helped coach Be the Best. “And that’s what attracted us pretty early on to this. If we can find a great athlete and pretty good lacrosse player, then we’re going to be very interested.”
At the high school level, California is looking to make the next step and add a state-wide varsity tournament, an event that doesn’t exist now because the high school program participation threshold has not been hit yet. At the state’s rate of growth, however, that number could be reached soon.
“We sent out a mock draft of the top eight teams,” says Angilly. “We could do a weekend in Santa Barbara and it wou\ld be phenomenal.”