When John Principi attended Torrey Pines High in the mid 1990s, lacrosse was a “counterculture sport,” as he described it. Those who played were mostly football players, basketball players and other athletes looking for a competitive outlet during the spring season, even if lacrosse was merely a club sport at the time.
Having returned to his alma mater to coach the Falcons’ boys varsity team, Principi has witnessed significant changes.
“The basic difference is that the kids have been playing longer now, and their skills are much more advanced than they were in the 1990s,” Principi said.
“There had always been good athletes playing, but there hadn’t been as many skilled athletes.”
Principi is putting it mildly. Since he graduated from Torrey Pines in 1997, lacrosse has experienced a sonic boom in popularity throughout the region, particularly in North County. Whereas in Principi’s prep days, lacrosse wasn’t offered as a varsity sport, it was sanctioned by the CIF San Diego Section in 2002 and is now offered for boys at 13 North County schools and for girls at 16.
Lacrosse is unlike most sports in that, for years, its popularity was isolated mainly to one region of the country —- specifically the Mid-Atlantic corridor between Maryland and New England. With roots in Native American nations, Canada and France, its development in 20th century America can be traced largely to Johns Hopkins University, which beat out other schools in the Baltimore area to represent the U.S. in the 1928 and ’32 Olympics.
Schools like Johns Hopkins, Syracuse and Princeton have long dominated the college lacrosse scene, and for kids growing up in Baltimore, Long Island or parts of Virginia and other areas of the East, playing lacrosse has always been as common as playing Little League Baseball in other areas of the country.
That all started to change in the last decade or so, as the popularity of lacrosse spread to the southeast and western states like Colorado, Texas and California.
Perhaps one of the biggest catalysts for the boom in North County has been the influx of high school and club coaches from traditionally lacrosse-rich areas of the country. Katie Dolan migrated west from Baltimore and the University of Richmond and now coaches the girls team at La Costa Canyon. Former Richmond teammate Amanda Bourquin is the girls coach at Torrey Pines. Poway’s girls coach, Sarah Spillett, is from Syracuse, N.Y., and played at the University of Albany, and there are many others.
“It’s such a great sport, so it’s really exciting to see how much it’s grown in a short amount of time, and I think it’s only going to continue to grow,” Dolan said. “It’s exciting that college coaches are beginning to take a hard look at the West for recruiting.”
Like any sport new to the CIF, lacrosse here so far has been dominated by a handful of teams. Thirteen of the 14 of the CIF San Diego Section championships contested since 2002 have been won by North County schools —- three each by La Costa Canyon’s boys and girls, three by Torrey Pines’ boys, three by Poway’s girls, and one by Poway’s girls.
As the sport has grown in the area, and as the influx of youth programs has helped it develop in more local cities, more high schools have become competitive. Rancho Bernardo is currently second in the North County Conference boys standings, and teams like Mt. Carmel and Valley Center find themselves in the playoff picture as the regular season winds down.
“That’s something that still needs to happen in order for us to grow,” Bourquin said. “It’s going to be a chain reaction. The more coaches that come here, the more schools are going to add the sport. There are some teams that weren’t competitive five years ago that are getting better and better, and that has a lot to do with their feeder programs.”
Peter Olsen, the secretary of the San Diego County Girls Lacrosse Association, said the boom in lacrosse’s popularity is partly attributable to the influx of coaches from the East Coast, as well as the fact that the game is easy to pick up quickly.
Rob Warner, who manages the lacrosse retailer South Swell Sports in Solana Beach, added his opinion that the addictive nature of the sport and its fast pace attracts young players.
All seemed to agree that the growth hasn’t come close to reaching its peak.
“I think if it continues to grow and it’s handled correctly by the CIF, athletic directors and principals, it could generate revenue for the schools, because it’s so entertaining for the fans,” Principi said. “It could be the football of the springtime. That’s the direction I hope it goes.”