On an unseasonably warm Saturday afternoon in January, just hours before the Saints’ wild card playoff victory against the Lions, over a hundred spectators gather at Farley Field on Brother Martin High School’s campus to watch the varsity lacrosse team take on a group of alumni players. Nearly one hundred kids warm up for the exhibition, scooping up white balls with their sticks and flicking them to each other on the run. The official blows his whistle and opposing teams huddle up, raise their sticks high into the air, shout in unison and trot onto the field.
“Come on, guys, teamwork! Attack the goal!” coaches and parents shout from the sidelines. “Get on ‘em! D up! Go to the ball!”
In a hard-fought battle, the varsity team defeated the alumni by one goal, but the game’s outcome wasn’t the story. What transpired there showcased not only athletic talent and zeal, but also a spirited community indicative of what is attracting young players to a game most Louisianians scarcely know. Sparked by passionate and forward-thinking coaches, and cultivated by enthusiastic parents and teachers, in less than a decade young men and women in New Orleans have begun reaping the benefits of team lacrosse while turning it into a fast-growing sport in Louisiana.
“I’m not surprised by the fact that it’s taken off, but by how quickly it’s taken off,” says Billy Kirkikis, Brother Martin’s head coach. “In Louisiana, it’s only a matter of time before we catch up to other states on this.”
For Kirkikis, coaching lacrosse came unexpectedly in 2004. Spurred by her sons’ interest in the sport, Kirkikis’ wife Christi applied for a grant from U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, to start a club team at Brother Martin. She encouraged her husband to become the team’s first coach. When Hurricane Katrina delayed the process, it gave Kirkikis time to learn the rules and regulations.
“When we started, I expected to have about thirty players each year,” he says. “This year we’re approaching one hundred kids.”
Lacrosse attracts athletic kids who, for a variety of reasons, are turned away from other sports and quickly relish its fast-paced action and team competition. Rather than fall through the cracks of high school athletics, lacrosse allows motivated athletes an opportunity to share in the camaraderie and health benefits of a team sport. And although lacrosse favors strength and agility, it requires no pre-determined body type.
“These kids may not be the star football or baseball players, but they’re athletic,” says Kirkikis, whose sons double as cross-country runners. “There’s no specific physical mold as in basketball or football, so players don’t need size; they only need desire and aggressiveness.”
And while many come to lacrosse from other sports, increasingly students are arriving at high schools eager to play lacrosse as their first-choice sport, many with playing experience to match.
“We have guys who choose lacrosse to play in the eighth grade, those who aren’t even interested in other sports,” Kirkikis says.
While participation has doubled nationally over the last seven years, according to U.S. Lacrosse, Louisiana has seen growth estimated at 500 percent. Migrating from Texas to Shreveport, and finally to South Louisiana, lacrosse spread from private parochial schools to public charter schools like KIPP Believe in New Orleans, growing from a handful of teams in 2004 to nearly thirty teams in the metro area today.
The biggest challenge for schools wanting to implement a lacrosse team is the upstart money, coaches say. A New Start Program grant from U.S. Lacrosse is worth $5,000, which covers 24 sets of equipment. Most schools charge around $200 per year for dues to pay for officiating, field rental and travel. Gear runs about $300 per player.
“We do fundraisers to help buy uniforms and other gear,” Kirkikis says. “It can cost anywhere from $20,000 to 50,000 annually to put on a program.”
Many attribute the sport’s local growth to Ford Deith, a visionary coach at Christian Brothers School. Deith, 40, who also teaches fifth grade at the school, grew up in River Ridge and played varsity football at St. Martin’s Episcopal School. During his second year at Shenandoah University in Northern Virginia, the college developed a Division III lacrosse program. When a number of experienced recruits from around Virginia and Maryland became academically ineligible, coaches looked around for any athletes they could find within the school. They needed a goalie, so they trained Deith, who quickly fell in love with the sport. He brought his passion for the game back home and started New Orleans’ first lacrosse program at Christian Brothers in 2004. Now the school has two programs, an intramural team and a travel team.
“When we started, we instantly had a hundred kids involved,” Deith said. “I knew a lot of these kids would be going to area Catholic high schools, so I helped schools like Jesuit, Brother Martin and Rummel grow programs.”
In addition to teaching and coaching, Deith still plays lacrosse and serves as co-president of the New Orleans Lacrosse Club, an organization that hosts an annual, post-collegiate event called the Mardi Gras Lacrosse Tournament, which has become one of the most popular destination lacrosse events in the country. Featuring both men’s and women’s games in divisions with names like Thoth and Endymion, the competition is traditionally held in City Park during the first weekend of Mardi Gras.
Lacrosse boasts a uniquely American history believed to trace as far back as 2000 B.C. The Native American version, first observed in 1637 by French Jesuit missionary Jean de Brébeuf, consisted of hundreds of men on a field that stretched up to a mile long, with victors winning honor for their tribes. He called it la crosse, or “the stick,” because of the primary instrument used in play. But modern lacrosse emerged during the early 1900s as a regional sport centered along the East Coast, featuring ten players on each team—three attackers, three midfielders, three defenders, and a goalie—attempting to score by shooting the ball into the opponent’s six-foot square goal on a field 110 yards (100 meters) long.
“The sport combines elements of hockey, soccer, football and basketball, so it appeals to a lot of kids who are familiar with those sports,” Deith says.
Tyler Gray, 30, a New Orleans city attorney, played varsity lacrosse at Denison University, a Division III school in Ohio. When he moved to New Orleans in 2007 to attend Loyola Law School, he became involved with the New Orleans Lacrosse Club and coached at Jesuit High School. Eager to develop the sport, he cold-called officials at the Allstate Sugar Bowl to gauge their interest in sponsoring a college game in New Orleans. Despite concerns about the difficulty of bringing big NCAA teams to the city, the inaugural Allstate Sugar Bowl Collegiate Lacrosse Classic was held at Pan American Stadium in January 2011, featuring a collegiate club match with Texas defeating Florida State 12 – 11.
The Allstate Sugar Bowl event also hosts marquee high school matchups. In 2008, there were eight teams—two from Texas, one from Mississippi, and three from Shreveport. Now, the event hosts 40 teams, 38 of which are from Louisiana, including Baton Rouge, Lafayette, New Orleans and the North Shore.
“The goal for this year is to get a thousand people to attend the event,” Gray says. “Our third year goal is to bring in big varsity program schools, but we will always support club teams that are already here, like LSU.”
According to Gray, elements like checking and penalty box play are similar to hockey, but the mechanics of offensive play resemble basketball, complete with pick-and-roll strategies and fast transitions, while defense incorporates football-like pass blocking.
“The game is always moving, with continual substitutions and a lot of hand-eye coordination,” Gray says.
Donald Davis, Brother Martin’s senior captain, began playing under Ford Deith as a sixth grader at Christian Brothers and quickly gave up other playground sports. He now also plays for Team Quick Stick, a travel team based out of Covington. An academic standout, he hopes to play as a walk-on in college next year.
“I like the flow of the game,” Davis says. “I love the competition and friendships I’ve made and it’s a nice way to get my mind off everything and just have fun.”
Of course, none of this grass-roots growth would be possible without parental support.
“I started coaching and officiating after my son started playing in the fifth grade at Christian Brothers,” says Bob Rodgers, whose son Mitchell now plays for LSU. “My son became interested in the sport and they needed dads to step up.”
Others offer encouragement by attending games and helping with financial support.
“The parent participation is wonderful,” says Rhonda Sylvera. “Lacrosse has given my son an opportunity to stay healthy and play a team sport that he can continue playing in college.”
Steve Lorio, whose sons play lacrosse, cooked a huge pot of steaming jambalaya to sell as part of a fundraiser during the Brother Martin varsity-alumni game.
“Our backyard hardly has any grass left on it because our sons are always out there practicing,” he says. “But it’s worth it for what they get out of it.”