A yellow blur was all that could be seen on the sidelines. As the goal horn exploded, the crowd jumped to their feet. Their chants of “Ryan” had almost seemed to drive the ball into the back of the net. Archers midfielder Ryan McNamara had granted the PLL fans of Minnesota what they were clamoring for: a goal from the Eagan, Minnesota native himself.
Despite the Archers being on the losing end of the 13-12 final score against the Cannons on July 11, McNamara’s goal was a display of how far lacrosse has come in a state known for playing important games on ice, not turf.
Walking around TCO Stadium in Eagan, MN during the PLL’s weekend slate, it was easy to notice the impact the game is having on not only adults but also the youth. A booth for mini lacrosse sticks was nearly sold-out by the time the Archers-Cannons game was beginning. Groups of children fought for ground balls by the food courts, while others were engaged in tense matches of wall-ball in the concourses. Youth players from True Lacrosse clubs started chants behind the Archers’ bench. The sport has slowly but surely reached a fever pitch with the people of Minnesota and it is evident by the youth movement.
Matt Hourigan has been around lacrosse since he was a young kid. He began his playing career in fifth grade and continued to grow his game throughout childhood. While not a Minnesota native, Hourigan has lived in the state for a better part of a decade and has a four and six-year-old who are following in his footsteps.
“I’ve been in Minnesota for 11 years now, and I think when I showed up there were maybe half the number of high school teams [than there are now] and even less youth teams,” Horrigan said. “Now, my boys play in a U8 program and there has to be 20 to 40 teams that are kids just starting out. That didn’t exist five years ago here.”
Hourigan, who is the varsity lacrosse coach at Cretin-Derham Hall in St. Paul, MN, noted that kids have two sports they can play in the spring; baseball and lacrosse. While baseball has always been the go-to spring sport, the expansion of lacrosse programs across the state is giving people the opportunity to try a sport that is closer in nature to hockey.
“Lacrosse is hard, right? Throwing and catching for a 7-year-old is a really difficult thing. But I think the contrast is very different from the other sport people play here in the spring, which is baseball,” Hourigan said. “Kids play baseball and lacrosse to start, and I think a certain kid picks up a lacrosse stick and never looks back. They get that nose for the net.”
Just 15 years ago, Ryan Meitz was one of those kids. Born in Stillwater, MN, Meitz never found the methodically-paced sport of baseball to be quite as enjoyable as the hard-hitting intensity of hockey. He wanted something more in-line with his winter sport. Choosing lacrosse over baseball was a decision he never regretted and he credits the similarities between hockey and lacrosse as a contributor to the latter’s recent growth in the area.
“It has something to do with the fact that hockey is so big up here, and those hockey players don’t have the option to play in the summer. They get to try other things. Usually people that like hockey like fast-paced, high-energy games and that’s something that baseball can’t provide.”
Because hockey and lacrosse share similar strands of DNA, winter tournaments are the perfect place to find the next potential lacrosse star.
Anoka Ramsey Athletic Association commissioner Terry Christensen has been recruiting hockey players to the Association’s lacrosse program for years now. His eldest son introduced him to the sport and, upon learning the ins-and-outs of the game, was “hooked, line and sinker.” Now, he preaches the game of lacrosse to hockey parents and kids.
“All of our recruiting is at the hockey rink,” Christensen said. “That’s where we see our numbers grow, year-in and year-out. We take tables in during tournaments and pass out flyers, recruit the kids and the parents, and it snowballs from there.”
Just last year he recruited over 60 kids to his organization and it continues to grow.
“I think in my seven years… less than five kids have come to play and never come back.”
Being able to bring people over to a new sport is one thing, but being able to retain a large number of those players is just as important. That’s where the similarities between hockey and lacrosse truly yield dividends. Jumping from lacrosse to hockey isn’t as jarring as going from hockey to baseball. While new players have to adjust to lacrosse’s rules and gameplay differences, the similar pace-of-play, hard-hitting action and team structure offer some familiarity for hockey players.
Minnesota has seen lacrosse gain a steady stream of popularity over the past few years and there seem to be no reasons to expect that train to slow down. While hockey plays a role in getting players interested in lacrosse, the sport is also beginning to root itself in families.
Team Minnesota Lacrosse Club CEO Rob Graff has noticed that as a contribution for the sport expanding in the state.
“Quite simply, it’s the people who love the game and want it to grow here in Minnesota,” Graff said. “ Some of the people are transplants from other areas, but what I find really exciting is the growth driven by people who picked up the sport for the first time here in Minnesota. We’re starting to see the sons and daughters of players who played in local Minnesota-based college teams drive the sport forward.”
Graff also mentioned the Youth Lacrosse Minnesota and MSLax tournaments as examples of lacrosse growing, as well as the continued expansion of varsity leagues based in Duluth, St. Cloud and Marshall.
Epoch Lacrosse CEO James Miceli has witnessed the rise of lacrosse in Minnesota first-hand over the last decade as well. Not just as a fan, but as a businessman.
“I moved to Minnesota 14 years ago and Minnesota lacrosse was still in its infancy,” Miceli said. “ Since then, we have seen a tremendous amount of growth. There are a lot of factors and stats to point to, but for me the eye test is most relevant – you see kids in the neighborhood with nets on the front lawn and having a catch on a daily basis.”
He wants to see lacrosse grow as much as anyone and Epoch has been trying to set youth players up with gear that fits and offers a bit of customization.
“Our strategy for youth players is very similar to our strategy for club, high school and college players – provide gear that offers a technologically advanced feature or two… Our arm pads are reversible and work on either arm; and our gloves have a wrist strap to make them fit snug,” Miceli said. “Additionally, our iD vision lacrosse head (which has made it onto the field in the PLL) has two different hole options for players to string how they like and get different pocket profiles.”
These features are just a few pieces of equipment that the company provides in the hope that it can continue to reach a younger age group in Minnesota. While more players mean more sales, watching a sport one loves grow and become adopted in an area where, fifteen years ago there was very little interest, is equally satisfying for Miceli and is a sentiment shared by Minnesota natives like Meitz.
“When I was younger, there were no traveling programs for kids and we were the first youth club,” Meitz said. “And now there are teams for every city. Everybody has lacrosse as an option now.”