Rain was spitting and a cold wind had the few dozen sideline spectators pulling their winter coats tightly around themselves as they watched the Hellgate Knights lacrosse team play its home opener against the Big Sky Eagles. Lacking access to high school facilities, the teams played at DeSmet School, west of the airport. The tiny schoolyard was barely big enough to accommodate a regulation lacrosse field and one sideline was just six inches from the asphalt basketball court.
The whistle blew. A Hellgate midfielder won the face-off and quickly ran the ball upfield. He passed to a waiting attacker, who was immediately confronted by an Eagle defender. Panicked, the attacker fired the ball toward the far sideline, hoping a teammate was there.
Five yards off the corner of the goal, Hellgate's Spencer Schultz leaped high into the air to spear the ball with his stick and save it from sailing out of bounds. As he came down, he rotated toward the goal and curled his stick down low, sneaking a shot an inch or two beneath the goalie's stick and into the goal. Schultz pulled off the move in one seamless motion that left jaws gaping both on the field and along the sidelines.
After a moment of stunned silence, the crowd went nuts. If only more people had been there to see it.
Lacrosse is still an anomaly in western Montana, an exotic "prep school sport" they play Back East. The West is catching up, though, with high school and college programs thriving in Washington, Oregon and Colorado. Even the University of Montana has a club team with a national championship under its belt. But it's taken more than 400 years for the oldest game in North America to make steady inroads throughout the Treasure State.
Lacrosse's origins are hard to pin down. European explorers and missionaries first witnessed American Indians playing in the 1630s, but different precursors of the game, such as shinny and double ball, were part of Native culture for centuries. The age of lacrosse is usually placed between 400 and 1,000 years, but many tribes familiar with the sport believe it has been around longer than they have, a game that was played by the animals before man even existed.
The Native version of the game was a deeply spiritual undertaking; it is still referred to by tribal members as "The Creator's Game." American Indian lore tells of games sometimes lasting for days. The playing field frequently stretched for miles, involving as many as one thousand players on each side. Games were played to entertain the Creator, but also to heal the sick, train and strengthen warriors and as an alternative to war itself.
Christened "lacrosse" by a French Jesuit missionary in 1836, the sport became popular in the eastern Canadian provinces and in the U.S. Northeast. In 1867, Canadian George Beers codified lacrosse with field dimensions, equipment standards and rules. The first U.S. high school team was fielded in New Jersey in 1887.
Today, it's finally catching on with Montana kids faster than you can say "Harlem Shake." They're drawn to a game that requires a variety of physiques, from speedy midfielders to stout defenders to twitch-quick goalies. It rewards speed and quickness over size, brains over brawn.
"Any kid that enjoys football, soccer, hockey or basketball usually picks up lacrosse and loves it right away because there are so many shared skill sets," says Tucker Sargent, head coach of the Griz lacrosse team.
Montana Lacrosse, the 3-year-old state arm of US Lacrosse, reports that 47 kids registered to play statewide in 2009about the size of a typical high school football roster.
By 2011, the number had increased nearly tenfold. Last year's count was 697, and in 2013 there may be close to 1,000 Montana kids playing the game.
That's not good enough for Kevin Flynn.
Within Montana's lacrosse community, Missoula is regarded as the hub, and Kevin Flynn represents its centrifugal force. Since winning the Division B national championship with UM in 2007, the 30-year-old Chicago transplant has made it his mission to spread the lacrosse love across Montana. He started in 2008 by enlisting the help of Griz teammate Jamie Pyke, who had already begun a flagship middle school program. The pair started Missoula Elite, the lacrosse organization responsible for introducing the game to a rapidly growing market of all ages and both sexes.
"Kevin has created a great program with Missoula Elite," says Big Sky High School coach Keith Kreiner. "It is difficult to build a high school program without having an influx of players. As more freshman start coming in with an understanding of the game and an established skill set, coaches can spend less time teaching fundamentals and focus more on strategy. Picture a basketball coach having to teach his players how to dribble two weeks before a game."
The game isn't that complicated. In lacrosse, as with hockey, soccer and basketball, the object is to put the biscuit in the basket. In this case, the biscuit is a hard rubber ball about the size of a tennis ball, weighing five ounces. It is just a little less dense than a Super Ball, and when it hits you at 80 mph, it will leave a mark.
Players throw and catch the ball using a three-and-a-half-foot (longer for defense) stick that is topped with a roughly triangular-shaped head strung with a shallow mesh. The net doesn't grip the ball like the pocket of a baseball glove, however, so players constantly spin the shaft back and forth, or "cradle," to try and keep the ball in place. It's like trying to carry a cue ball in a loosely strung tennis racket while an opponent is using his stick to whack the bejesus out of you.
Although it's fast-paced and bristling with hits, it's not as dangerous as it looks. Players collect bumps and bruises as their opponents use their sticks to try and separate them from the ball, but that's generally the worst of it. State-of-the-art helmets and high-tech body and elbow pads complement heavily cushioned gloves to offer players plenty of protection without hindering their movement.
Since Flynn founded Missoula Elite, all three Missoula public high schools have a team. Now, Flynn is taking his show on the road. Part Johnny Appleseed and part Pied Piper, he plans to throw a "lacrosse kit" in the back of his pickup and introduce the so-called "fastest game on two feet" to 50 Montana high schools this summer in an ambitious barnstorming effort he calls the Grow Montana Lacrosse Experiment. His goal: a high school team in every town by 2015.
He's already logged hundreds of miles putting on clinics over the past couple years. "I've met kids who want to play," says Flynn, who is in his third year coaching Hellgate alongside assistant Brandon Kendall. "I could go (to a town) 50 times but there has to be a person there who's interested. What's important is that somebody gets the light turned on in their head."
He's hoping to find more people like Amber Guge, the Helena mom who drove her 8-year-old son to Missoula twice a week all last spring for Elite practice sessions and games. Last fall Flynn took a few high school players with him from Missoula and set up a demo in Helena. About 20 players showed up. It was clear that the interest was there; all he needed was that one parent to step up to the plate and act as director. Amber raised her hand. This year Helena's program has grown to 50 kids.
"That's just one mom," says Flynn. "She had no lacrosse experience, no team management experience, just the willingness to do a little bit of work. There's somebody in every one of these towns who has the capability of running a great program."
To Montana players and coaches, Flynn is known as Mr. Lacrosse, but he's not the only ex-player who's come out West to establish a beachhead in Montana. Programs have come to life in Whitefish, Billings and Bozeman as well. These nascent organizations typically share one key ingredient: a Northeasterner who's familiar with the game and its culture.
Matt Rizzolo, a New Jersey native who has played lacrosse his whole life and now coaches the Flathead Lacrosse Club in Whitefish, has seen remarkable growth in the northwest corner of the state.
"We started with 40 kids four seasons ago," he says. "Then 85 the next year. Last year our first high school team had 25 kids. This year we have 38 on varsity and JV." He says there are 125 kids of all ages in the program, enough to allow them to launch two teams for those 13 or younger, or U13.
One of the issues the Whitefish team shares with Missoula and pretty much every other team in Montana is the difficulty of practicing a spring sport outdoors. "The seasons take a long time to start," Rizzolo said in a phone interview just before spring break in late March. "We're heading out to the field at 4:30 today to shovel snow so we can practice."
In late March, Bozeman also had a ton of snowand a ton of lacrosse players. High school coach John Merkovsky grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and picked up his first lacrosse stick at age 7. He is in his second year of coaching.
"Fields in March? Let's just say there are none. We had our beginning practices in a horse barn. Thankfully we had some warm days early, so we finally got outside just this week."
As Bozeman has only one public high school, "depth is not a problem," Merkovsky says. They have 50 players split into a varsity and JV team, which provides at least two players at each of the 10 positions. Bozeman also has U15, U13, U11 and U9 youth programs as well as middle school and girls high school teams.
While Bozeman may be enjoying an embarrassment of riches in lacrosse-crazy kids, the sport has faced a much harder time gaining a toehold in other parts of Montana—most notably, on Indian reservations.
Alex Alviar, a teacher at Salish Kootenai College, had always wondered why the Creator's Game was not available for young tribal members on the rez. Then he decided to do something about it.
Alviar was a two-time All-American at his Detroit high school, and when he discovered a cache of lacrosse sticks and balls in a dusty corner of the gym storeroom, he was delighted. Unsure of what to do next, he queried Flynn, with whom he played on a men's league in Missoula.
"All you need is 10 kids and 10 sticks," Flynn said.
Ten kids. Alviar figured he just had to get a stick into a kid's hands and he'd be hooked. He contacted five high schools along Highway 93 North and was allowed to give demos at three of them. He lured potential players to after-school informational meetings with pizza and soda, eventually collecting 200 signatures on a sign-up sheet. His new organization, 10Sticks, was off and running.
Or so he thought. Of the 200 boys who put their name on the sign-up sheets, not a single one showed up to his first clinic, even though he had followed up on each name with phone calls and emails. Alviar was deeply discouraged, but then he got an email from a kid named Dan "Big Dan" LaFranier, an American Indian football player from Polson, one of the schools that had refused Alviar's request to stage a demo. Big Dan had somehow gotten wind of the lacrosse clinic and wanted to check it out. He brought a couple of friends, and his buddy Al Plant from Arlee brought a couple of his friends. Soon the friends brought more friends, including a boy whose dad, J.R. Daniels, had coached lacrosse in Indiana. Alviar had his 10 kids.
He credits the Malcolm Gladwell book The Tipping Point with affecting a change in his focus. Instead of casting a wide net for players, Alviar started going after the kids who really cared about the sport, or "the 20 percent who do 80 percent of the work," as he puts it.
The 10Sticks club has bootstrapped its way up since that "borderline disaster" first year, Alviar says. He secured a grant to buy helmets. One player went out into the community to seek donations for the team. Gatorade, bottled water, printed team jerseys, even the occasional check started to trickle in.
10Sticks is in its third season now, and continues to grow and improve. Daniels handles the Xs and Os, freeing Alviar to write grants, schedule games and clinics, lead community outreach and generally "craft the narrative" of the Creator's Game on the Flathead Indian Reservation. His latest venture is a crowd-funding project, "Ten Sticks In Ten Days," that will raise money to send three or four players to a tournament hosted this summer by the Six Nations of Iroquois, which he calls "the motherland of lacrosse."
Alviar is highly driven, and dead serious about telling the story of lacrosse and sharing its meaning among Native Americans. "We're not just here to change the face of lacrosse," he says. "We're here to change what it means to love lacrosse. I want lacrosse to be as ubiquitous as basketball in Indian country out here in Montana, and it all starts here."
Ironically, the Creator's Game can be a tough sell in some Native communities. Efforts to start a lacrosse program on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation were met with "intensive opposition" from the high school in Browning, Alviar says. There was plenty of interest from the kids, but no parents or coaches stepped forward to coordinate and run the program. The high school administration did not want to make room for a new sport, even one with deep Native roots. Browning is a tight community, and parents didn't want to be viewed as opponents of the school.
"They need someone who's immune to the school board," Alviar says.
Rick Roy is a garrulous, affably self-assured devotee of lacrosse who runs the Nadzitsaga lacrosse program in Burns, Ore. The club, which attracts kids from all over Harney County, just east of Bend, largely comprises American Indians. Astonishingly, Nadzitsaga and 10Sticks are the only two mostly Native lacrosse high school teams in the West, although a Native program in Umatilla, Ore., is reportedly gearing up.
Like 10Sticks, Nadzitsaga forms a spirit circle before and after games, offering up prayers of thanks to the Creator. The Missoula teams they've faced eagerly join the circle, sharing their respect for the game and for each other. Other Oregon teams, Roy says, will have no part of it.
Nadzitsaga has been around since 2008, and the program faces the same funding challenges as 10Sticks and other Montana club teams.
"It's a marketing game," Roy says bluntly, when asked how he generates the resources for his team. "We have access to three fields, and I'm working on getting lights on one of them." It comes across as a boast, but it's a well-earned one. Lacrosse can be difficult to establish in any school district when parents and school administrations fear that it will take a bite out of the school's thin budget. But Roy understands the game's spiritual essence and its positive impact on the lives of Nadzitsaga's players. He's worked hard at fostering a mutually beneficial relationship with Burns' school administrators.
"We don't get direct financial support from the schools, but we get lots of tangible support like fields for no charge, early releases, morning announcements, inclusion in the yearbook, et cetera, from the school district," he says. "That is very important. It's about outreach, not just coaching Xs and Os. I think we are seen as benefiting kids, not just playing a sport."
Nadzitsaga players are highly visible in the Burns community. The team is regularly featured in the local paper and radio, and they host Indian Taco feeds to raise money. Roy says they have sent six or seven kids to college to play lacrosse. By heavily networking within his community, Roy just may have found the template to navigate the tricky waters of high school athletics.
Although it takes constant effort to keep the cash and equipment rolling in, Roylike Flynn in Missoula and Alviar in Pablo—would rather not see lacrosse become fully sanctioned by the high schools at this point. It would stifle the current growth of the sport.
"The prayer circle?" Roy says. "That would be the first thing to go."
Flynn concurs. "My perfect world is to keep it a club sport. As soon as they give you money, they can start telling you what to do," he says.
For one thing, Flynn says, the school district would probably not allow his team to play non-conference games like this year's Spring Break matchups with Nadzitsaga and two other Central Oregon teams. Missoula teams also frequently travel to Sandpoint, Idaho, and Spokane, Wash., for tournaments. Nor would they fund or approve the cross-country travel to summer clinics that can gain exposure and face time with big-name lacrosse pros for high school players hoping to continue their careers into college. These clinics are crucial to players like Hellgate star Spencer Schultz, since college recruiters from Division I schools tend to think of Montana as nothing more than that guy who used to throw passes to Jerry Rice.
Last summer, Matt Gibson, Major League Lacrosse's rookie of the year, worked out with Schultz in Chicago and told Flynn he had no doubt Schultz could play at a Division I level. But Schultz has received no offer to play at a Division I school.
"Frankly, that's somebody's loss," says Flynn.
He points out that full-ride athletic scholarships for lacrosse are practically nonexistent, even at the big D-I schools back east. "The whole scholarship thing is a huge myth."
Even if a kid goes to college in-state, he will pay anywhere from $2,500 to $4,000 each year to play for the lacrosse club.
"That's something that UM and MSU have to get figured out," says Flynn, who would love to see homegrown players get a financial break.
Full-ride lacrosse scholarships are almost nil, but big-school programs that want a player on their squad will help a student with good grades locate grants, loans and other financial aid to help get him into the school and onto the team.
Tristan Jacobson, Hellgate's talented goalie, has found his own path to college through lacrosse. Jacobson has been offered a scholarship to play lacrosse for the University of Great Falls, an NAIA school. The Argos just added a varsity lacrosse program, and are offering scholarships for men and women.
Lacrosse, like most sports, still revolves around a love of the game. And that love comes with a price. The trade-off for a club sport's autonomy is the burden of having to pay for everything. Bob Rowe, treasurer of the Hellgate team, shared a list of expenses "from soup to nuts" that must be paid for by the club.
"We pay for refs, tons of balls, cases of spray paint, a couple of team barbeques a year and then we have funds for nickel and dime things. For instance, we're talking about grabbing a tent for the boys to stand under in the sun or the rain and that sort of thing."
Rowe and a few parents helped organize a spring fundraiser to supplement the $400 dues paid by each varsity player. Gangs of three or four boys bearing rakes and shovels fanned out through Missoula and spent a pre-season Sunday cleaning up yards at $100 a pop. They raised $2,100 in one day.
Lacking any funding from the high schools, the clubs also are responsible for procuring the fields for practice and games. That has been a major struggle for Hellgate.
Flynn says the school feels that the fields are under the purview of the district; the district says field use is up to the individual schools. Since neither entity has given the okay for Hellgate's team to use any of the school's fields, the 2012 state champion Knights have had to work out this spring on a patch of grass at the edge of a housing development on Mullan Road while Hellgate's Rattlesnake Fields stood empty.
Sentinel gets to use its adjacent Stegner Field, but they are paying a fee for the privilege. Big Sky was also turned away from practicing on its own school's fields this spring. After scrambling for practice fields at various middle schools, Kreiner was finally given the nod just last week to play on a field next to the high school.
Coaches and players are mystified as to the district's reluctance to open up the school fields to lacrosse. The teams feel they deserve access to the same facilities as "legitimate" sports like football and soccer—or at least fields that don't butt up against asphalt and threaten player safety.
Getting the cold shoulder from the very schools they represent has been frustrating for the players, coaches and parents, but those with experience in establishing new sports programs recognize it simply as growing pains. It's a new sport. It's unconventional. It's misunderstood.
"They'll get used to it," says Alviar, who has seen the cycle play out before. "They always do. What I love about Montana lacrosse is, it's small. It's still intimate." He flashes the smile of a man who has a crystal ball and likes what he sees. "In five years we'll all be looking back on these days with nostalgia."
Flynn, the unflappable sideline presence who majored in Native American Studies, takes it all in stride. He has the vision. He sees lacrosse fields everywhere. He knows lacrosse develops more than just athletic skill; it nurtures a sense of respect and honor within its players. He gathers his team on whatever patch of grass he can scrounge up and continues to teach the philosophy and the purity of spirit of Montana's newest, oldest sport. All he wants is to grow the game.
Bob Rowe has no doubt that he will succeed. "Kevin is very optimistic," he says with a laugh. "Everything is possible. He won't be happy until we get a stadium."