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."