Cultivating the Creator's Game 

Montana's fastest growing sport is the oldest in North America

Page 2 of 4

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.

click to enlarge Griz coach Tucker Sargent tosses a ball against a homemade wall. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Griz coach Tucker Sargent tosses a ball against a homemade wall.

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.

click to enlarge Hellgate High School coach and Missoula Elite founder Kevin Flynn. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Hellgate High School coach and Missoula Elite founder Kevin Flynn.

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.

click to enlarge 10Sticks founder Alex Alviar. “What I love about Montana lacrosse is, it’s small. It’s still intimate,” he says. “In five years we’ll all be looking back on these days with nostalgia.” - PHOTO COURTESY OF CONTENT MONKEY
  • photo courtesy of Content Monkey
  • 10Sticks founder Alex Alviar. “What I love about Montana lacrosse is, it’s small. It’s still intimate,” he says. “In five years we’ll all be looking back on these days with nostalgia.”

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.

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