Cultivating the Creator's Game 

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

Page 4 of 4

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.

click to enlarge PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters

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.

click to enlarge The Hellgate Knights defeated the Sentinel Spartans during the March 16 season opener at DeSmet School. - PHOTO BY CATHRINE L. WALTERS
  • photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • The Hellgate Knights defeated the Sentinel Spartans during the March 16 season opener at DeSmet 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."

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