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Growing the game north

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Combine the speed of hockey, the high-scoring of basketball and the physicality of football and you have a sport unlike any other, and one that is slowly creeping across the northern part of the state.

Lacrosse; It’s making an impact on the Minnesota and Brainerd High School sports scene harder than a hit taken on the field.

“Lacrosse is growing rapidly at the high school level across the state and there is certainly some positive energy moving the sport forward here at Brainerd High School,” said Charlie Campbell, activities director at Brainerd High School (BHS). “We always appreciate positive, healthy avenues of engaging students in activities, like lacrosse, that extend their school day.”

A sport popular in East Coast hotbeds such as Boston, Baltimore and New York, using a stick, soccer field and a rubber ball against a net similar to a hockey size, it has seen a 218 percent increase in participants across the nation over the past three years according to U.S. Lacrosse, the governing body for the sport — an increase that has quickly made lacrosse the fastest growing sport in North America.

First recognized by the Minnesota State High School League (MSHSL) in 2007, MSHSL is currently home to 57 boys and 63 girls sanctioned high school lacrosse teams, expanding to more each year.

And while the lacrosse stick is becoming a more common sight on outdoor fields around the state, the sport is still in its beginning stages, with plenty of schools fielding teams and waiting to get the bump up out of club and into official high school status.

Teams like BHS.

“We’ve definitely seen some expansion into this part of the state,” said BHS boy’s club lacrosse coach Tyler Brown, now in his fourth year at the helm of the high school club team. “But it’s a lot of traveling that’s for sure and there’s so much that needs to go into it in order for the sport to grow up here.

“We just want to play and teach people the sport and see where it can grow from there.”

Brown, a player on the BHS squad when it was just an intramural team in 2006, said finding close competition is one of the hardest feats faced by the Warrior squad. Now competing in the Minnesota Boys Scholastic Lacrosse Association (MBSLA) varsity program — a non-sanctioned high school conference — for the past four years BHS’ competition in the north conference of the league includes: St. Cloud North, Duluth, Grand Rapids, Fargo, Grand Cities and Proctor.

“Fargo added a team last year and Grand Cities — a team based in Grand Forks with kids from all around the area — and Proctor added a team this year,” said Brown, who traded his golf clubs for a lacrosse stick his junior year of high school. “And I think Bemidji and Alexandria are working on a trying to get a team together so we are seeing some expansion, which is always great.”

But in the area, Brown admits keeping up with numbers that schools in the Twin Cities have — where the sport has most been embraced in the state — is a challenge.

“Right now we have 25 guys this year and we’ve had around that number the past two years,” said Brown, who took over the BHS squad following graduation in 2008. “Our next step would be to try and add a youth program so we’re not starting from scratch every year when we lose our graduating seniors.

“That’s where schools in the (Twin) Cities have an edge, they have a system that can replace players because they start in third grade, so that’s something we need to start here in order to really help the sport grow.”

Rostering a sixth-grader, seventh-grader and two eighth-graders, Brown said the younger generation is starting to pick up, especially when they have older siblings who play, like Jake and Justin Franzen.

“A lot of guys are kind of starting to come out,” said Justin, a sophomore midfielder whose seventh-grade brother Jake is also on the team. “My little brother (Jake) is playing right now and some of the guys we had last year played with their siblings, I think we had like three sets of little brothers, so that’s a big part of it.

“When a little brother sees their big brother playing and they go ‘that looks really cool, I want to play that’ it helps get us some players.”

But Brown said right now their biggest recruiting tool is players who are multi-sport athletes and talk their teammates in their fall and winter sports into coming out for the team.

“I saw some guys playing in the pit a couple years ago and thought it looked cool,“ said Mitch Howieson, a senior attackman who picked up the lacrosse stick and began playing four years ago, longer than most of his teammates. “I play hockey, so I figured it was kind of like that, so me and a couple teammates tried it out.

”Now, each year, I try to tell more and more of them to come out.”

But as funding and numbers continue to be the overall biggest challenges in front of BHS and status as a sanctioned high school sport, how long until Brainerd gets the nod to move up? Time and growth will tell.

“It’s hard to predict when lacrosse (in Brainerd) might become a MSHSL sport at Brainerd High School,” said Campbell. “At this time there are inherent challenges related to our rural geography and the financial impact of adding two teams to our extra-curricular programming. It is my hope that our coaches and kids will vision for themselves a vibrant future for lacrosse and continue to work around and through current realities.”

And that’s just fine with Brown and his team for now.

“It’s going to take a lot of work to get to that next level,” said Brown. “And it’s not that we don’t look forward to that, but right now I think we’re happy and the school’s happy with where the team and program are at.

“Down the road though, who knows what can happen. The sport is only going to continue to grow so it’s something that we will always keep in the back of our minds, but until then, we’re enjoying keeping things the same.”

JESSI PIERCE, staff writer, may be reached at 855-5859 or Follow her on Twitter at (@jessi_pierce).