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April 5, 2013

Lacrosse a budding prep sport in Macomb County

By Jason Carmel Davis
C & G Sports Writer

» click to enlarge «
Prep lacrosse is growing in popularity. The Macomb Area Conference had seven teams in 2007 and will have 13 in 2014 with the addition of varsity squads at Utica High and Utica Ford II. Pictured are players from Warren Cousino and Harrison Township L’Anse Creuse during a 2012 contest.

In 2007, the Macomb Area Conference fielded seven prep lacrosse teams in one division — the MAC Red.

This time next year, the MAC will feature 14 teams across two divisions — the MAC Red and White — with the addition of programs at Utica High and Utica Ford II, which have had a unified JV squad for three years, according to coach Kyle Bonkowski, whose squad has ballooned from 27 players to 61 since its inception.

“The amount of coaches who have played the sport — their sons have gone to schools without (lacrosse) programs. Now that it’s getting so big, school officials are saying, ‘Let’s add a program’,” Bonkowski said. “It’s a combination of (efforts) from parents, as well as the schools in the area, that is definitely contributing to the (growth of) the MAC Conference.”

One such effort has taken place at Sterling Heights Stevenson. Early on, coach Anthony Zuccaro said there was a chance that the Titans would not field a team this season after having only 15 players a year ago, but efforts from Stevenson Athletic Director Chad Hottle and a newly formed lacrosse booster club have helped keep the program alive and growing.

This year’s team comprises 40 players.

“The booster members were instrumental in getting the word out about the lacrosse program at Stevenson to not only the high school, but also at each individual junior high,” Zuccaro said.

Positive signs
Harrison Township L’Anse Creuse lacrosse coach Don Roda has coached varsity for the Lancers’ program since 1985. He said it’s been a slow process — due to variables such as cost and the offering of more traditional spring sports such as baseball and track and field — but the addition of more teams makes for better competition in the MAC.

“Any growth in the game is a good thing, in my opinion,” Grosse Pointe South coach Don Wolford said. “I was a football, hockey and lacrosse player growing up in Grosse Pointe, but lacrosse has always been my sport.

“I’ve always felt lacrosse is a special game and that more kids should be able to play it. It’s fun, fastpaced, and there’s a lot of action to keep both players and fans interested.”

The MAC split into two divisions in 2011, when the league featured nine teams: Utica Eisenhower, Grosse Pointe North and South, Macomb L’Anse Creuse North, Harrison Township L’Anse Creuse, Romeo, Port Huron, Stevenson and Warren Cousino.

The conference will field 11 teams this year, as Anchor Bay and a Warren Mott/Sterling Heights unified team have joined the fray.

There are also four girls lacrosse programs in the area: Grosse Pointe North and South, Grosse Pointe University Liggett and Warren Regina.

“Lacrosse is the largest-growing team sport in the America right now. It’s not just happening in Michigan. California, Florida, Colorado and Texas have high school teams that are exploding on the scene,” Wolford said.

A check of the website www.laxpower.com finds that 46 of 50 U.S. states field several prep lacrosse teams.

Dodging roadblocks
Roda and Wolford said they see the growth as a good thing, but add there are some roadblocks.

Wolford said the lack of coaches in the state is an issue, but added he knows of coaches returning to the area.

Roda, who said his program has seen a dip in numbers this year, said a lack of feeder programs leads to players not hitting the field until high school.

“And it’s always a challenge to get good athletes to take a chance and try something new where they may look bad at first,” Roda said.

Wolford said middle school programs in Grosse Pointe make a huge difference in getting youths involved before high school.

“With North, South and Liggett all having teams, even middle school kids who haven’t played lacrosse have at least heard about it and may pick it up from some friends who do play,” said Wolford, who added he had 75 players try out for 58 roster spots.

That point brought Wolford to realize a down side. With newer teams, he said, you may come across programs with less-experienced players, lack of financial backing and small rosters. Those teams, Wolford said, wouldn’t be on a level playing field with more established programs for some time.

“Traditionally, lacrosse is a game where a good team will blow out a decent team,” Wolford said. “That same decent team will blow out an average team, and so on and so forth until you get to newer programs that are still trying to teach kids basics and may not have a lot to work with.

“It hurts an entire league if you move to an everyone-plays-everyone format without taking into consideration the relative strengths of the programs. Fortunately, the MAC is making some appropriate scheduling accommodations that allow stronger programs to schedule games outside of conference with more balanced opponents and allowing (newer) programs to find others across the state, rather than setting someone up for an embarrassing thrashing that actually hurts both teams.”

Catching up with other sports
The MAC features 36 football and basketball teams. Roda said he’s unsure if there will ever be that many lacrosse teams in the league.

Wolford is a bit more optimistic, though.

“It might take a while, but I would expect that, at some time, the MAC will have close to that many (lacrosse) teams,” Wolford said. “Our popularity is exploding, and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon.

“I think the more teams that are playing, the better. And as newer teams come in, we’ll have to re-adjust what teams are in each division to make sure we can keep games fair and competitive. But I love the growth.”

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Jason Carmel Davis at jdavis@candgnews.com or at (586)498-1107. Twitter Follow Jason on Twitter.