BANGOR, Maine — Had this game been played a few years from now, Ezra Frost might have reason for disappointment.
His team had just lost to another club still breaking into the sport, leaving Frost and his teammates to ponder just how they might bridge that competitive divide.
But disappointment was far from the emotion of the day. He was playing lacrosse, against kids from another school for the first time, no less, and that alone was progress.
“Today was our first game against another team,” said Frost, the goalkeeper for the lacrosse club at Bangor High School, after its loss last week to Winslow, “and it was a really big step toward what we can become.
“Looking out at the field and looking at everyone playing, I was really proud of our team. It was amazing what we have done and what we’re going to be doing, and I’m looking forward for what’s in store.”
Bangor’s lacrosse club — with its 15 to 20 boys and a growing number of girls — is like any other school club, dependent on raising its own funds to support the costs of the players’ shared passion.
It’s also representative of the continuing growth of the sport at the high school level in Maine.
“I want this team to become a varsity sport at Bangor High,” said Frost. “We’ve got to wait a few years for that, but that’s what I hope this club will become.”
And while the fledgling lacrosse interests in the Bangor area and several other central Maine communities must show staying power in terms of participation levels to secure the support that comes with varsity acceptance, the northward trajectory of the sport’s expansion suggests that Frost’s aspirations may not be misplaced.
“We’re having a few schools every year that are looking into the possibility of fielding a program,” said Mike Burnham, assistant executive director of the Maine Principals’ Association, which sanctions interscholastic sports in the state. “A lot of teams have established clubs to begin with and then they move on to the varsity level.”
Winslow’s club lacrosse team shares a similar ambition.
“Our goal is to go varsity in Winslow,” said Black Raiders’ coach Bruce Lambrecht, whose program was boosted financially two years ago by the receipt of a First Stick grant through USLacrosse. “Everything’s looking positive. We’re hoping it goes that way.”
Lambrecht said lacrosse fills a competitive void for many of the 30 players in the Winslow program.
“It’s mostly kids who aren’t playing a spring sport. I have a lot of hockey and soccer kids,” he said.
A growing sport
Lacrosse is one of the faster-growing sports nationwide, and that trend includes the Maine high school ranks.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, more than 100,000 boys and 77,000 girls played high school lacrosse around the country during the 2012-13 academic year.
In Maine, 1,867 boys and 1,507 girls took part in interscholastic lacrosse last year — primarily in the state’s southern regions.
The MPA began sponsoring lacrosse as a varsity sport for both boys and girls in 1998, originally with 23 boys teams and 15 girls squads.
The number of participating schools has increased steadily, enough for the sport to expand from one to two classes in 2006.
Forty-two schools have boys varsity lacrosse teams this spring, while 41 schools have girls varsity squads with the addition of first-year programs at Oceanside of Rockland-Thomaston and Gould Academy of Bethel.
“It’s the fastest-growing sport in the state, no question about it,” said Burnham, “and there are a number of clubs looming on the horizon.”
The most recent boys program to join the varsity ranks was the cooperative entry from Maranacook of Readfield and Winthrop high schools in 2011, but club programs in at least three other central Maine schools — Erskine Academy of South China, Lawrence of Fairfield and Winslow — are poised to go varsity, perhaps as soon as next spring.
“When a school starts a program, the nature of the game tends to draw a lot of kids because it’s fast-paced and pretty physical,” Burnham said.
A midcoast example
While lacrosse remains largely a bastion of southern Maine high schools, the sport is working its way north.
Of the 23 boys teams in Eastern Maine Classes A and B, 13 are from centrally located Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference schools. It’s similar in the girls ranks, with 12 of the 21 Eastern A and B teams from the KVAC.
“It’s growing from the south, but it’s creeping up the coast with a new girls team at Oceanside this year,” said second-year Camden Hills of Rockport girls lacrosse coach Amy Gertner. “The KVAC is doing pretty well. A lot of schools are fielding teams now, and hopefully more are coming.”
Gertner was a sophomore at Camden Hills in 2002 when the school started a co-educational lacrosse club. By 2005 the school offered varsity boys and girls teams.
“I think the catalyst was the fact we had a lot of folks who moved up here from the Maryland area when MBNA was in town and a lot of them had a background in lacrosse,” said Camden Hills athletic administrator Steve Alex.
MBNA is long gone from the midcoast, but lacrosse has established a foothold with varsity programs at Lincoln Academy of Newcastle, Oceanside (girls only) and Camden Hills, which has 30 to 35 boys and a similar number of girls competing on varsity and junior varsity teams this spring.
Gertner, who spearheaded the establishment of a women’s lacrosse program at the University of Maine at Farmington during her college days, said the sport’s fast pace is attractive to high school athletes who play field hockey or soccer in the fall, and it also is seen as a natural complement to ice hockey.
“Girls lacrosse is a very graceful sport where you still have to be strong and smart,” she said. “And it can be a high-scoring sport, all it takes is two or three beautiful diagonal passes and you’re in position to score.”
While Alex said some KVAC programs have had some difficulty attracting enough participants to play a full subvarsity schedule, that isn’t the case at his school.
“We haven’t had that problem,” he said. “It just gives kids another option.”
Camden Hills’ ability to draw solid participation numbers stems in part from its feeder system. Gertner said 165 youngsters in grades 2-8 are competing in the Pen Bay Youth Lacrosse program offered through the Penobscot Bay YMCA.
Gertner said there also are plans for a new indoor turf facility in the area, The Pitch, to open this fall in neighboring Warren that will provide offseason lacrosse instruction and playing opportunities.
From the ground up
Lacrosse supporters believe similar grass-roots efforts — some already in place — ultimately will determine whether lacrosse continues to spread across Maine.
The Winslow, Lawrence and Erskine Academy programs are among those that draw athletes from Central Maine Youth Lacrosse based in greater Waterville, while MidMaine Lacrosse has stirred interest in the Newport-Pittsfield area and prospective players from the Bangor area participate in Eastern Maine Youth Lacrosse through the Bangor YMCA.
Thirty-one boys from 10 different communities signed up for the EMYL high school division this year, said Bangor YMCA recreational programmer Tim Baude, including 10 to 12 players who also participate in the Bangor High School lacrosse club.
Interest is less substantial on the girls side at present, Baude added, with the EMYL having to combine with MidMaine Lacrosse to field full teams.
“We’ve got some kids playing together on a [EMYL] club team,” said Mike Bisson, athletic administrator at Hampden Academy. “I’ve heard from some parents asking a little bit about it, but nobody’s come forward formally.”
One school of thought is that lacrosse will expand farther north once several high schools in the region decide to make the move simultaneously in order to mitigate transportation costs.
“I think eventually it will come up, but it might take somebody stepping forward and getting it going because otherwise there’s going to be a lot of travel involved,” Bisson said.
The political aspect of adding another varsity sport to a school’s extracurricular offerings in trying budgetary times is another challenge faced by lacrosse proponents, though some of the newer varsity programs are privately funded, Burnham indicated.
Bangor is seen by some lacrosse supporters as the potential catalyst for an expansion of the sport to Eastern Maine.
Bangor High School athletic administrator Steve Vanidestine said club teams in any sport at the school that have demonstrated a sustained degree of student interest for at least three years may be considered for future varsity status.
But the city and its school department are struggling with budget issues of their own at present, making the climate unlikely for any new varsity sports at the high school in the immediate future.
And while the lacrosse club’s recent match against Winslow demonstrated one example of that student interest, even the players acknowledge that the time frame for earning varsity status may extend beyond their own graduation date.
“As far as the students are concerned, I think the interest is there,” said Dave Barnett, the faculty advisor for Bangor’s lacrosse club and an English teacher at the school. “The girls want to get a team going, the guys want to do the same, and the faculty and the school are pretty good about providing to the kids what they are interested in. I think if we can demonstrate to people that there’s enough interest, then I think I can see it taking off.”
In the meantime, the players are merely looking forward to that next chance to experience the rush of the sport.
“It’s really fast, it’s got hitting — which is always a plus — and I just love cradling the ball and juking around people,” said Frost. “It’s sweet.”