Plans by the Maine Principals’ Association lacrosse committee to add a third classification beginning next spring reflects the sport’s steady growth since its addition to the state’s interscholastic scene in 1998.
It also anticipates more growth to come, particularly in the northern half of the state, where expansion is starting to take place.
The newest team on the scene this year is a cooperative venture between Maine Central Institute of Pittsfield and Nokomis Regional High School of Newport. It will be the northernmost of the state’s 45 boys varsity lacrosse programs in 2017.
Forty-five girls varsity teams also are scheduled to compete this spring.
In addition, proposals to add lacrosse programs at Bangor and Brewer high schools are going through the budget process, with Bangor hoping to add boys and girls varsity teams next year as Brewer pursues a boys subvarsity team in 2018.
John Bapst of Bangor also is considering the sport, further evidence of the growing popularity of an activity that in this region has its roots at the youth level.
Eastern Maine Lacrosse, sponsored by the Bangor Parks and Recreation Department, hosted teams for 180 Greater Bangor players between grade 3 and high school last spring. It plans to add an instructional program for kids in kindergarten through grade 2 this year.
“I think schools are now starting to realize what a great sport lacrosse is and how popular it is,” said Tim Baude, a recreation programmer for Bangor Parks and Recreation.
The MCI-Nokomis entry has competed at a club level for the last two seasons while building toward varsity status. This year’s roster boasts 37 players, enabling the program to field both varsity and junior varsity teams.
“The numbers are up from both schools,” said MCI athletic administrator Jim Leonard. “The team has grown every year.”
The effort to develop lacrosse in the Newport-Pittsfield area has been fueled by Mid-Maine Lacrosse, a nonprofit youth lacrosse organization for players from Hartland, Pittsfield, Corinna, Detroit, St. Albans, Palmyra, Newport, Etna and Dixmont.
“We’ve got some kids who have played for a while,” said Leonard. “We don’t have middle school lacrosse per se but we have a middle-school program that’s run by Mid-Maine Lacrosse. Mid-Maine Lacrosse really has been instrumental in this program’s progress.”
MCI-Nokomis will compete in Class A North this spring under the existing two-class system, then move to Class C for the next two seasons as a new program under the lacrosse committee’s plan.
MCI-Nokomis also is adding a girls high school club team this year in response to increasing interest, “so it will be another two years before we explore going to varsity in that,” said Leonard.
The MCI-Nokomis boys are slated to make their varsity debut against Mt. Blue of Farmington on April 14 at Thomas College in Waterville.
“Lacrosse is getting pretty popular at my school, and it makes sense for an independent school to have lacrosse,” Leonard said. “We have the facilities to host it and the games have been pretty well attended while we were a club team. Now that we’re varsity I expect the interest to be even higher.”
Bangor High School has offered a boys and girls lacrosse club for the last four years and plans to field a club team affiliated with EML this spring. The program consistently has had more than 30 participants annually, leading to the effort to add lacrosse to the varsity ranks next spring if the proposal survives the budget process.
“It all starts locally,” said Bangor principal Paul Butler. “We need to justify viability in terms of numbers, viability in terms of budgeting. That’s the nature of the proposal, and we’re in the budget process now. We found a way to fund it. Part of that funding is scaling down interscholastic competition for freshmen and scaling up intramural competition for freshmen and part is scaling back in some other areas of athletic expenses in some other areas.
“There’s been a high level of interest among Bangor High School students for four years. It’s clear to me that the numbers are viable.”
Brewer’s effort to join the high school lacrosse ranks stems from a group of younger players who have come up through the travel-team ranks together.
“There’s a group of kids at the middle-school level who are in the eighth grade now but started out together as fourth- and fifth-graders in the Eastern Maine Lacrosse league,” said Brewer athletic administrator Dave Utterback.
A parents group subsequently organized a separate middle-school level travel team, and a similar high-school-age travel team has been added this spring, leading to the effort to add the sport to the school’s offerings next year along with girls volleyball.
“If the demand’s there you really feel like you ought to do it if that’s what the kids want,” said Utterback.
Utterback said the plan is for boys lacrosse to be offered initially at the subvarsity level in great part due to the ages of the potential core group of players next year.
“The concern would be obviously that if the group we have right now is primarily eighth-graders this year and those are the seasoned players who would be ninth-graders in our building next year,” he said, “you certainly would want to put them in age-appropriate competition and then see how that works out and see how many upperclassmen join in.”
Student interest in a high school girls lacrosse program at Brewer hasn’t reached the boys’ level yet.
“Once we start feeling demand and interest from the girls side we’ll certainly do the right thing as far as that goes,” Utterback said. “Right now we have extreme popularity in our track and tennis programs and the softball numbers are coming back up to where they used to be.”
Competition among sports for the steadily declining pool of students at Maine high schools often becomes an issue in any consideration of adding newer sports such as lacrosse to the extracurricular mix.
“You get some hesitation out of different groups because they’ve already got established programs and things like that, but forcing people into choosing what you want them to choose is not a reason not to offer something,” said Utterback, himself a former high school baseball coach and currently a member of the MPA baseball committee.
“The bottom line is they’re going to do it anyway, but instead of accessing our activity they’re going to play Brewer Travel Lacrosse or Eastern Maine Lacrosse. That’s the reality of it, so we can either offer it and do what’s right by kids in our building or we can stay behind the wayside of the trend.”