Varsity Extra

Lacrosse has 'just exploded' in the Treasure Valley. Here's what's behind the growth spurt.

Nich Guzzetti played lacrosse for Mountain View High in 2013, above, and went on to help the College of Idaho transition its club team to a varsity program.
Nich Guzzetti played lacrosse for Mountain View High in 2013, above, and went on to help the College of Idaho transition its club team to a varsity program. Special to the Idaho Statesman

Nich Guzzetti could have gone to a Division I men's lacrosse program and fought for playing time.

Instead, the Mountain View High graduate chose to stay close to home, eventually spearheading the College of Idaho's transition from a club to a varsity program.

Guzzetti topped off his four-year career in May with the program's first appearance in the Men's Collegiate Lacrosse Association Division II national championships. He was named to the MCLA All-America first team with a school-record 59 goals and 39 assists.

The College of Idaho's success is dependent on homegrown talent, and therefore on the continued growth of youth and high school lacrosse in the state. Fifteen of the 22 players on the Coyotes' 2018 roster call Idaho home.

"When I played in high school, it was the second or third year that lacrosse had been in the Valley, and that was in 2000 or 2001. There were seven teams in Idaho," College of Idaho coach Matt Gier said. "... Now you look at the Idaho High School Lacrosse League website and ... there's 41 teams.

Mtn. View Lacrosse photo
Mountain View's Ryan Henning, center, and Nicholas Hansen celebrate during the Mavericks' state championship game against Eagle. Courtesy of Sidney Scott

"It's just exploded. Some are competitive, some aren't that competitive, but still, the game is growing. It's going to other parts of Idaho and it's exciting, especially for me in terms of recruiting."

While lacrosse has been a prominent sport on the East Coast for decades, its foothold in Idaho is relatively new.

The Treasure Valley Youth Lacrosse League was founded in 2006, and its inaugural season in spring 2007 featured a combined 230 boys and girls in the fifth through eighth grades on 15 teams.

Those numbers had increased to 1,100 players, 41 boys teams and 13 girls teams by 2018, plus fall and spring seasons. The TVYLL now offers leagues for players as young as first grade.

"I think honestly it's been more research and study on concussions. Parents and families are pulling their sons — at least on the men's side — out of football," Gier said. "We still have a lot of boys that do both, but at the same time, it's something new and something fun. It's still a lot of physical contact, but it's not as dangerous as football."

TVYLL League Director DeAnna Mundy surmises that Idaho's lacrosse growth stems from parents who are looking for an alternative for their child to traditional sports such as soccer, and from an influx of young families.

"We have so many people moving from out of state," Mundy said. "I get those calls all the time. They're looking for a program for their kids because they had it wherever they are coming from."

The TVYLL is responsible for introducing Idaho's youngest athletes to the sport. Since 2009, the league has seen 74.3 percent growth in its spring participants, going from 424 in 2009 to 739 this spring.

MV Lacrosse Goal photo
Mountain View's Casey Davies tries to score against Eagle. Courtesy of Sidney Scott

However, that growth has plateaued the past four years, peaking at 891 spring athletes in 2015. Player numbers dipped to 814 in 2016 and 734 in 2017.

The TVYLL hopes to counter that drop with a grant from U.S. Lacrosse, which is helping the league provide specialized equipment to local elementary schools for use during P.E. classes.

"Once a kid picks up a stick, they are kind of hooked," Mundy said.

At the high school level, boys participation in the Idaho High School Lacrosse League has increased 71.4 percent in a decade, from 493 athletes in 2009 to 845 in 2018. Participation numbers for Idaho high school girls lacrosse in 2018 were not available. In 2016, the most recent numbers available, 296 girls played high school lacrosse in Idaho, according to U.S. Lacrosse.

By comparison, neighboring Utah had an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 boys and girls in high school club programs in 2017, according to the Deseret News. The Utah High School Activities Association voted in 2017 to sanction lacrosse beginning with the 2019-20 school year, and the University of Utah will begin NCAA play in 2019.

During the 2016-17 school year, track had the highest participation numbers of any high school sport in Idaho, with 8,274 athletes (4,757 boys and 3,517 girls), according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. Football had 7,807 participants the same year, while girls golf had the fewest (601). The IHSLL had 764 boys for the 2016-17 school year, leaving plenty of room for further growth.

"It's a fun sport to play. It incorporates a lot of the skill sets of other sports," IHSLL Commissioner Britt Cornaby said. "The physicality of football and hockey with the running of soccer with the offensive and defensive flows of basketball. It's a team sport with a lot of individual stardom, for lack of a better word."

Idaho's lacrosse advocates say the biggest obstacles to the continued growth of the sport in Idaho may be the limited number of experienced coaches and referees.

Gier said C of I has the parts in place to start a women's program but is waiting for a qualified coach.

"We have a shortage of highly qualified youth coaches, which kind of hurts us a little bit," Cornaby said. "In other parts of the country, they are being coached by collegiate All-Americans at a young level. That's not the case here.

"Typically most of the youth coaches are dads who probably didn't play before. Coaches and referees are limiting us, and referees are probably limiting a lot of other sports' growth. Referees are being treated poorly and the retention rate is bad. It's a problem with lacrosse as well."