An uneven playing field
Despite the lack of a permanent field and small budget, lacrosse has sunny days ahead
By Taylor. W Anderson
Published: Thursday, April 11, 2011
The trout that outgrows its stream and swims swiftly for bigger waters best exemplifies the Montana Grizzlies’ men’s lacrosse team.
The trout enters new headwaters from the stream in which it was born and finds itself among overgrown northern pike — trout-eaters.
The pike, already equipped with a steady dose of trout, prey on smaller fish, including that of its own breed.
The Grizzlies, much like the trout, once feasted on underdeveloped teams in a fledgling Northwest Conference that could hold only a few dominant teams. But in 2007 the Grizzlies made a leap from Division II to Division I of the Men’s Club Lacrosse Association and soon became less than a prize catch.
After about a decade of producing a club team and creating consistent interest in lacrosse at Montana, the team became a dominant force in its conference.
The team in 2006 went 13–2, and in 2007, its 10th year in existence, the Grizzlies beat St. John’s University for the MCLA Division II National Championship.
In 2008, Montana took an offer to play at the Division I level and went 10–3 in its first season, scoring 207 goals and allowing 161. It lost to the University of Oregon in the first round of the MCLA playoffs that year after going 5–3 in conference.
Oregon would prove to be the team’s first encountered pike.
The Ducks have won the Pacific Northwestern College Lacrosse League Championship five times in the last seven seasons, including winning the Division I National Championship in 2006. The Grizzlies play in the North division of the PNCLL and are 0–4 against the Ducks since 2008.
Oregon head coach Joe Kerwin is in his seventh year leading the No. 15 ranked Ducks. His team’s $135,000 to $150,000 budget soars over that of the Griz at $80,000 and goes a long way for the Ducks, a team that travels out of state twice this year.
Montana plays eight of 12 games out of state — six trips — including a spring break tour to Southern California where the team will play games against No. 20 ranked UC Davis and solid Chico State and Sonoma State teams.
“We fly twice a year and those are about $30,000 trips,” Kerwin said.
If Kerwin’s estimate is correct, it shows that the Grizzlies’, whose trips cost between $3,700 to $6,000 each, according to head coach Tucker Sargent, are bushwhacking the budget.
Montana takes its trips by bus or players’ cars. Sargent said that the California trip — which will cost about $14,000 — and journey to Vancouver to play Simon Fraser will be the most expensive.
Ducks players pay $500 more per year than Griz players in team dues but receive $28,300 more in funding from their athletic department. Oregon players also practice and play home games on their own field, a turf stadium built in 2004 for the team.
Other teams bear the brunt of huge budgets in dues, like eight-time PNCLL champion Simon Fraser, whose players pay about $7,000 each year. The University pays for about 5 percent of the $165,000 budget, or about $8,250.
The Grizzlies practiced and played games early this season in Washington-Grizzly Stadium, but spring football drills there keep the team from using the stadium for most of the season.
Most games are played at Dornblaser Field, south of campus, which has become the quasi-permanent lacrosse field at Montana. The team plays on the field, and “when the field gets screwed up we pay for the repairs there,” Sargent said.
Powerhouse lacrosse hubs already exist in many regions of the country, and the Grizzlies feed on a scarce and inconsistent pool of talent that may be growing.
Cities like Seattle, Denver, Chicago, as well as cities in California and hot spots that litter the East Coast, have youth programs that allow for a younger breed of players. Lacrosse’s long history started on the East Coast, where talent abounds today from youth to NCAA lacrosse levels.
Chances are there’s a college closer (and perhaps more ideal) than Montana that offers a chance to play club lacrosse, so recruiting from the coasts of the country is tough for Montana coaches.
Simon Fraser benefits from British Columbia’s long history of indoor lacrosse, which goes back nearly 100 years according to Clansmen co-head coach Brent Hoskins.
The age gap is widening in rural parts of the United States, allowing for better players at both the high school and college levels.
The Missoula Elite middle and high school lacrosse programs are in their second and third years of existence but are catching on quickly. Teams now exist at Sentinel, Hellgate and Big Sky high schools.
Only two of the Grizzlies’ 30 players are from Montana, and the majority of out-of-state players come from East Coast schools like Hanover and Proctor in New Hampshire and Cincinnati Country Day in Ohio.The number of Montana-bred players is expected to grow in the coming years as local high schools develop their programs.
Oregon has thrived on players who flow from schools in California, Oregon and Washington, who make up most of the roster, the Ducks coach said.
Keeping recruits coming from high schools that are known to be dominant is good for a team, “as opposed to one year from [those] schools and then three years later we get another guy,” Kerwin said.
Montana is only recently strengthening its recruiting techniques, Sargent said, and so far many out-of-state players have followed teammates to Missoula.
“It’s something we’ve never done in the past,” he said. “I see it as the most obvious benefit to the team as far as competing with some of the bigger programs in the league.”
Although players entering college may be heading toward premier teams, the boom in lacrosse involvement nationwide parallels a widening in the amount of top teams in the MCLA.
“There were four or five teams that would compete for the National Championship,” Kerwin said. “Now there are 10 or 15 teams.”
The final element in the equation is simply time.
It’s something that many of the teams at the top of the College LAX polls have that the Griz don’t. Many top teams were founded over 30 years ago, and some were founded in the 1940s.
Some evidence suggests the team is heading in the right direction.
The team has picked up scoring this season and is 4–3 overall, and although all wins over lowly Division II teams are thrashing, the Grizzlies played a one-goal game against conference rival Idaho in early March.
In a change to the playoff system this year, three teams from each division of the PNCLL will qualify for the playoffs. If playoffs started today, the unranked Grizzlies would miss out.
At just 10 years old, three in Division I years, Montana may just need to serve its time and get battered by the big fish before it grows into a hog.