Here in Central Texas, a new sport is gaining traction among youth athletics: lacrosse.
Former Syracuse University’s lacrosse captain, Ella Thorpe, remembers growing up in small town Elbridge, New York, where she played pick-up lacrosse games with her neighborhood friends. Everyone had a stick and everyone knew how to score.
Fast-forward 20 years, and about 2,000 miles southwest, to the athletic field at Murchison Middle School in Austin’s Northwest Hills neighborhood. It’s Friday morning and several girls slip on their goggles, put in their mouthpieces, and grab their sticks. It’s time to practice cradling, the art of keeping the ball in the pocket, and one of the most important skills a lacrosse player can possess. Eleven-year-old Eliza Wilson is impressively keeping up, despite only playing for five months. She’s already certain about one thing: she loves lacrosse.
For her dad, Rob Wilson, who grew up in Central Texas, lacrosse didn’t exist when he was young. Watching these girls now scooping ground balls, dodging, and shooting, Wilson says he and his wife know little about the sport.
“That’s probably a good thing because I am learning the game right along with my daughter,” Wilson says. “I have to step back and let someone else teach her.”
Thanks in part to Thorpe, now a Westlake and Iron Horse coach, and scores of other elite lacrosse players who have relocated to Austin, lacrosse—or lax for short—is surging in popularity and benefiting from the expertise of northern transplants.
According to U.S. Lacrosse, the governing body for the sport, almost 3,000 boys and girls, ages 14 and younger, registered to play in Central Texas last year. The number of girls has nearly doubled in just two years, says Southwest Regional Manager Tim LaBelle. He anticipates membership will continue to increase.
Capital Area Youth Girls Lacrosse League (CAPLAX) President Guillermo Ponce agrees with these ambitious projections. He says the league has 13 active recreational teams, ranging from third to eighth graders, for a total of almost 500 players.
“Our goal is to get more young ladies to play and to keep them active in lacrosse,” Ponce says.
He points out that there are teams located throughout the city and anyone is welcome to join.
“Since lacrosse is not yet an UIL-sanctioned sport, it is considered recreational,” Ponce explains. “Registration usually begins in November or December and then practices start in February. The season runs from March through May.”
If a player is ready to ramp up their game, Iron Horse and Texas Play Hard are Austin’s two select programs.
“This community is relatively new to the sport,” explains Iron Horse Director Alyssa Murray. “By traveling, the players expand their game, experience a new level of play, and face harder competition.”
Iron Horse, Girls Lacrosse
Photo: Patrick Severson
Murray knows about competition. She started playing lacrosse in kindergarten in Long Island, thanks to her older sister’s team needing a warm body to help fill the field. By fifth grade, she loved the sport and was playing club level. After playing in college, she moved on to coaching, and was later recruited to lead Iron Horse Austin.
“There are so many opportunities in this sport, even at the collegiate level. soccer is much more competitive and the pool is much bigger. Lacrosse is not nearly as saturated.”
For all of the Austin lacrosse newcomers, there are a few who have been here since the beginning. Johanna Owens started the first girls high school lacrosse team at Bowie High School in 1996. Since then, she has been a prominent figure in Austin lacrosse. As the founder and owner of Texas Play Hard, home of The Texas Outlaws select teams, she points out that we have the same problems today that we had back then—finding experienced coaches and securing field space.
One thing that has certainly changed, Owens says, is that youth lacrosse is exploding right now in Austin.
“It’s so dynamic because it combines soccer, basketball, and field hockey," Owens says. "It’s fast moving, and girls who start young tend to stick with it."
Similar in name only, lacrosse for boys is more aggressive and has a different set of rules. Central Texas Youth Lacrosse Association (CTYLA) was created to facilitate the growth of youth lacrosse, encouraging the growth of high school lacrosse. The boys' program starts younger than the girls' with recreational teams ranging from bantam (K-2nd) through seniors (7-8th).
Having played with CTYLA since second grade, 13-year-old Ben Christie says he likes the camaraderie he has with his teammates.
“No one blames each other and everyone is very supportive,” says the Trojan Youth Lacrosse Association (TYLA) athlete. “Getting the ball and running across the field is a big thrill. I want to be like my brother and play in high school and then maybe play in college.”
TYLA Coach Jake Watts knows what it takes to compete at the college level from his years playing lacrosse at the University of Texas.
“It is so important to play multiple sports,” Watts says. “I started lacrosse in my sophomore year in high school in San Antonio, mainly because I had baseball burnout.”
He fell in love with the sport and tells his players to keep a stick in their hand year-round but to still participate in other activities. Watts' number one goal is retention; he wants the boys to have fun so they keep playing.
“They are the future of this sport,” Watts says.
For the more serious player, there are select teams like Austin Elite Lacrosse and Iron Horse, which offer select programs starting as young as third grade. Luke Cometti, who moved to Austin four years ago to start Iron Horse, has seen a steady climb in talent and enrollment numbers. He’s confident Austin will catch up to more established programs.
“This sport is so fun to watch, especially because it’s high scoring," Cometti says. "And for those who are interested, there is a lot of opportunity to play at the college level."
While no one knows how far the trend will go, Thorpe has a wise perspective from being around it for so long.
“Lacrosse is special,” she says. “It teaches you so much more than just the sport. It teaches you to be a good teammate, to be a good student, and to be a good person. It gives you a lot of confidence.”
In that case, bring it on, y’all.