May 22, 2013

Indy Quarterfinals Reveal Bright Future for Midwest Lacrosse

by Paul Krome |

A group of North Carolina fans celebrate during Sunday's NCAA quarterfinal game against Denver. In all, 7,749 fans attended the doubleheader featuring the Tar Heels, Pioneers, Notre Dame and Duke at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, home of the NFL's Colts.
© AJ Mast

INDIANAPOLIS — Driving east along Interstate 70 into the morning haze of Indianapolis, Lucas Oil Stadium loomed over the flat terrain of these Midwestern parts like an oversized airplane hangar or a basketball field house — anything but a venue familiar to lacrosse followers.

But by the end of the day Sunday — when 7,749 fans made the NCAA's first Division I men's lacrosse quarterfinal doubleheader away from the East Coast a success and made a statement about the sport's bright future in America's heartland — perhaps the only question that remained was not if, but when, another major lacrosse event would return.

'This is Really Cool'

A glimpse at some of first arrivals at the 5-year-old NFL stadium revealed why placing the event away from the sport's population center may not have been the gamble lacrosse's geographic history suggested it would be.

It's there — in the south parking lot at 9 a.m. Sunday under a checkered-flag tent that symbolizes this city's love for auto racing one week shy of the Indianapolis 500 — that Luke Zimmerman, 18, and Cameron Van Houten, 20, unfolded tables and chairs, unpacked a variety of subs and chips, and assembled a miniature lacrosse goal.

"I played soccer and I didn't really like it," said Zimmerman, from Carmel, Ind. "I played baseball, but it was too boring and slow. I tried lacrosse one time and I was like, 'Wow. This is really cool.' It was fluid and physical, and it seemed like a lot of fun, too. I kept playing."

That was while Zimmerman was in middle school. Van Houten, from Indianapolis, first caught the bug during his junior year at North Central (Ind.) High School while searching for an offseason sport to complement his lifelong hockey career. He quickly saw the similarities in skill sets between the two.

"I absolutely love it," Zimmerman said. "A lot of the kids around here, they're realizing it's a finesse sport with contact, and once they get that, it'll bloom. It'll be awesome."

The pair soon was joined by friends Nolan Miller and Justin Byers, two more locally bred symbols of the sport's growth. Both are rising juniors in college: Miller, a midfielder at Aurora, soon removed from a loss at Cortland in the NCAA Division III tournament, and Byers, a goalie at Emmanuel. They talked Indiana High School lacrosse playoffs, bartered popcorn for burgers with neighbors, and beamed with pride that the presale of tickets in Indianapolis (about 6,500) surpassed the total attendance (3,939) at Maryland's Byrd Stadium for Saturday's quarterfinal doubleheader.

And they would soon be joined in the lot by others in their age group and below — kids as young as 4, according to Allison Melangton, president of the Indiana Sports Corporation, which operated the event.

"Very similar to football tailgating — only a lot more kids, which we love," she said. "Lots and lots of kids."

Working the Plan

"As an East Coast kid, it was great to see the outpouring of support for these two games, with the presale [of tickets] being higher than the East Coast games," said Notre Dame junior midfielder Jim Marlatt, a native of Clarksville, Md.
© AJ Mast

"If there's kids within a few hours' drive, they'll be here," said North Carolina fan and St. Louis resident Mark Wood, father of former Tar Heel attackman Thomas Wood.

More than 2,500 tickets were sold as part of a group sales initiative in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee, with the Hoosier State accounting for more than 80 percent of those tickets, according to the Indiana Sports Corporation.

"We did a lot of grass-roots marketing to the clubs and to the parent organizations with the clubs, statewide, certainly, and regionally in the states around Indiana," Melangton said. "I think our marketing plan worked."

Lacrosse fans from 21 states bought tickets to the event; nearly half from Indiana and 14 percent from Illinois. The crowd may have been larger were it not for graduation day at Notre Dame, less than three hours to the north, and "Bump Day" (qualifying) at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

"The biggest thing for us was the excitement and the number of youth players there from Indianapolis and the surrounding communities," said Anthony Holman, operations manager for the NCAA Division I men's lacrosse championship. "That was the biggest win. They got chance to see college lacrosse at the highest level."

More than 170 kids participated in an instructional clinic Saturday, and about 20 youth teams played in a Sunday morning tournament at a municipal sports complex. The winning teams were highlighted at halftime of each quarterfinal.

"What I'm more proud of than anything is that the corporate people here raised enough money to give 750 kids the opportunity to come to the quarterfinals free of charge," said Tim Clark, a co-chair of the host committee and head boys' coach at Park Tudor (Ind.) School.

Clark would know the importance of breaking down barriers to participation in lacrosse. He chairs the US Lacrosse Diversity and Inclusion Task Force, the charge of which supports US Lacrosse's strategic priority of strengthening access and opportunity for all.

Organizers created a surprisingly intimate atmosphere inside the 67,000-seat, retractable-roof stadium, which hosted Super Bowl XLVI. Spectator seating was limited to the sideline behind the team benches. Massive curtains walled off the upper deck. The Indiana Sports Corporation issued 60 media credentials, not including ESPNU's broadcast crew, and seated writers not in the press box — "up, in another galaxy," joked the Indianapolis Star's Michael Pointer — but at tables along the concourse in the lower bowl of the stadium.

The significance of the event was not lost on the players, who treated the fans to high-caliber play and no shortage of drama in the two games that ended with identical 12-11 scores.

"As an East Coast kid, it was great to see the outpouring of support for these two games, with the presale [of tickets] being higher than the East Coast games," said Notre Dame junior midfielder Jim Marlatt, a native of Clarksville, Md.

"We didn't set a hard goal for attendance, but looking at the expenses of what it would take to get it done well, that 5,000-6,000 range was something we were hopeful for. To get over 7,700 is a win for us," Holman said. "We have solid relationships with Indianapolis and the Indiana Sports Corporation, and we've had success hosting events at that stadium before. Notre Dame has been successful in lacrosse recently and has a strong fan base. Our national office is here. Add all that together, if we were going to take a chance to expand the brand and reach of the sport, Indianapolis made a lot of sense."

Quality Counts

Luke Zimmerman, 18, of Carmel, Ind. (right), and Cameron Van Houten, 20, set up a tailgate on Sunday morning at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Both caught the lacrosse bug growing up in the Midwest.
© Paul Krome

Where at one time kids in Indiana began playing while in fifth grade, now youth in the first grade are trying North America's first sport. There are 4,200 youth and high school US Lacrosse members in national governing body's Indiana Chapter; nearly 5,000 next door in Illinois, and some 12,000 in three US Lacrosse chapters in neighboring Ohio. Minnesota's 14,168 members place the chapter among the Top 10.

All throughout traditional Big Ten country, US Lacrosse chapters have added at least 1,000 members each — in some cases, upwards of 2,500 — over the last four years. With so many new players, many of which under the guidance of adults with little-to-no experience in the sport, local chapters are working to infuse US Lacrosse's educational offerings into the area.

"We've done probably seven or eight US Lacrosse Level 1 and/or 2 coaching education clinics over the last four years," said Keith Brisotti, coaching education coordinator for the St. Louis-Missouri Chapter of US Lacrosse, which has 4,500 members. "Our youth league has about 95 teams and 2,000 kids in grades three through eight, boys and girls."

Brisotti, a New York native and great-grandson of National Hall of Famer Al Brisotti, made the four-hour drive from St. Louis with his daughter to catch the doubleheader with Wood and company. Building lacrosse is in his bloodlines — Al Brisotti was the first head coach at Hofstra, Rutgers and LIU-Post.

"We've made Level 1 certification mandatory for the head coach, and the boys' high school league will do that for next season," Keith Brisotti said, referencing US Lacrosse certification for coaches once they complete online and in-person courses, a Positive Coaching Alliance course, and pass a background check.

Chapters in Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri and Ohio hosted US Lacrosse Coaching Education Program and/or Officials Education Program clinics in 2012-13, teaching adults how to coach and officiate lacrosse so they can make the sport a positive experience for players. Brisotti said he has seen an increase in the quality of play recently.

Representing that in the flesh is Denver sophomore midfielder Garret Holst, a native of Fishers, Ind. The local product was praised afterwards by a group of area high school coaches, some of whom wore Pioneer gear to support their native son, at a restaurant a few blocks north of Lucas Oil Stadium.

"Garret did recruiting the right way," said Leslie Sherman, president of the Indiana Chapter of US Lacrosse. "He said if he ever got cut, he wouldn't leave Denver."

Holst perhaps no longer needs worry about a roster spot. He scooped five ground balls and caused one turnover in Denver's 12-11 come-from-behind win over North Carolina. Duke edged Notre Dame by an identical 12-11 score in the day's second game.

College rosters soon may be joined by other Indianans following in the footsteps of Holst, Miller and Byers. Both still shy of 21, Zimmerman and Van Houten already have learned the lacrosse way of giving back. They visited an elementary school last week and taught the sport to first-graders as part of a clinic arranged by the local club Hoosier Lacrosse.

Final Turn

Saturday, Denver will continue its crusade for lacrosse in the West in a national semifinal against top-seeded Syracuse. Holman said no formal applications to host quarterfinal doubleheaders in 2015 and beyond have been submitted by non-traditional areas, although he has had informal conversations with representatives of Denver and St. Louis. Next season, the quarterfinal doubleheaders will take place at Delaware and Hofstra.

Still, the support for the NCAA quarterfinals in Indianapolis bodes well for major lacrosse events away from the East Coast. US Lacrosse will host the Federation of International Lacrosse Men's World Championships July 10-19, 2014, in Denver. Tickets will go on sale to the public on Friday.

As the pregame party got into full swing in the south lot, Zimmerman, Van Houten and crew stopped shooting on their mini-goal long enough to ponder a question: if the men's lacrosse championship weekend moved to Indianapolis on the same weekend as the Indy 500, which event would they attend?

Their answer mirrored what all could see. Though they stood under a checkered-flag, the flag representing Hoosier Lacrosse, affixed to a tent leg, reached higher into the air.

Lacrosse in the Midwest? The sky's the limit.

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