With a lacrosse stick in hand, Josh Holman stands in front of a group of high school boys. As he talks, he shows the boys gathered on Sept. 19 at Centennial Park how to scoop a lacrosse ball up off the ground — where to place his feet, where to place his hands and where to position his upper body so he doesn’t get flattened by an opponent. Even though the boys at the clinic were not enough to form a full lacrosse team, Holman said he was encouraged by the turnout. After all, organized lacrosse is new to Illinois’ capital city.

With a lacrosse stick in hand, Josh Holman stands in front of a group of seven high school boys.

As he talks, he shows the boys gathered on Sept. 19 at Centennial Park how to scoop a lacrosse ball up off the ground — where to place his feet, where to place his hands and where to position his upper body so he doesn’t get flattened by an opponent.

“If I bend from my back, my head is down, and I can’t see a 200-pound defenseman coming at me,” Holman explains.

An eighth boy shows up shortly afterward for the first of four fall clinics on lacrosse skills sponsored by the Springfield Park District.

Not far away from Centennial Park in southwest Springfield, youth football teams with dozens of players and perhaps twice as many spectators took the field at Hope Church on Lenhart Road, participating in a common weekend ritual.

But even though the eight boys at the clinic were not enough to form a full lacrosse team, Holman said he was encouraged by the turnout.

After all, organized lacrosse is new to Illinois’ capital city.

Although lacrosse is one of the oldest games in North America, its popularity has been largely confined to the East Coast. But recently, the game in which players try to score goals by passing and catching a small ball with nets attached to sticks has expanded its geographic reach. Texas, Colorado and the Chicago area are among the sport’s newest hotspots, and participation in organized leagues has more than doubled during this decade.

And now efforts to organize teams in Springfield are under way. After hosting some clinics last spring, the park district scheduled more clinics for three age groups (youth, high school and adult) this fall.

Holman acknowledges that he’s competing against established sports such as football. But for the second fall clinic, attendance at the high school session rose to 13, and six adults showed up for their session.

Holman said he thinks that next spring he and the park district might have enough high school players to begin scheduling games against teams in the St. Louis area.

That would be fine with Will Blankenship of Springfield. The 17-year-old home-schooled senior, who attended the first fall lacrosse clinic, says he works as a computer technician and is not currently involved in organized sports.

“I need some sun,” he said.

An old sport arrives

Lacrosse traces its history back centuries to Native American cultures. According to U.S. Lacrosse, one of the sport’s organizing bodies, a Jesuit missionary named Jean de Brebeuf wrote about a Huron contest in what is now southeast Ontario, Canada, in the 1600s.

By the mid-1800s, a standard set of rules and field dimensions were adopted by Canadian dentist W. George Beers — sort of the Alexander Cartwright of lacrosse. The first college team was at New York University in 1877, and the first high school teams were organized in 1882 in New England.

Lacrosse has been popular in New England and in places such as Maryland for many years. More recently, the sport has become popular in other parts of the country, and the Northwestern University women’s team has won the last five NCAA Division I titles. (No men’s team outside of the Eastern time zone has won a Division I title.)

Not surprisingly, some of the grownups in central Illinois interested in lacrosse have spent time out East.

Holman, a teacher at Glenwood Middle School, used to live in northern Virginia, played football at George Mason University and coached high school lacrosse before moving to the Midwest.

Mark Shiffer of Athens played lacrosse at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. He didn’t have any experience with the sport before enrolling, but ended up as a midfielder — the position that requires running the entire length of the field.

“I didn’t play at all until college. It can’t be too hard,” he said.

Shiffer, who showed up at Centennial Park for an adult pickup game Sept. 19, said lacrosse has elements of several sports: the speed and constant movement of hockey, the strategy of basketball and the contact of football.

“You get to hit people, which is fun,” he said.

That’s not to say smaller, quicker players can’t pick up lacrosse. Larger players often become defensemen, but short, speedy players make excellent midfielders. And there’s no height requirement for shooting the ball.

“If you’re 5-foot-9, the NBA is not calling your name soon,” Holman said. “That’s the beauty of lacrosse. It’s not about the size or speed. There are positions for faster guys, taller guys.”

The rules for the men’s game permit contact, while the women’s game does not. So equipment for men is a more elaborate — shoulder pads, a helmet, thick gloves and usually some sort of rib protection.

“For some reason, no one wears anything (protective) below the waist,” Shiffer said (although it’s recommended male players wear an athletic supporter and cup).

Finding lacrosse equipment can be a challenge in Springfield, however.

“We couldn’t find anything for sale,” said Ryan Kinison, a 17-year-old Springfield High School junior who also plays hockey. Holman said he acquired some basic lacrosse equipment for the clinics from a friend who has a store in Virginia after failing to find equipment here.

Undeterred, Ryan attended one of the fall clinics and stayed after it was over to work on some basic skills.

“I don’t like overrated sports,” he said. “So I like doing stuff that’s different.”

Foundation for the future

Ryan, Will and six other boys who attended the first fall clinic ran through a series of drills under Holman’s watchful eye.

After learning how to scoop a ball up off the ground, the boys learned the “flicking” technique need to pass a ball to a teammate, and then how to catch a ball with the net. As the boys gained more confidence, they moved farther apart — and then a little too far apart, as some throws went in any number of unplanned directions.

“If you miss the goal, you have to go chase the ball,” Holman said at the beginning of a shooting drill. After running after errant shots, several players quickly learned to tame their throws.

Several boys said the clinic was the first time they had ever picked up a lacrosse stick or even seen a drill in person.

“In this league, you don’t need experience,” Will said. “If you look at football, you need previous experience. It’s too late to pick up football.”

And that is one of the beauties of the sport, Holman said.

“It looks difficult to throw and catch the ball with a lacrosse stick,” he said. “But with practice, it’s not that difficult. My first year of playing, I made all-district and all-region teams.”

Previous experience with a stick doesn’t hurt, however. Hockey teammates Adam Minder and Tommy Crossen, both juniors at Springfield High School, were among the boys who stayed after the first fall clinic to work on lacrosse skills. Tommy said the coordination needed to work a stick is one skill that translates from hockey.

But both boys acknowledged that it’s one thing to shoot a puck below the waist and another to catch a ball with a stick above the waist.

“The hardest thing is to put the ball where you want it,” Adam said.

The fall clinics exist partially to serve as a way to introduce lacrosse skills to Springfield and partially to gauge local interest in the sport. But Holman is already looking ahead to next spring, thinking aloud about scheduling games with teams from other cities.

Based on the turnout so far, it’s most likely that the park district’s first team will be made up of high school students. That would match national trends, which show roughly half of the lacrosse players in the United States are youths and that the sport’s largest growth area is with young players.

Lacrosse still has a way to go before catching up with other sports.

According to U.S. Lacrosse, participation in the sport in the United States more than doubled to about 524,000 players of all ages between 2001 and 2008.

That is significantly less than the 3.2 million people ages 5-19 who played in leagues affiliated with U.S. Youth Soccer, for example. But it is more than the 492,000 ice and inline hockey players affiliated with USA Hockey, the national governing body for that sport, during the 2008-09 season.

Holman looks at the early turnout for the fall clinics as a glass half full situation — with 13 high school boys expressing an interest in playing, he says he’s on his way to fielding a team.
And by next spring, football players looking for a springtime contact sport may just discover the joys of lacrosse.

Holman already has a few boys spreading the word about lacrosse.

“People are interested,” Tommy says. “If you get it (the word) out there, you’ll get people out. Everyone we ask says they want to play.”

THE EQUIPMENT

The stick (the crosse)

A player catches and throws the ball with a stick that has a net a little smaller than a baseball glove attached to one end.  Sticks are 3 ½ feet long for male attackers and midfielders, and 4 ½ to 6 feet long for defensemen. For women, sticks are roughly 3 ½ to 3 ¾ feet long. Goalies can have a stick up to 4 feet long.

The ball

Made of solid rubber, the tennis-ball sized lacrosse ball weighs about five ounces.

Protective gear

Males must wear helmets, shoulder pads, mouthpieces and protective gloves. Most players wear rib protection and an athletic supporter with a cup. Females, who play a non-contact version of lacrosse, must wear mouthpieces and eye protection. The goalie has protective gear for the upper part of the body, but frequently has little protection for the legs.

THE FIELD

Men: 110 yards long and 60 yards wide.

Women: 120 yards long, 70 yards wide.

THE TEAM

Men: 10 players, with four restricted to the defensive zone, three midfielders who can play all over the field, and three attackers restricted to the offensive zone.

Women: 12 players. Only seven offensive players and eight defensive players are allowed in a certain area near the goal.

THE RULES

Players shoot the ball with their sticks at the opponents’ goal. The team with the most goals after a determined period of time wins.

The area behind the goal is in play. If a ball goes out of bounds on a shot, it goes to the team with a player closest to the ball — not automatically to the team that did not touch it last.

Players can try to dislodge the ball from an opponent’s netting by hitting an opponent’s stick with his or her own stick. A player cannot hit an opponent with the stick. Players cannot touch the ball with their hands.

Men can body check each other in the upper body if an opponent has the ball or is within five yards of a loose ball. Women can only make stick-to-stick contact.

Fouls are called if players trip an opponent, hit an opponent’s body with a stick, or use violent force when body checking or for stalling, having a player offsides or other infractions.

Lacrosse growth

Total lacrosse participation in organized leagues (youth through adult, including two professional leagues) in the United States has more than doubled since 2001.

Year    Number of players
2001    253,931
2008    524,230

— Source: U.S. Lacrosse