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Pick up sticks

Lacrosse gains popularity in Steamboat

Jake Flax

Lacrosse. Some people know what it is, many do not. Either way, one thing is for certain: This sport is on the rise, and Colorado is leading the way.

It is known as the fastest sport on two feet. Primarily recognized on the East Coast, lacrosse was invented by Native Americans and has since evolved into a semi-mainstream sport. The sport is growing more and more popular with each season. Now, high schools and colleges compete for titles throughout the world.

Colorado is ranked as the No. 1 state for the growth of the sport.

Steamboat Springs is no exception. Steamboat Springs High School created a boys lacrosse team less than five years ago, adding it to an existing girls program.

The man behind the boys team’s development was Bob Hiester.

Hiester came to Steamboat after coaching numerous Denver-area teams, including Cherry Creek High School and Grandview High School. He started the Steamboat team with fewer than 20 players on his roster. After coaching for schools with three or more full teams, this was anything but easy.

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This season, just four years after the program started, more than 50 boys signed up to play. The boys team finished it season last week with a record of 5-9.

“The sport is a magnet,” Hiester said. “It will attract kids.”

With the growth of the sport in the high school, the level of play for the Sailors has grown. When the program started, many of the participants had never seen a stick. Now, local players are vying for All-State recognition.

“In terms of knowing the game and stick skills, we’re head and shoulders above where we’ve been,” Hiester said.

Much of this season’s success is attributed to the addition of a middle school team lst year. Before that, the earliest a student could pick up the game was in ninth grade. This year, fourth- and fifth-grade boys will be able to compete. These players will have an increased amount of experience to offer the high school teams, as this year’s freshmen did with one season already under their belts.

“The kids have abilities they didn’t have before,” high school assistant coach Dave Pieknik said.

Like many of the school’s spring sports, lacrosse is hampered by the lack of facilities. The high school teams are forced to practice in the school’s gymnasiums for most of the season. Lacrosse is a game of space, and practicing in a gym is the equivalent of practicing ice hockey in a parking lot. The players are put at a major disadvantage when they hit the field against opponents who have been practicing on grass or turf for the entire season.

“I visualize Steamboat being a powerhouse,” Pieknik said. “Without certain facilities added, the program is going to grow, but at a slower pace.”

An artificial turf field would be helpful to the boys and girls teams. It would allow them to start their practices earlier in the season. Also, neither team would have to struggle for gym time with the high school basketball program.

“The community has to rally for a facility,” Pieknik added.

Steamboat’s schools may be fairly new to the sport, but there are many residents who have played in the past. The Steamboat Roughnecks, a local men’s team made up of players ages 15 to 50, has been competing for years. The team holds a club status and plays other teams from across the state.

The future for lacrosse in Steamboat looks bright. The boys and girls high school programs are getting better each year.

“I’ve seen an exponential growth since the two years I’ve been coaching.” Pieknik said.

Soon, the varsity programs will become much more competitive. Although the number of players on future rosters probably will not grow significantly, the competition within the teams will be intense.

“There’ll be more competition for spots,” Hiester said. “For a coach, competition is great.”

This will cause the level of Steamboat’s play to increase dramatically. Lacrosse is becoming more of a mainstream sport every year. Whether it is boys or girls, club or varsity, lacrosse in Steamboat is here to stay.

Editor’s Note: Steamboat Springs senior Jake Flax is an aspiring sportswriter. For his Senior Odyssey project, Flax worked with Pilot & Today sportswriter Melinda Mawdsley for several months learning the ins and outs of journalism. Flax, a member of Steamboat’s boys lacrosse team, helped cover hockey and covered Steamboat girls lacrosse as his “beat,” learning how to write game stories and recaps. This feature on lacrosse is his final story as part of his senior project.