Chris Goldberg has enjoyed watching the sport he loves grow in popularity around his old stomping grounds. A University of Delaware graduate who has covered lacrosse for a variety of publications in Lansdale and Pottstown over the last three decades, he also coached girls’ youth lacrosse in Coatesville and Interboro school districts for more than 10 years.
“Long Island and Baltimore have always been the top ‘hotbeds’ for lacrosse,” says Goldberg, founder and editor of PhillyLacrosse.com, an online resource for regional lacrosse activities. “Now, southeastern Pennsylvania is right behind, and the growth of the sport in the Brandywine Valley is a huge reason why.”
In 2002, approximately 150 public and private high schools offered boys’ and girls’ lacrosse at the varsity level in Pennsylvania and Delaware combined. Today, the two states boast more than 250 high school varsity lacrosse teams, dozens of which are based in the Brandywine Valley.
High schools such as Malvern Prep, Lower Merion, the Haverford School, Salesianum, Tower Hill, and Radnor have long garnered attention for their successful lacrosse programs, and they continue to send players to NCAA Division I colleges. In 2011, the Haverford School became the first Pennsylvania high school to be named National High School boys’ lacrosse champions after being ranked number one overall by both Laxpower.com and Inside Lacrosse.
Meanwhile, other high school programs, such as Avon Grove and Conestoga, are now able to compete with these top programs even though they started out as only club teams a little more than a decade ago.
Avon Grove narrowly lost to Malvern Prep in overtime this past season. Malvern Prep went undefeated, won the Pennsylvania state championship, and was ranked third in the final national rankings by Lacrosse Magazine.
Dan Deckelbaum, a fourth-year assistant coach at Avon Grove, has witnessed the newer programs’ recent success, which he attributes to a growing number of quality youth programs that give young athletes a fast-paced and physical alternative to other spring sports such as baseball.
“High schools such as Avon Grove and Conestoga have had successful programs because of the skilled players coming out of youth programs,” says Deckelbaum, a 2007 graduate of the University of Delaware who played professionally for Major League Lacrosse and the National Lacrosse League. He is also the founder of Elevated Lacrosse and a former assistant at Tower Hill High School. “It’s a lot easier to teach players higher-level lacrosse and incorporate college-level offenses when they already have the basic skills.”
Great Tradition for Girls’ Game
Girls’ lacrosse also has a rich history in the Brandywine region. By most accounts, it enjoyed much more popularity than the boys’ game for many years, going back to its competitive roots in the early 1960s.
“Girls’ lacrosse in the area has definitely seen more linear growth, while the boys have seen a huge spike in popularity,” says Jenny Purvis, a former All-American in lacrosse and field hockey at Hatboro-Horsham High School and current head coach at 2014 Pennsylvania State Champion Garnet Valley High School.
Purvis remembers how hard it was to find both travel and youth programs in Montgomery County when she attended high school in the early 2000s. Now, the area is full of programs that play in numerous tournaments throughout the year. “Delaware County had better [lacrosse programs] because of great coaches and high competition at the youth levels,” Purvis says. “Now that Horsham and other places [in Montgomery County] have youth programs, the skill level is getting better.”
Lorraine Beers, who played at Haverford High School and Drexel University and has coached six-time PIAA District 12 Champion Archbishop Carroll for 15 years now, has enjoyed watching the girls’ game evolve. But she offers one note of caution as the sport continues to gain popularity: “The growth actually outpaces those familiar with the sport, in that many are getting involved in the sport without much knowledge about it,” Beers says. “They believe [the girls’ game is] the same as the boys’ game with the exception of contact and equipment. Yet, it truly is a completely different game all the way down to the different lines on the field.”
She commends US Lacrosse for its ongoing effort to educate coaches, officials, and players about the differences between boys’ and girls’ lacrosse without completely disassociating the two.
Showcasing Local Talent
Beers says that the proliferation of club and travel teams has helped the game grow exponentially in the past five years. With the talent of the players increasing, more summer travel teams, recruiting camps, and “showcase” tournaments pop up in the area.
“Recruiting has always been difficult, since coaches are less focused on seeing high school players play and more on their own spring seasons,” notes Purvis. “So, the summer has really become the ideal time for recruiting.”
College recruiters no longer have time to attend prospective players’ high school games. So, coaches either host their own recruiting camps (a more common approach for girls’ lacrosse) or travel to various summer showcase tournaments to see the best players in an area. Before 2008, southeastern Pennsylvania didn’t have any showcase tournaments. Today, there are around 20 different tournaments in the region alone.
“Travel teams have changed the whole dynamic of recruiting,” says Jon Heisman, a West Chester Henderson alum, founder of Black Bear Lacrosse, and the current head coach at Bishop Shanahan High School in Downington. “We were one of the first in the area to offer travel teams in 2009. Now, there are an overwhelming number of different teams.”
Black Bear, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary, initially ran just one overnight camp at Ursinus College. Now, the organization runs 12 camps, supports 10 travel teams, and offers indoor training specifically in the southeastern Pennsylvania and northern Delaware area.
Every year, even more lacrosse clubs like Black Bear are formed. Heisman expects the growth to continue, with additional high school club programs gaining varsity status in the coming years.
As the sport continues to gain followers, there’s the ongoing question of what makes lacrosse so appealing for area athletes. “I think the culture around lacrosse has made it popular and is particularly appealing to the youth,” says Purvis. “Overall, it’s seen as a cool sport to play.”
A SUMMER CAMP SAMPLER
It’s still not too late to get involved in lacrosse this summer. Here is a list of 10 area camps where you can check for openings.
Date: July 14-18
Location: Phoenixville High (1200 Gay St., Phoenixville, PA)
Date: August 4-8
Location: Black Rock Park (1286 Black Rock Rd., Phoenixville, PA)