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The 'fastest sport on 2 feet': Why lacrosse could see a spike in participation

Posted at 5:28 PM, May 16, 2024

It's known as the "fastest sport on two feet."

And lacrosse is not only fast on the field of play, but fast-growing.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), participation in high school lacrosse grew by 528 percent from 1990 to 2008, with a steady climb until 2020. After a brief setback during the pandemic, the sport is now on the rise again - and in Wisconsin, it's finally made its way to the WIAA.

But local leaders say the northeastern part of the state still has some work to do.

"If you compare what we have up here to what's down in the Milwaukee area or down in the Madison area, there's a level of competition down there that we haven't been able to match consistently up here," Jeremy Wadzinski, a coach with Green Bay Youth Lacrosse, said.

Wadzinski's sons, Tristan and Aidan, are first-generation players.

"(Lacrosse) didn't exist when I was growing up here," Wadzinski, who played football growing up and ran track in college, said.

"The first time I saw it was Bay Port here who had a program," he added. "Appleton has had a program a little bit longer, but it's definitely been on the fringe."

Lacrosse POV: See the sport through the eyes of a Green Bay Youth Lacrosse player
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Green Bay Youth Lacrosse players in a breakdown following a practice on May 9.

Clubs like Green Bay Youth Lacrosse, which has 97 members spread over five boys and girls teams, are hoping to help grow the game.

So, too, is Mikey Zadroga, the head coach for Lawrence University's new men's lacrosse program, which will launch next spring.

"I want to help the entire state of Wisconsin get better," Zadroga said. "But I really feel like you have to help your surrounding area. And that for me is what I really want to do. I want Green Bay, Oneida, Pulaski, Appleton, Kimberly, Neenah, Wausau, Stevens Point… I want all those areas to just be dominant."

Zadroga is from the Philadelphia area. There, like many cities in the northeast, lacrosse is king.

"It's probably like going to a football game here," he said. "You turn around behind you and you see the other field that they have and there's 40 kids with lacrosse sticks while the other game is going on. There's just a lacrosse crazy environment."

Zadroga said the biggest challenge in this area is simply getting young players in the door and introducing them to the sport.

"I really think once a kid tries it (they'll love it)," Zadroga said. "All they have to do it try it."

Try it, and they just might fall in love with the game.

Jace Cauldwell, an eighth-grader at De Pere Middle School, is a great example.

"I didn't really know anything about it," Cauldwell said. "I knew, like, the stick. But I didn't know any pads, any rules. I didn't even know what a goal looked like to be honest."

At the suggestion of him mom, Cauldwell signed up with Green Bay Youth Lacrossse in 2020. Now, four years later, it's his primary sport.

"It wasn't much my first year," he said. "But my second year I really took off with it."

While Cauldwell has embraced lacrosse as his main sport, leaders say the game can also be valuable as a secondary sport.

Lacrosse combines elements from several other sports like hockey, soccer, football and even basketball.
"It's like hockey because you can go behind the goal and get open," Cauldwell said. "And basketball because it has some of the same cuts."

"I see it as a gateway sport," Wadzinski said. "It's great to see the kids doing something that has some transference but also doing something different so you don't have those constant same patterns and you don't have some of the injuries that can come from playing just one sport."

"I think it's great for kids to try other things," he added.

HIGHLIGHTS: Bay Port, Pulaski lacrosse face off on May 7

Prior to this season, lacrosse was available at some high schools as a club sport.

Those within the game say the recent move to the WIAA, which makes the sport available at the varsity level, will lead to increased opportunity and increased participation.

"I think it gives it some legitimacy," Wadzinski said, noting that high school athletes can now get a varsity letter for lacrosse. "Facilities have been opened up to us. They were able to use that beautiful indoor facility at West De Pere all winter. They're now able to use the turf fields for their games."

That means our continent's oldest sport, could soon get a whole lot bigger.

"I definitely see it becoming way more popular," Cauldwell said. "Because in the past not many people recognized it as a sport. But now I just see it in the future becoming way more popular."

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Neenah and Appleton United shake hands prior to a WIAA lacrosse game on May 13.

At the high school level, there are 40 boys teams and coaches 36 girls teams playing in the first WIAA season. The inaugural WIAA state championships for lacrosse will be held on June 8 in Sun Prairie.