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Crosse-ing over

As a lacrosse player at Walsh Jesuit in the late 1980s, David Blue witnessed the sport's humble beginnings in Ohio.

Fewer than 20 high schools fielded boys teams at the time. Even less had girls teams. It was a sport that attracted little fan interest or school backing.

Now, as coach of Hudson's boys lacrosse team, Blue ticks off the difference a decade and a half makes.

"Now we have Ohio teams in four divisions competing for a state championship, kids from here being recognized at the All-American level, Ohio kids playing for college programs that play for the national championship," said Blue, who went on to become one of Ohio State's all-time scoring leaders. "The growth has been remarkable."

Lacrosse, a game played on the move as much as any other, is on the move in Ohio in terms of participation and popularity. Once the domain of mainly private schools, public schools have launched lacrosse teams as a spring alternative to baseball, softball and track.

In 1993, Ohio had only 19 boys teams and 17 girls teams. Today, 64 schools field boys teams and 55 have girls teams. About a third of those schools are in Northeast Ohio.

The game, originated long ago by the Cherokee Indians to prepare them for battle, is attracting athletes and fans across the country at the youth, high school and collegiate levels. Nationally, more than 88,000 boys and girls played high school lacrosse in 2002-03.

"People call it the fastest game on two feet," said the Naval Academy's Liza Holmes, a Division I first-team All-American selection this season and a 2002 graduate of Western Reserve Academy in Hudson.

"It has aspects of soccer, ice hockey and other sports, and the positioning of basketball. Guys lacrosse is hitting people with poles, a little bit like football. Girls lacrosse is graceful, a fast game and competitive at the same time. It's a different sport, and a lot of people are attracted to it."

Taking root in Ohio

The growing popularity of lacrosse somewhat resembles that of soccer 25 to 30 years ago. A youngster takes up the sport. A relative or friend watches the boy or girl compete, and spreads the word.

"I love the sport," said Kathy Ray, whose son, Dan, is a reserve on Kent Roosevelt's boys team. "I think it's awesome to watch. I work in a doctor's office, and he was saying, 'They go at each other. It's a gladiator sport.' It's like anything goes."

Boys teams at WRA and Hudson are ranked second and sixth, respectively, in this year's state rankings and are contenders to advance to state title games June 5 in Columbus. Champions will be crowned in three boys divisions and the girls division.

"The two hotbeds for the sport for years were Maryland and the Long Island area in New York," said Skip Flanagan, headmaster and boys lacrosse coach at WRA. "In recent years, Ohio, Colorado and California have shown the most growth."

Of the 63 boys in WRA's graduating class this year, five will go on to play Division I college lacrosse and five others for Division II schools. Ohio high schools produced eight players who were on the rosters of Final Eight teams in the 2003 NCAA men's tournament.

Flanagan, who played lacrosse at Rutgers in the mid-1960s and was an assistant coach at Princeton, said the level of play in Ohio prep lacrosse has improved partly because of flourishing youth programs. Ernie Hartong, who operates the Web site for Ohio girls lacrosse, agreed.

"It used to be that the first time a player picked up a lacrosse stick was in the ninth grade," he said. "Now, by the time they get to high school, they've been playing three or four years. The play is stronger and faster, and the stick skills have vastly improved. I don't think there's any question that the quality of play in Ohio has improved."

Hathaway Brown is ranked third among Ohio's girls teams and Hudson, Shaker Heights and Cleveland Heights are fourth, fifth and sixth, respectively.

Amy Longley is in her 26th season as Hathaway Brown's coach. She led the Blazers to the Midwest Schoolgirls Lacrosse Association state championship last year.

"It's really changed," Longley said of the caliber of play. "Everybody used to play with a dominant hand. Now everybody uses their left and right hands. Everybody is versatile. There is a greater variety of shots."

Lacrosse is an up-and-down the field game, but with a method to what sometimes appears to be madness. There's enough contact in the boys game to satisfy all but the most frantic of football linebackers, while contact in the girls game is limited by rule.

"It's a very fast-paced game," said Medina's Matt Castele, one of Ohio's leading scorers who is headed to Division I Fairfield (Connecticut) on a lacrosse scholarship.

"There's a lot of contact, but also a lot of skill and a lot of hand-eye coordination. It's typical of the reason I like sports. Lacrosse is the two worlds of having to play tough, and yet having to play with skill."

Castele's coach, Pat O'Brien, was a basketball, football and tennis player at Oregon Clay High near Toledo. It was lacrosse, though, that he played at Ohio State from 1974 to '77.

"What drew me to the sport was the speed, the contact and - to play it really well - it took a lot of skill," he said. "The reason I picked it up the way I did was the contact of football, the offensive and defensive fundamentals of basketball, and using an extension of your hand [with a lacrosse stick] like [a racquet] in tennis."

O'Brien believes the similarity of lacrosse to other sports is part of the game's allure. He compares an attackman in lacrosse to a guard in basketball, and explains how basketball concepts such as passing, cutting, and running off of screens can be applied to lacrosse.

Midfield players "tend to be running backs, defensive backs, cross country kids, basketball players," while soccer players and football backs often play as attackmen, and some defensemen are football linemen, O'Brien said. He said players of ordinary size, such as the 5-10, 150-pound Castele, can excel.

The ultimate goal

But Ohio's high school lacrosse community might not feel whole until the sport is sanctioned by the Ohio High School Athletic Association.

To be sanctioned, a sport - in its specific gender - must be played by at least 150 schools. OHSAA adopted the requirement prior to the 1991-92 school year.

Girls gymnastics and field hockey and boys ice hockey all are played at fewer than 100 schools. They were grandfathered as sanctioned sports because they met OHSAA's pre-1991 requirement - staging postseason tournaments.

John Minnis, commissioner of the Ohio High School Lacrosse Association, hopes the sport eventually will gain acceptance from Ohio's high school sports governing body.

"Our goal in the OHSLA is to go out of business, to be sanctioned by the OHSAA, and our organization will just go away," he said. "We consider ourselves in position to turn things over to the OHSAA whenever they're ready for us."

Hathaway Brown Athletic Director Laurette Payette, a founding member of the Midwest Schoolgirls Lacrosse Association, said at least one other state has found a way to bring lacrosse officially into the fold. Michigan is expected to combine the number of boys and girls lacrosse programs to allow the sport to be sanctioned, she said.

Read Powel, a Hathaway Brown senior who will play college lacrosse at Denison, hopes the sport will get the same consideration here.

"I think the people who are in lacrosse know what's going on with the teams and players, but there is not much known by the public," she said. "It would be cool to be recognized by Ohio."