In recent years, the sport of lacrosse has grown increasingly popular among young people in the Puget Sound area.
And something else is increasing, too. As the sport continues to grow, more and more high school players are finding opportunities to continue playing — and, in some instances, to receive scholarships and other financial aid — at the college level.
This spring, a handful of Snohomish County high school seniors are looking forward to becoming collegiate lacrosse players. Among them, Kamiak products Jake Gagnon and Alex Okemah who will compete at the NCAA Division III level next season. Gagnon is headed for Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill., just outside Chicago, while Okemah is bound for Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., near the northwest corner of the state.
Schools in NCAA Division III do not award athletic scholarships, so Gagnon and Okemah are receiving financial aid packages that are based, in part, on athletic prowess, but also on academics, financial need and other criteria.
And as Okemah explained, “Grades help more than lacrosse.”
Still, the chance to play collegiate lacrosse is an exciting prospect, and one that is unfolding for dozens of state athletes every year. According to statistics compiled by the Washington chapter of US Lacrosse, 64 graduating high school seniors have committed to play college lacrosse, with 23 headed for schools at the NCAA Divisions I, II or III levels.
That total also includes Chas Stringfellow and Mahealani Wong of Archbishop Murphy High School. Stringfellow will compete at Greensboro College in Greensboro, N.C., and Wong will play for the women’s team at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Ore. Both are Division III schools.
The remaining 41 senior lacrosse players from Washington will compete collegiately with club teams. Among them, Merrick Rutledge from Everett High School, who will enroll at Washington State University.
Mike McQuaid, the sports information director for US Lacrosse in Washington, said there are more than 10,000 lacrosse players of all ages in the state, with approximately 4,000 playing at the high school level. Since lacrosse is not sanctioned by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association, most high schoolers play on club teams.
And as the numbers increase, so has the quality of play. It is, McQuaid said, “growing exponentially among the top teams in the state. The teams that are competing for a state championship every year, the cream of the crop, are now competitive to the point where they can go head to head on occasion with some of the best teams in the country. And to me that’s exciting.”
Lacrosse has its roots in the United States on the East Coast and in the upper Midwest, which is reflected in the number of college programs in those regions offering the sport. The West Coast lags by comparison, where only a few schools offer intercollegiate lacrosse, though that likely will change in time.
In the meantime, top players from the Puget Sound area will continue to develop and look for chances to play collegiately.
As a younger player, “I loved the contact and the speed of the game,” Okemah said. “And when I got to high school, I just decided that I didn’t want to play football or soccer anymore. I wanted to take lacrosse seriously.”
“I played every sport before lacrosse,” Gagnon said, “but I had friends who played and they got me into it. When I first started, I didn’t know how much I was going to like it. But I just fell in love with it.”
Back then, the notion of playing in college and the possibility of getting money based on his lacrosse skill “didn’t even cross my mind,” he said. “But now it’s like a dream come true.”