FARMINGTON – Mt. Blue High School bought its seat on the lacrosse bandwagon before the idea of public schools playing the ancient, prep-dominated game became cool.
Now it seems that every school and its neighbor have discovered this high-energy hybrid of hockey, soccer and football, and the pioneering Cougars are struggling to keep pace.
There is hope. The bad news for now, however, is that the hope probably rests in the still-growing hands and feet of elementary school kids who are playing soccer or skateboarding and have no idea what that funny little stick is for.
“We’re suffering right now because all the other programs have had feeder systems and we haven’t,” said Mt. Blue coach Mark Cyr.
During the formative years of lacrosse in Maine, where the principals’ association didn’t sanction a state tournament in the sport until 1998, Mt. Blue got away with promoting its alternative game to its best male athletes and commissioning them to learn on the fly.
That philosophy worked in the days when every program was considered a club team and continued into the MPA championship era, with standouts such as J.R. Moreau, Jon McCabe, Buzzy Cyr and Evan Xanthos making Mt. Blue a perennial playoff participant.
Sanction and organization brought immediate growth to the game. In the last eight years, 35 new lacrosse programs (16 boys, 19 girls) have taken root. And when those schools adopted the game – particularly Mt. Blue’s rivals in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference – they didn’t merely dabble in it.
“Mt. Ararat gets their kids started in fifth and sixth grade. In Brunswick, they start playing even earlier than that,” Cyr said. “They’ve got a Saturday morning program with 60 third and fourth-grade kids playing lacrosse every week. That’s what you need.”
Programs that don’t plant lacrosse seeds on the playground are getting left behind.
For years, Mt. Blue clearly established itself as the “Best of the Rest” – the top team outside the experienced Greater Portland cluster that includes Cape Elizabeth, North Yarmouth Academy and Waynflete.
Only two seasons ago, Mt. Blue routed Lewiston in an Eastern Maine playoff quarterfinals. Last June, the Cougars took it on the chin from the Blue Devils, 13-0, in a tourney prelim to cap a campaign that yielded four victories.
Despite the spirited play of attackers Andrew Hardy, Anthony Barker and football lineman Tom Robinson, offense hasn’t come any easier in 2006.
“Every year up until last year, we were a team that scored in double digits every game. This year,” said Cyr, glancing at the scoreboard and adding the total from an 11-5 loss to Mt. Ararat to the number in his head, “we’ve scored a total of eight goals in our first three games.”
Robinson’s move to the front line produced immediate results in the first period of that loss to the Eagles.
“That was my first goal,” Robinson said. “I’ve never played attack before today. Coach just told me if I had a chance, go in and shoot.”
It was a costly goal. Robinson sustained a knee injury on the play and didn’t return to the game.
With teaching the game perhaps an even more urgent goal than trying to qualify for the reconfigured, two-class playoff in Eastern A, Cyr is shuffling more freshmen into the lineup than ever. For the first time, it isn’t on-the-job training. Many of them played the game last spring.
“Our freshmen actually have a year under their belts. Until last year, we never had a junior high program,” Cyr said. “Now we have 28 kids playing lacrosse in the seventh and eighth grade.”
Cyr saw the trend coming. Other coaches might have backed out while a losing season was still a foreign concept.
Instead, the longtime boss is applauding every small growth spurt and awaiting the reward.
“I’m confident we will back at that level within a few years,” he said.