T he idea was simply to start out small — and hope that popularity would gain over time.
That thought quickly expanded for Issaquah Youth Lacrosse co-founders Matthew Balkman and Scott Wiley.
In the summer of 2003, after Issaquah High School’s inaugural club lacrosse season, Balkman and Wiley, both of whom had sons they wanted to get involved in lacrosse, kicked around the idea of starting of a youth team. After rounding up family members and friends, they found their core but still needed a few more players for a team. The duo handed out flyers and registration forms for a clinic, and the rest is history.
“We had 97 kids show up at our clinic. We only needed eight. So, we had a problem,” Balkman joked.
From there, the Issaquah Youth Lacrosse League launched four teams during its first year. According to Balkman, the non-profit organization is now the largest in the Northwest. There are currently 480 kids enrolled from second through eighth grades, forming four divisions and 22 teams. That doesn’t take into account the three teams at Issaquah and Skyline high schools, which the IYL feeds. The Eastlake Lacrosse Association, a separate organization, has 192 kids enrolled its youth and high school programs, putting the number of kids actively playing lacrosse in Issaquah and Sammamish at more than 800.
Kids love lacrosse
Balkman said lacrosse has caught on quickly for a variety of reasons, including the fast pace and high level of contact.
He also joked there are some underlying reasons.
“They’ve done studies about why lacrosse is so popular, and as they interview kids, one of the main things that they say is ‘My parents don’t know anything about it,’” he said. “’They don’t know the rules and they can’t tell me what I’m doing right or wrong.’”
For 13-year-old Jack Pruitt, the decision to put down the football pads and pick up the lacrosse stick was easy. After his dad encouraged him to attend camp on Mercer Island, he was hooked.
“I’d played a lot of sports before, and nothing really compared to it,” he said. “Lacrosse is constant motion, you don’t get tired of it. There’s a new thing every minute of the game.”
Fourteen-year-old Almen Thorp is in just his second season of playing lacrosse. At 4-foot-11, 116 pounds, Thorp isn’t the largest of stature, but he’s quickly adjusting to the game.
“It’s pretty hard, but I got it down,” he said. “It’s hard to like, cradle the ball with gloves and be accurate.”
Ryan McMackin, 14, is another IYL player who can’t get enough of lacrosse. He also plays football and basketball, but said his favorite sport is lacrosse hands down. In fact, if an NFL game was on at the same time as a professional lacrosse game, the choice to watch lacrosse would be simple.
“It really doesn’t compare. It’s my favorite sport — it’s way above everything,” McMackin said.
Future of the sport
Balkman said he only sees the popularity continuing to take off, especially with the success of the local high schools.
Issaquah, Skyline and Eastlake are three of 14 Division I teams in Washington state. Division I is the highest level of high school lacrosse. Issaquah, which is undefeated so far this season, is one of the favorites to win the Division I crown. There are also 26 schools within Division II. Most schools around the state, except Mercer Island, operate as club teams. Balkman said there is hope that will change in the near future.
“We’re trying to run (club teams) just like the high school program would be, so eventually they’ll be folded in,” he said.
And by keeping the youth interested, the possibilities of where lacrosse will go in the region are endless.
“Our goal is to get kids to play next year, whatever that means, we want them to keep playing,” Balkman said. “We think there’s a really huge advantage to playing team sports and participating. And out of that we’ll get a few superstars and a lot of kids who had a lot of fun.”