BRISTOL — Lacrosse, billed as the fastest sport on two feet, has also in the past two decades become one of the fastest growing team sports in the United States.
But that doesn’t mean that speed is the right way to build a new program in the sport, according to Mount Abraham Union High School boys’ lacrosse coaches Tim McGowan and Paul Low.
Their team will make its varsity debut this spring, specifically on April 14 at Randolph. Two days later, the Eagles, many of them who played for the school’s first JV team last spring, will host Otter Valley in their first varsity home game.
Those games will be the culmination of years of effort by McGowan and several of his seniors.
In 2005, McGowan started a club program with the Bristol Recreation Department, in part to give his two sons a chance to play the sport. The athletes didn’t play a game; next year, they played one. In their third and fourth years, they became a team as a Mount Abe club and played other club teams, often with more experience, and took their lumps.
Last year, the Eagles played a full JV schedule and started winning. Senior defender Jake McDonough, who was in on the ground level when McGowan started the club, remembered the excitement and challenge of his freshman year, and then the gradual progress.
“It was a lot of fun. We didn’t win a lot to start off with, but it was still a lot of fun to be able to actually play people,” McDonough said. “JV was really great. We won a lot of games. I think we only lost three. As a team we really worked well together, which is one thing I really liked, and we won a lot, too, which was also nice.”
Senior goalie Craig Camara, who joined the club team as a freshman, sees that progress and believes organizers have done it the right way.
“It’s got a good base, and we’re hoping it can grow up to be a great program,” Camara said. “We’re just getting youth teams forming so it can feed the high school team when they come up through. So it’s got a good base now, and we should have a good team in a few years. Hopefully this year, too.”
That gradual improvement is exactly what McGowan said he and Mount Abe co-athletic directors Jeff and Mary Stetson aimed for. This spring almost three dozen athletes tried out, and those youth programs are in place to ensure the program’s long-term health.
“It was calculated and planned from the very beginning not to rush into anything too large that would never be an ongoing effort,” McGowan said. “The essence of it is to have kids come and be able to compete at a very strong level ... I think the momentum is there and won’t be stopped.”
Low, a former University of Vermont lacrosse player, signed on to help McGowan with the technical aspects of coaching. Officially, he is the assistant, but McGowan refers to him as the co-coach.
Low said the plan also should help the athletes develop the belief that they can compete at the more challenging varsity level.
“Essentially, what you have to do is create confidence,” Low said. “Many of the kids haven’t played the sport until last year, so consequently, you need to, one, instruct them on the basics, and the second thing that I feel is most important is work with them on their confidence, that they can in fact pick up the sport and become competitive. Because without that mental edge in any sport it’s really difficult to succeed.”
Low said he and McGowan also know their team will face opponents with more experience in the sport, and they have asked extra of the Eagles to compensate for their lack of experience.
“We try to identify what strengths and weaknesses they have ... and establish some sort of homework that they can do on their own with regards to their weaknesses. That gives them a chance to sort of catch up with the other teams,” Low said.
McGowan said he always believed the plan to establish lacrosse at Mount Abe could work, but admitted the response exceeded his expectations.
“I had two boys that played earlier on, and then when we came back to Vermont, there really wasn’t anywhere for us to go,” he said. “So we just started a club through Bristol Rec, who I am very grateful to, they really helped us at the very beginning of the process. And from that point on it’s just grown every year with numbers beyond my wildest dreams.”
McDonough said it wasn’t that hard for McGowan to persuade him and others to play.
“He asked me to be part of it, and I thought that would be a fun thing to do. I don’t play any other spring sports, so I thought that would be good. And I’ve always liked the game of lacrosse. It’s physical. It’s fast, and it’s the way to go. I had seen games on TV, and watched Middlebury College, of course,” he said, adding, “I really loved it, personally. I got to hit people, which I didn’t get to do otherwise ... It’s a different sport. It’s a lot of fun.”
Camara was a bit of an exception — he’s a hockey goalie, and was recruited.
“Back when it was a club team they needed a goalie,” Camara said. “I played goalie all my life in other sports so it seemed like a natural fit.”
Now, Camara said he is excited to be getting in on the sport’s ground floor at Mount Abe.
“It’s an awesome feeling that I get to help grow this program,” he said.
The Eagles and their coaches aren’t sure about what to expect from the season, at least about wins and losses. Camara thinks things might be tough at times, but that the Eagles will hang together.
“There’s a lot of seniors on this team who have played together since we were freshmen and sophomores. So we have good chemistry there,” he said. “We just have to work to get together with the freshmen and sophomores and juniors.”
McGowan looks to intangibles for his expectations.
“Win or lose, we will do it with grace and respect,” he said. “We want to make sure, No. 1, that we play competitive, and at the same time, No. 2, we enjoy the game and have a good time with it.”
McDonough said it just might be enough to compete at the highest level.
“I’m not sure how we’ll do this season, but we’re excited to finally be playing a varsity sport,” he said. “I’ve been working on it for six years to get to this point, so it’s really exciting to finally be able to play varsity.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.