Imagine a verdant field as morning fog lifts away from swaths of dewy grass. Young lacrosse players run up and down, wielding octagonal, metal sticks with nylon, netted heads, as they struggle for control of a solid, 62.7 to 64.7 millimeter ball. The fast-paced game is being held on a field surrounded, not by the maple and fir trees ubiquitous at Ivy League schools on the east coast, but rather the oldest grove of mature live oaks in the world, at City Park. While the game is indeed bigger in the northeast, lacrosse – which combines elements of hockey, soccer and basketball and is based on stickball games played by native tribes as early as the 1600s – is in fact one of the fastest growing sports in the world, and New Orleans is no exception.
“Well, lacrosse is infectious!” says Ford Jones Dieth Jr., who was first exposed to the game in 1992 while attending college at Shenandoah University in northern Virginia. The former player is now a coach and the Head of Lower School St. Martin’s Episcopal School. “There was no lacrosse in Louisiana at the time and I really didn’t know much about lacrosse. It turns out that I fell in love with it! I was a goalie at Shenandoah for two seasons and was voted a team captain in that second year.”
Not only does Louisiana now have lacrosse, but according to Val Browning, Commissioner of the Louisiana High School Lacrosse League (LHSLL), five programs were added to the league this past year, bringing the number of high school programs in the state to 19.
“We have already had inquiries from two new programs about joining the LHSLL next year,” says Browning, adding that there is an independent team on the Northshore, as well as two new youth level programs that started this year, two girls programs added to the existing three (in Louisiana) and another two that may start next year. “Also, in the Shreveport area, they have started Caddo Bossier Lacrosse Association, which had over 200 youth participants last year and it grew to over 300 participants this year.”
Browning says most participants belong to US Lacrosse and there are currently 1,781 USL members (players, coaches and officials) in Louisiana.
Dieth is one of a group of dedicated, enthusiastic and seemingly tireless individuals who has worked over the years to bring the sport to Louisiana and sees the fruits of his labor in the numbers reported by Browning. It began in 2003, when Dieth started both intramural and travel lacrosse teams at Christian Brothers School.
“I always had an old lacrosse stick in my classroom,” says Dieth. “Every year, especially when I was teaching history and we came to the Iroquois and the six nations, I would talk about lacrosse. Often, I taught with that old lacrosse stick in my hand. One year, a group of fifth graders asked me if I would show them how to throw and catch.”
At first, Dieth brought a few sticks and balls to school, but says within a week, boys were suddenly bringing their own sticks. Soon, there was enough interest to ask the assistant director and principal about starting an intramural team. The closest teams were in Shreveport and they played a team in Dallas.
“We had 40 students at Christian Brothers that year for an intramural program. Eighty the next year and 110 plus the years to follow,” says Dieth.
Since then, Dieth has helped start programs at Brother Martin High School, Jesuit High School, De La Salle High School and Archbishop Rummel High School, and this year the first u11 program at an independent school in the state at St. Martin’s Episcopal School. Additionally, Dieth is a founding board member of Friends of New Orleans Lacrosse, a nonprofit organization that works to promote and grow high school and youth lacrosse in the area founded in 2006, and helped found, organize and run the Sugar Bowl tournament.
The team at Jesuit that Dieth helped found began in 2005. The year prior, Paul Baxter, whose son was a junior, was watching lacrosse on TV one day. “He said, ‘Dad, this looks like fun. I want to start a lacrosse team,’” says Baxter. The father and son jumped into research, planning and organizing and were off and running.
While his son has since graduated from high school, as well as West Point and has just finished serving in the Army, Baxter is still involved in the sport. A founding member of FONOLAX, Baxter serves as president and hopes someday that his son (who still plays when he has the chance) will come home, get involved and eventually take over.
When Jackie Smart moved back to New Orleans from New Jersey with her family in 2011, she had no idea that within a few months, she’d become the “Queen of Lacrosse” in the area.
Her son started playing in fourth grade and was in seventh grade at the time of the move. Unsure about whether or not lacrosse was even an option in New Orleans, Smart and her husband were prepared to find one-on-one lessons if necessary, so that Michael could continue to play. Smart was committed to the search, because she says playing the game has changed her son’s personality for the better in the time he has been playing and the idea of giving it up was unthinkable for him. “He thought he’d die,” says Smart.
To the family’s relief, the sport was alive and growing in New Orleans, but access to equipment and knowledgeable retailers from whom to buy it was scarce. “Dick’s didn’t know what the hell they were talking about,” says Smart. “They didn’t know how to fit kids properly for padding. Didn’t know the equipment. I thought, ‘I have to start a store.’ I said it, and in three months I was open.”
Smart, no stranger to retail as the former owner of a shoe store in New Jersey, struggled the first year with the learning curve of this unfamiliar area of the business. Within a short few years however, her store Southern Lacrosse has grown from an approximately 250-square-foot space in the back of a Harahan office park, to 800 square feet of retail, office and warehouse storage in the front of the building, with future plans to expand to a storefront in a higher traffic area of town.
Southern Lacrosse supplies not only the growing needs of Louisiana, but also Mississippi, Alabama and some teams in Florida.
“Kids are now looking at schools based on lacrosse,” says Smart, who’s excited about the growth of the sport and hopes to see more public schools start teams, but laments the lack of coaches and officials. “Since it’s not a state sanctioned sport yet, these are all volunteers.”
While the true lacrosse season in the south is January through April, summer is still busy with travel and summer leagues. Southern Lacrosse also organizes a lacrosse clinic featuring coaching from national stars, including Kyle Hartzell, a defense coach for the Major League Lacrosse New York Lizards, National League Lacrosse Philadelphia Wings and Team USA; Steven Brooks, midfield coach for the MLL Chesapeake Bayhawks and Team USA; and Drew Westervelt, attack coach for the MLL Chesapeake Bayhawks, NLL Colorado Mammoth and Team USA.
The aforementioned challenge of getting and keeping volunteer coaches and officials, as well as funding for equipment and field space, doesn’t seem to be affecting the spread in popularity of the game. There even is a place for post-high school and college players to get their fix. The New Orleans Lacrosse Club, which has quietly kept the game alive since the 1970s, is a self-described “group of shaggy-haired LAX bros” of all ages and skill levels that hosts an annual Mardi Gras Tournament in City Park the weekend before Carnival.
For Dieth and his cohorts, it’s clearly a life’s passion, which doesn’t seem to fade with time. “I truly hope that lacrosse will become an LHSAA (Louisiana High School Athletic Association) sport in the next couple of years,” he says. “It has become a force to be reckoned with and now Louisiana is sending students to college to play lacrosse. It is opening up new doors for students and their families. I love it and will continue to be involved in it until I can’t any longer.”