Youth programs helping feed interest in Litchfield County high school lacrosse

The Lewis Mills boys lacrosse team went 13-5 last season, earning a spot in the state tournament. The Spartans are 4-0 so far this season. Pete Paguaga — Register Citizen

The Lewis Mills boys lacrosse team went 13-5 last season, earning a spot in the state tournament. The Spartans are 4-0 so far this season.
Pete Paguaga — Register Citizen

Lacrosse is a relatively new sport in Connecticut, with the CIAC hosting the first championships for boys lacrosse in 1995 and for the girls in 2004.

It has already taken over Fairfield County, where the high schools have dominated, winning 39 of the 46 boys state championships, and 21 of the 23 girls state titles.

The non-Fairfield County teams to take home championship hardware for boys were Somers in 1996 (Division II), 1997 (Division II) and 2006 (Class S), South Windsor in 1999 (Division II), Cheshire in 2002 (Division I) and 2010 (Class L), and East Lyme in 2004 (Division II).

For the girls, East Lyme won in 2006 (Division II) and Northwest Catholic in 2012 (Class S).

Lacrosse has slowly made its way to Litchfield County.

Housatonic fielded the first boys team in the area in 1991, and the Mountaineers’ girls team, started in 2001, was also the area’s first.

Lewis Mills joined the Mountaineers in 2005 with a boys team and then in 2010 with a girls team.

Most recently, Wamogo played in its first varsity boys lacrosse season last year.

The Housatonic lacrosse team is the only area team without the benefit of a local youth program. Pete Paguaga — Register Citizen

The Housatonic lacrosse team is the only area team without the benefit of a local youth program.
Pete Paguaga — Register Citizen

The sport is growing and there is a big reason why. It’s something that almost every town in Fairfield County has in common.

“Almost every community is represented with a youth program in Fairfield County,” said Fairfield Prep head coach Chris Smalkais, who led the Jesuits’ boys lacrosse program for the last 26 years.

Not every community in Litchfield County has a youth program, but two of the three schools that have lacrosse also have a youth program.

Litchfield Hills Youth Lacrosse was started in 2006, seven years before the boys team played their first varsity season. It is one of the major reasons why the varsity program got started in the first place.

“Greg Gannon, myself and other parents wanted to start a team at Wamogo, and we had to start it as a Booster Club. We did that for two years and the school picked it up last year,” said Jeff Porter, President of the Litchfield Hills Youth Lacrosse, who has been with the program since it started. “Of the kids that are playing at Wamogo now, there are a number of them that I coached in Bantam.”

Though Wamogo went 1-11 last season, there is hope that the success from the youth program, which started with two dozen kids and one co-ed team and now has over 200 kids and 12 teams between boys and girls, will translate into wins on the varsity level.

“They (players who go through youth program) are light-years ahead,” Wamogo head coach Mackenzie McCloud said. “Definitely going to be a team to watch out for.”

Now with a boys team in place, and the continuous growth of the youth program, a girls team at Wamogo could be started in the future.

“I’ve heard some talk of a girls team,” Porter said. “But we’ve had great success in our girls program.”

The Warriors have every right to be positive after the success that Lewis Mills has had, with both the boys and girls teams making the state tournament last season.

“Our junior varsity team is what our varsity team used to be,” said Lewis Mills boys head coach, Pat Schmitt, who has also been working with the Burlington Youth Lacrosse Association since its second year.

The Burlington Youth Lacrosse Association was started in 2003, two years before the Spartans boys team became a varsity team.
“We’ve had decent athletes. We now have 10 players we can put on the field and have subs that can play,” Schmitt said. “They are fighting for positions now.”

Jake Magnoli, a senior and the captain for the Spartans who started playing in fourth grade, went through the Burlington youth program and is one of four Spartans who will play in college next season.

“I was terrible until the eighth grade, and now I am the captain,” he said. “Most of our team, 14 seniors, most of us have been playing together since the youth program.”

For the Spartans’ girls team, most of its starters have been through the program.

“Of our junior class, a lot of them have played for the youth program, and we all had varsity spots as freshman,” junior Andi Stone said.

It wasn’t always easy though.

“We lost 24-1 in our first game in fifth grade,” junior Kelly Winterbottom said with a laugh.

“And look at us now, we’ve made it to States,” senior Liz Crocket said.

Margaret Dunlop, head coach of the Lewis Mills girls team, played on the first boys team at Lewis Mills.

“It was a lot of fun, but a lot of losing,” she said. “It’s come a long way with the youth program.”

Unfortunately for the longest running lacrosse program in the area, Housatonic, there is no youth program in the community. It can make putting together a consistent winning program challenging.

“They are learning lacrosse as freshman and sophomores,” said Housatonic boys head coach Steve Pener, who played on the first boys team at Housatonic in 1991. “We need a lot of kids, last season we lost a couple of games because we got tired. We spent half of last season trying to find a goalie.”

Pener and the Mountaineers finally did find their goalie in Keith Harvey, who started playing lacrosse when he was in seventh grade but stopped for three years before coming back as a sophomore.

Harvey is one of the few Mountaineers who played for a travel team.

“This fall I played on a travel team in Middletown, with the Cardinals,” said Harvey who traveled the 60 miles for games and practices. “It was worth it, they had a lot of good coaches for all different positions. I worked with a coach who was specifically a goalie coach. I never had that before.”

Because there are no youth programs, the coaches and players have had to go out and convince players to join the teams.

“My first year we had 13 girls. We have 22 this season and some of the 13 girls on the first team wouldn’t have played another sport,” Housatonic girls lacrosse coach Spike Magyar said. “I tried to talk girls playing basketball into playing lacrosse. As athletes they pick up the sport quicker.”

Magyar did, getting basketball players Heather Kearns and Hailey Nelson, volleyball player Abby Wilson and soccer player and Jill Cannon to join the team.

“We need a lot of kids, last season we lost a couple of games because we got tired, it’s a tiring sport,” Pener said.

“If we had a youth program we would have 30 kids,” Magyar said. “Problem is with a district schools, is which town would support the youth program?”

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