When the boys lacrosse season ends Saturday at Brien McMahon with the Class L championship game, it’ll end with a clash between two of the state’s powers, its first dynasty, Wilton, against its latest dynasty, Darien.
But the day will begin with Bacon Academy, a program only a decade old, against St. Joseph in the Class S final, then New Fairfield against Weston in Class M, all of whom have developed from relative obscurity into regular finalists over the past 20 years.
The growth of lacrosse in the Connecticut will be on display at Jack Casagrande Field, and part of that growth comes from 25 years ago, when the sport finally met the conditions needed to get sanctioned by the CIAC.
“It helped. It legitimized the sport,” said Foran coach Brian Adkins, who began coaching high school lacrosse at West Haven a couple of years after sanction and now serves on the CIAC’s boys lacrosse committee.
“Before that, everything was done by the coaches. They put in a lot of work and effort for guys like myself, Marty Morgan, Rich Pulisciano, all starting at about the same time.”
This year marks the 25th CIAC tournament. The state’s coaches ran a tournament for 21 years before that, growing to around 30 varsity teams by the mid-1990s.
Somers was one of them, and young coach Ken McCarthy didn’t realize at the time how important a CIAC sanction would be.
Before lacrosse became a CIAC sport, he said, his high school teams would play in the Paul Bowers Tournament, a youth tournament held in Somers for 34 years now. The tournament was going on, in fact, Saturday. The Spartans were playing St. Joseph in the CIAC Class S quarterfinals, with McCarthy still on the sidelines.
“Our high school teams used to play in that when the season was over, because we could,” McCarthy said. “When it became a CIAC sport, it changed in a good way.”
The CIAC Handbook spells out the conditions needed: A sport needs enough volunteers to form a committee, it needs the administrative expertise to run a tournament, and it also needs programs in 20 percent of the member schools. Thus, 30-something teams was not enough.
But there was another option: The CIAC can sanction a sport if it’s played by two percent of the total enrollment of students of that gender in the state. Boys lacrosse just qualified.
“Teams like ours had 75 to 100 kids, and we said, total up the number of kids playing, not the number of teams,” said Jeff Brameier, who had become Darien’s first varsity coach in 1984.
“That was the way we won the battle, and once we won it, it was amazing how all of a sudden it blossomed into 35, then 50 teams, and now we’re closing in on 100.”
This year’s CIAC Handbook lists 102 boys lacrosse programs in 2017-18, not all of them varsity, with 4,125 athletes participating. There were 98 varsity teams this season.
The sport is growing nationwide, anyway, so sanction isn’t necessarily the only reason, but it has helped.
“You really see the growth, how many teams there are,” said Adkins; Foran began varsity play in 2013, for one. “There used to be a couple of play-in games (before the Round of 16 in the state tournaments), and now there are seven or eight.”
There were years, he remembered, when scarcely that many teams made the Division II tournament, period.
In 1996, the last team into the nine-team Division II tournament was New Fairfield, which had just gone varsity in 1993, bringing on Morgan to coach.
“We used to lose a lot of games until we got a youth program and started a feeder system,” Morgan said.
Sanction helped build something. The SWC continued to expand. So have other leagues around the state.
“I think (sanction) has helped grow (the game), as far as schools getting teams,” McCarthy said. “I think we had 18 teams when I first started coaching, and we’d travel all over for games.”
There are gripes, as ever, about the tournament, some of them not unique to lacrosse: seeding mismatches, team placement, what to do with Catholic schools.
McCarthy, who is also on the CIAC boys lacrosse committee, thinks going from two divisions to enrollment-based classes in 2006 has been a boon, giving smaller schools something to play for. Others consider the possibility of an “Open” division, top teams competing for a true state championship with other divisions below that.
They’re quibbles in a bigger picture that has seen the number of programs across the state triple in 25 years.
“Worth the work,” Brameier said. “We just hope the sport continues to grow. Which it obviously is.”