Larger lacrosse league teams prepare to face tougher competition

March 20, 2012

By Matt Carstens

Lacrosse is one of the fastest growing sports in the United States, and a big part of that growth is happening right here in our own back yard.
“I coached the first 7-8 (year old) Issaquah youth lacrosse team, probably seven or eight years ago,” Skyline head coach Adam Kurtenbach said. “From that point on, just in Issaquah, Sammamish, that program has bred another four or five youth programs. Now there’s 50 teams that have grown just from that in the last seven or eight years. It’s been exponential growth just year after year.”

With all that growth, both the division I and II leagues have gotten increasingly tougher, and Skyline, Issaquah and Liberty all hope to make significant strides this season.

Dark horse athletes

After making the transition to Division I four years ago, Kurtenbach said his team is always in the conversation as a “dark horse” team.

“We’re kind of considered one of those dark horses every year because we usually have some great athletes, but not all of them are necessarily lacrosse-first guys,” he said.

But as youth programs flourish, more high school teams are reaping the benefits from kids growing up with the sticks instead of just picking them up.

“We lost a fairly strong senior class, but we got four of our top five scorers from last year returning,” Kurtenbach said. “For the most part, we have a new defense, one returning starter from last year. Good up-and-coming group of players, strong freshman class this year, won’t really play on the varsity but have given a real good push to the program. Like I said, we got two or three kids considered the best in the state.”

Some of those kids include senior midfielder Jack Pruitt who has committed to the University of Denver, junior attack Ryan Benz and senior attack Max Saffle who has committed to play at the Air Force Academy.

“We’re usually a fairly up-tempo team,” Kurtenbach said. “If you want to look at it from a basketball standpoint, we’re kind of like a fast-break team. We push the pace, push the ball up the floor, if the chance is there were going to take it, rather than settle everything down and run an extended offense. Which as opposed to your Mercer Island, Issaquah, tend to be more of a set offense kind of a program.”

Eleven years and counting

Issaquah has made the playoffs every single year since its inception in 2002, a streak head coach Brandon Fortier would like to keep alive.

“We graduated a decent number of seniors but we return a core of six guys that were juniors last year that were key parts of the team,” Fortier said. “In my mind, we’re still a top-eight team for sure. Whether we can go beyond that is to be determined.”

Those returning players include seniors Matt O’Neil, Ben Director, Duncan Hamilton, Austin Richert and O’Neil Hughes.

If O’Neil’s “not No. 1, he’s probably in the top two best stick skills in my 11 years. Very good with both his right and left hand, one of the better attack men,” Fortier said. “He was second-team all-state last year. He should be first-team all-state this year outside of injury.”

While not as athletic or talented as O’Neil, Fortier said, Director is his coach on the field.

“Definitely the smartest in terms of lacrosse IQ,” Fortier said. “He definitely understands the game better than anybody. He could be a coach some day. He understands the game, he’s a great leader, a great kid in the classroom.”

According to Fortier, the Issaquah style is and always will be simple: fundamentals.

“In terms of my coaching we’ve always been a fundamentals-first team,” he said. “Some years you have a little more talent, a little more stick skills, so you look a little bit flashier, but it’s all based on the same, grind-it-out fundamentals.

“We’ve had the same defensive principals, same offensive principals since I started, we just make little adjustments to the talent we have,” he added. “But we’ve always lived by the motto we’re going to be fundamental, we’re going to do what we do, but we’re not going to focus on a bunch of schematic things based on who our opponent is. We’re going to run what we can run to the best of our ability and sort of let the chips fall.”

Fortier said he sees his team being more defensive minded, holding the other team to below double digits.

A growing program

Coming into its third season as a startup club in Division II, Liberty head coach Geo Tamblyn is excited about the progress his program has made.

“We’re pretty proud of our play,” Tamblyn said. “Staying in our games, compared to our last two seasons we’ve gotten blown out a lot. Now we’re really in them. Hopefully we’ll make the playoffs this year. That’s our goal.”

The rough part about starting a lacrosse program is that it’s a relatively underplayed sport, so when Tamblyn started the team, most of his players had never played the game.

“I play with basically ninth- and 10th-graders,” he said. “Last year, I had almost a complete ninth- and 10th-grade roster. Three years ago, I had two players that had never touched a stick. Next year, we’ll have 25 players that will have been playing for four or five years.”

That growing influx of talent is exactly what Tamblyn likes to see.

Some of the current talent on the Liberty squad includes sophomore defensemen Sam Dote, who made the all conference team as a freshman. Tamblyn mentioned Wyatt Johnson and Colin Ross as two other players to keep an eye on.

“Our goal is to play clean, good lacrosse, with a really positive attitude,” Tamblyn said. “We want to be one of those teams that people enjoy playing against.”

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