Road Trip Dad – Cause for Concern?
Dan Witmer |April 22, 2019
I don’t want to sound like Chicken Little, but I think we’ve got a problem on our hands. I’m not sure if it’s just a lacrosse problem, a short-term problem, or maybe even a societal problem, but for a part of the country that has long taken pride in being one of the “hotbeds” of lacrosse, I think it’s a bit embarrassing.

We’re losing players, and we’re losing teams.

This spring, in Section 3, Tully, Clinton, Chittenango, and V-V-S all cancelled their JV boys’ lacrosse programs – in March. Of those four, Tully surprised me the most. Ever since I started coaching girls’ soccer back in the ‘80s. Tully was the school district that seemed to have good teams in every sport, and their participation rate was rumored to be one of the highest anywhere. Despite being a small school, they fielded every spring sport imaginable – lacrosse, track and field, baseball, and tennis. But now this spring, they lack enough players to support a JV boys’ lacrosse team.

At the varsity level, both Bishop Ludden and Manlius-Pebble Hill dropped their varsity boys’ lacrosse teams, also in March.

In the past ten years, Section 3 has also seen three separate Syracuse City Schools boys’ teams – Henninger, Corcoran, and Nottingham – condensed into one varsity team, and Onondaga Central Schools no longer has a boys’ lacrosse program.

Wait a minute, you say. What about the high participation rates and growing numbers at the national level? Everywhere we turn, we hear that lacrosse continues to expand not only across the country, but all around the world! We’re even talking more and more about Olympic lacrosse!

You wouldn’t know it by looking at CNY sidelines.

A quick glance at Section 5’s comprehensive website, www.sportsfive.net, reports that Bishop Kearney and East Rochester have disbanded their boys’ lacrosse programs. Avon and Livonia decided to form a merged team, as did Batavia, Attica, and Notre Dame (heretofore nicknamed BAND). I never could keep track of all the Greece schools, but the website says that the teams formerly known as the Thunder and the Lightning have now combined to form the Storm.

Clever, but, to quote a Hollywood classic, “What in the wide, wide world of sports is a-goin’ on here?”

Maybe it’s a local problem – I lack the resources to be able to tell you what’s going on in Sections 4, 6, and 2, and 10 – but I suspect that a little digging will show some similar findings.

Participation numbers have dropped enough that the traditional three (and sometimes four – some of the bigger school districts have had a modified team as well as a freshman team) levels of play – modified, JV, and varsity – are now being compromised everywhere you look. According to Penn Yan varsity coach Brian Hobart, most Finger Lakes programs have eliminated their JV programs.

Locally, the Oswego and Fulton programs are struggling for numbers. Both school districts have about 18-20 varsity players and even fewer JV team members. That hasn’t always been the case.

So, what’s going on? Let’s take a look at a few hypotheses…

If it’s just a problem in boys’ lacrosse…

Then we need to take good hard look at some sort of explanation. Cost of equipment? Lack of desire to sweat, hit, and be hit? Disdain for playing in the snow and heat?

I’ve heard that girls’ lacrosse isn’t suffering from the same problem, and I haven’t heard of school districts cutting JV teams in basketball, or varsity soccer teams folding – the only other sports I hear having numbers problems are football and wrestling.

So what part of lacrosse isn’t fun? Mean coaches? Unforgiving referees? Constantly-changing rules?

The multi-sport athlete is becoming extinct.

All coaches – high school and college – say they want their athletes to play more than one sport. It helps prevent burn-out, it gives athletes a more rounded experience and more exposure to diverse coaches and coaching styles, and develops a better sense of team and teamwork. The problem is, coaches still want a piece of their players during the summer as well as during other sports’ seasons. Torn between multiple masters, many choose to minimize their athletic schedule by giving up a sport – or two.

In the old days, we’d look for basketball forwards to be defenders, football running backs and soccer players to play midfield for us, and point guards to play attack. A wrestler would face-off, and goalies… well, let’s face it; there are all types of goalies! We’ve all seen the big, non-athletic kid, the small, quick kid, the tall, rangy kid, and of course, the kid-who-thinks-he’s-a-midfielder in that goal crease.

Over my coaching career, I especially loved lacrosse players with ice hockey backgrounds. They knew how to win 1v1 battles, and they’d be willing to scrum it up for ground balls. Gregg Wittman ’78, Tim Head ’78, Dave Burns ’80, Dan Head ’81, Craig McDonald ’85, Eric Phillips ’86, Eric Purcell ’93, Dan Bartlett ’96 (A-A), Dan Rossiter ’96, Russ Leto ’97, Jason Hawthorne ’02 (Scholar A-A), Scott Ferguson ’04 (A-A), Mike Recor ’09 (A-A), Dan Wilcox ’10, and Eric Zerrahn ‘11 were all excellent hockey players – and that list would make for a pretty good lacrosse team, too!

Personally, I played soccer, ice hockey, and lacrosse growing up, and drifted towards defense in all three sports. To my way of thinking, all three had common concepts, similar skills, and many crossover strategies, and I always believed that the other two sports made me better at the sport I was playing at the time (and I always – unconditionally – protected my goalies!). For more than 45 years, I have enjoyed playing, watching, and coaching all three sports.

Let’s blame club and travel teams!

Maybe the kids who don’t play on travel and club teams start to feel inferior or alienated. Maybe their other sport’s demands come first, and they choose not to be on a summer travel team. Or, maybe they lack the financial where with all to go that route over the summer. Then, when the spring comes around, they feel like they’ve been left behind. Maybe club teams compromise the school spirit and pride in wearing your hometown colors, and the spring season isn’t as meaningful as it used to be. Without intentionally meaning to do so, maybe the kids who play on travel teams talk down to their friends who do not. Always seen as an elitist sport, maybe in some ways it is becoming even more so.

Kids these days!

Kids have changed, we all say; it’s not like it used to be when I started coaching/when I was in school. Maybe more kids have jobs, karate, driver’s ed, and SAT/ACT classes creating more conflicts than ever. Maybe fewer kids are willing to be part of a team if they aren’t guaranteed playing time (I’ve heard kids say “Why be on a team if I’m not going to start/play?”). Maybe parents have something to do with that; I don’t know.

Maybe the varsity jacket has lost its luster. Maybe being part of a team just isn’t what it used to be. Surely, there are more digital distractions than ever before (Netflix! Instagram! Fortnite! – oh my!), and kids can get their kicks using their thumbs instead of their entire bodies.

It’s just a phase we’re going through

Maybe, but I’m doubtful. Once a program gets cut, it’s difficult to bring it back. Money gets spent elsewhere, and even if there is a demand later on, the money’s gone. Once something gets cut, it’s often gone for good. I hope I’m wrong…

Athletes want to play for winners

Of course I’m generalizing, but I think it’s fair to say that the more successful lacrosse programs don’t have the same problem as the ones that struggle to make Sectionals. Success breeds success, so I doubt that Victor, West Genesee, or Jamesville-Dewitt are about to drop their JV programs. In their schools’ hallways, every kid wants to be on the team.

I’m sure I’ve overlooked other explanations for why programs are hurting for players, and I’m also quite certain that the answer – if there even is one – lies in a combination of most if not all of these theories. While School A and School B might suffer from the same shortage of players, their reasons are likely to be completely different.

I don’t usually ask for reader feedback, but I’m curious what you think about this. Is it a real problem, or am I over-reacting? Is there an explanation I didn’t mention? More importantly, is there an answer to the problem?

Email me with your thoughts – I’d love to hear your take on this situation…

Thanks, and in the meantime, please drive carefully!

- Dan Witmer daniel.witmer@oswego.edu

Dan Witmer is the author of two books.  The Best of Road Trip Dad – the Laker Lacrosse Collection  is an accumulation of 45 articles written for JustLacrosseUpstate between the years 2012 and 2018, about the history and traditions, the people, and the stories of the Oswego State men’s lacrosse program. The book is available on Amazon.com, and at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego, the SUNY Oswego College Store in the Marano Campus Center, The Sports Outfit on West Genesee Street in Fairmount, and Geared 2 Sports in Cortland.  ...and piles to go before I sleep - The Book of Wit  is his memoir describing his 33 year career teaching HS English and coaching at Hannibal Central School. It is available on Amazon.com and at the river's end bookstore.