Twelve-year-old Jake Cardinal laced up his gloves, donned his shoulder, arm and elbow pads, threw on his mesh jersey and tightened his cleats. After going through some throwing and blocking drills, running a few laps to get the blood going and reviewing some strategies with his teammates and coaches - it was time to take to the field.
Though Cardinal and more than a half dozen of his teammates wore equipment reminiscent of an American football uniform, Cardinal and his compatriots carried sticks of varying lengths made of titanium, aluminum or various metal alloys, all topped with netted heads.
Cardinal and his friends were just one of several groups of young athletes who took to the fields of Oro Valley’s Naranja Park for the second annual Oro Valley Lacrosse Club Holiday Classic Tournament on Saturday. Drawing teams from Ahwatukee, Chandler, Mesa and elsewhere in Tucson, the tournament was an opportunity for teams of all ages to take to the fields and get in some fun, competitive play before the season starts later this month.
While Cardinal is playing his second year and filling an often pivotal role as goalie, some of his teammates on the 14-and-under and 12-and-under teams were playing outside of practice for the first time.
“This is a great opportunity for them to also get some game time before the season starts,” said youth coach Don McGann. “Interestingly enough for a lot of these kids, this may be the first game that they’ve seen - it’s not like football or basketball where you’ve seen a bunch of games on TV - they’ve probably never seen a game. So part of it is to give them that experience. For these kids, and some of them are brand new, to get out there and play because we practice and we practice and do drills, but it’s really not the same when you get into a game.”
McGann’s teams were paired off against organizations from Tucson, Chandler and Mesa. Though there was a score being kept, McGann said that winners and losers were entirely secondary to the experience from which many of the youth athletes could learn.
While he may not have as much experience has his teammate, 12U player Logan Wertz took to the fields with a measure of drive and enthusiasm comparable to the focus of the high school players who took to the fields during the afternoon.
Also involved in football and baseball, Wertz - who fills in both at midfield and attack - said that he discovered lacrosse while watching TV one day with his family.
“I thought, ‘Wow that would be really cool’ and when we heard about the Oro Valley Lacrosse Club I thought that would be the chance for me to do it since football is in the summer and baseball is right after lacrosse,” Wertz said.
Though he may lack in technical knowledge and experience, Wertz’s insatiable drive to have fun and play the game with his friends - plus a little bit of help from his more experienced teammates - has helped him discover yet another athletic passion.
Though they may still be in grade school, the passion being realized by so many young athletes, boys and girls alike, was a treat to Ryan Powell, a man with a deep understanding and passion for lacrosse. Alongside his brothers Casey and Mike, the Powell name is considered by many in the sport to be of greater influence to the sport than the Manning family to football. After playing in high school and winning a national title at Syracuse University, Powell played for a dozen seasons as a professional before moving on to the USA national team during which time he led the team to a gold in the 2010 World Lacrosse Championships.
Powell said that he loves coming to new, emerging markets to see how the passion for the sport is spreading in places like Arizona. As someone who started playing lacrosse in grade school, Powell said he enjoyed seeing the sport taken up by such young, energetic kids.
More than an observer to the tournament, Powell also brought some of his company’s own sticks to give to one player from each team who showed the most drive, and hosted a clinic through his Portland-based company, Rhino Lacrosse.
With athletes starting off at such a young age, Powell said that success - and what he taught at the clinic - all comes down to basics.
“I’ve listened to professional athletes like Kobe Bryant and it comes down to things like dribbling, shooting foul shots and things like that, and lacrosse is certainly no different,” Powell said. “It’s about passing, catching and I always tell them to look at me: I’ve always been successful, I’ve won the MVP trophy a couple of times in the professional league and I’m not the biggest guy, I’m not the fastest, I’ve never been the quickest or the strongest but here I am being able to be very successful in the game because of the hours I spent playing up against a brick wall and throwing the ball out in the backyard with my brothers and things like that.”
Those basics were what McGann said he covers with his youth players, and that having the instruction and presence of a figure like Powell may just inspire one of his Oro Valley Warriors to one day become professionals themselves one day.
Athletes who decide to stick with the sport have the opportunity to do so while playing with the same organizations through the end of high school. While many sports are offered at high schools, athletes interested in lacrosse must look to club play. According to McGann, the lack of traditional, school-based teams is due to the sport being relatively new in the region, as well as the cost to fund, equip and train a team. Though play is based around the club teams, McGann said that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
“It could happen, but I don’t see it happening in the near future,” he said when asked if he saw schools picking up the sport in the future. “What has been done in Arizona, though, is both at the junior high school and high school level is that there are clubs and if you live in or attend school in that area then you can play for that club. It’s trying to keep the community and community-based teams grow together instead of having kids coming from opposite sides of town and building some kind of an all-star team and having no one else exposed to the game.”
Whether a six-year-old just learning how to hold their stick and throw a ball or a high school-aged athlete looking to impress a college scout, McGann said he sees a bright future for the Oro Valley Lacrosse Club.
Looking forward, McGann also said that even more tournament action could one day be commonplace at Naranja Park, as the town is currently planning to install two more multi-purpose fields at the park site, something the club greatly supports. With the additional space, McGann said the team could then host what he referred to as “mini jamborees,” at which even more teams from across Arizona would come to town and face off against one another.
“That would be one of our motivations for having them expand the fields up here; we could bring in folks every weekend to have tournaments like this,” McGann said.
For more information on the 501(c)(3) Oro Valley Lacrosse Club visit www.orovalleylacrosse.org.