Girls lax enjoying steady growth in Johnson County

There are 36 Indiana high schools with girls lacrosse clubs, which means the state is a long way from having the sport become sanctioned.

It’s enough to make first-year Center Grove coach Cori Rees, a native of New Hampshire where the sport became popular years ago, feel both challenged and appreciative of the position she’s in.

A defender in high school and later at the University of New Hampshire, Rees, 27, starts tryouts on Thursday and expects the turnout to be approximately 35 girls. The Trojans will field varsity and junior varsity squads, with the season starting March 14 at a tournament hosted by Evansville Central.

"I’m looking forward to trying to grow the program," Rees said, "as well as help the younger players around here. And even the older players play at a more advanced level, especially since Indiana is in the phase of growing lacrosse. It’s very exciting.

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"You also hear about other programs that are in the works, and you think in a couple of years that those could be programs, too. It’s kind of exploding in popularity."

Like girls and boys soccer before it, lacrosse’s popularity began in the northeastern part of the United States and is gradually making its way west and south. Utah, as an example, recently made lacrosse its first new sanctioned high school sport since 2008, when it admitted girls golf.

In Indiana, there are two divisions, Class A (20 teams) and 2A (16 teams), which categorize teams based more on overall skill level than school enrollment. Rees likes bringing her knowledge to a state in which the majority of high schools haven’t introduced lacrosse as a spring sports option.

“It’s definitely something new, but I started playing when I was in seventh or eighth grade. Some of these girls have been playing way before I started playing,” Rees said. “It’s at a different level than what it is in New England and just on the East Coast.”

One of her players, senior midfielder Baleigh Riddle, started playing lacrosse as a third-grader.

“My sister (Reagan) was in middle school at the time,” Riddle said. “I started practicing with her and decided I liked it and wanted to play. I like the aggression and competitiveness of lacrosse.”

Another Trojan senior, Olivia Oliver, has also been playing lacrosse for nearly a decade. When she was a third-grader, her family was driving by Center Grove Elementary School when a practice was taking place. Oliver had tried competing in volleyball and swimming at various points, but she stuck with lacrosse.

“Part of it is because it’s so fast-paced,” Oliver said. “You’re constantly going, and it’s definitely not a boring sport. Lacrosse truly is a team sport, and those friendships you build sort of lock you into it.”

Whiteland hasn’t introduced a girls lacrosse program; the Warriors’ boys club is only in its third season. The boys squad includes one female in midfielder Summer Hawkins, a sophomore who is part of the team for a second straight year.

“She’s a member of the team. The guys have really accepted her,” Warriors coach John Callender said. “Summer gets equal playing time, and I’m really impressed with her.”

Hawkins would like the opportunity to someday play lacrosse in college. Riddle could be playing next season at Marian University or Franklin College, while Oliver is looking into playing club lacrosse once she’s a student at Indiana University.

“I wanted to do lacrosse because I thought that it looked fun,” Hawkins said. “I talked to (Callender) and he said I could play. All of the guys on the team have been really accepting. I do hope there ends up being a girls lacrosse club at Whiteland some day.”

Unlike the head coach of the majority of sanctioned sports at Center Grove, Rees does not work for the school district in any capacity. She is a career coach for Easterseals Crossroads in Indianapolis and thus isn’t able to interact with players and potential players until practices and games.

“A lot of it is word of mouth,” Rees said. “We try to do advertising on social media, and we have youth clinics. There are kids telling their friends to come out and try it.”

Twenty-three states currently sanction girls lacrosse, a list that covers as far west as California and as far east as Maine. It’s sanctioned in both Carolinas, Florida and in the states directly east (Ohio) and west (Illinois) of Indiana.

Maybe one day.

“You’re stuck in this pattern that you’re doing a sport that’s available, and that you know,” Rees said. “Then, all of a sudden, you see something that’s more exciting. I think a lot of people get drawn to trying something new, and lacrosse is said to be the fastest sport on two feet.

“I was really obsessed with that concept that you’re constantly running up and down the field.”