Tulsa students are playing a sport new to middle America: lacrosse.
It’s an unseasonably warm evening in early March as the sun sets over the Bishop Kelley soccer fields. Kids of all ages are practicing for upcoming games, but they’re not kicking and chasing a soccer ball. Accompanying the bursts of whistles and coaches yelling are the sounds of lacrosse sticks clacking against each other.
A little more than 10 years ago, lacrosse was predominantly played on the East Coast. Occasionally it could be seen on TV when games were televised in the spring during the NCAA season.
This is Oklahoma, where football is king in high school and college. In youth sports, thousands participate in baseball, basketball, soccer and wrestling.
In the past few years, however, lacrosse has exploded in popularity across the Tulsa metro and flowed over to smaller communities like
Claremore and Skiatook.
But what might seem like a sudden emergence of the sport actually goes back a decade.
One of the people watching the practice is Christy Rawlings, a Bishop Kelley parent who helped generate interest in lacrosse in the Tulsa area.
For Rawlings and her family, it began in 2009 when her eldest son, John, begged to join the kids practicing lacrosse across the street from their house. Little did she know, the moment would change her life.
“I thought it was one of the most fun sports ever,” Rawlings says. “Football is real static. It’s stop. It’s go. With lacrosse, the minute it starts it never stops. It goes at a very fast pace. The kids are getting such good physical conditioning.”
With no local league available, John and his friends played as members of WolfPack (middle school) and the Bulldogs (varsity) city teams comprised of metro middle and high schoolers that competed against teams from Arkansas and Missouri. Soon, more than 80 kids were playing in Tulsa on these teams. The seed was planted.
In 2012, Coach Dustin Booth formed the Tulsa Youth Lacrosse Association to provide boys and girls in kindergarten through fifth grade a chance to play.
The sport had grown enough by 2013 that a decision was made to break off from the city high school team and create club teams at schools. Bishop Kelley was one.
In 2014, Rawlings helped found Comets Lacrosse Club Inc., a youth sports nonprofit that includes all K-8th grade teams and encompasses kids from all Tulsa Catholic diocesan schools and interested Tulsa Public Schools students without a lacrosse program. The Comets varsity program is just for Bishop Kelley students. At the same time Jenks Trojan Lacrosse Club was founded, creating two major programs in Tulsa. By 2014, the Tulsa Youth Lacrosse Association rolled into the Indian Nations Lacrosse Conference, which extended the competition through eighth grade.
“I knew if Jenks did it then the trifecta of Union, Broken Arrow and Owasso would follow and, sure enough, they all started junior programs the following year,” Rawlings says.
On this day in March, Rawlings is decked out in Bishop Kelley lacrosse clothing. Every coach and administrator stops to visit with her as they walk past. She reminds them about upcoming events or needs for the program.
She’s a parent with a full-time job, yet she still finds time to do what she can to help the program and the sport succeed, even if it’s helping the kids sell and deliver mulch as an annual fundraiser.
“It has turned into a massive amount of work,” says Rawlings, who credits the working board and volunteer coaches with amazing work and stamina. “We are a 501(c)(3) with 292 players, and we have 20 percent of our players on scholarship.” The scholarships allow kids to play lacrosse in the program who otherwise could not afford to play. This year, more than $5,208 has been awarded to athletes.
Hard work is paying off in all Tulsa-area lacrosse. The Indian Nations Lacrosse Conference is still in its infancy as an organized youth league, but it continues to grow rapidly. More than 2,000 boys and girls play in the Heartland Conference, which has seven Tulsa high school clubs.
With the sport booming, back at Bishop Kelley Rawlings and the Comets Lacrosse board knew it was time to bring in a varsity-level coach to take the program to the next level. They were looking for someone who had recent college-level lacrosse experience, could run a competitive travel program in the off-season, market players to colleges and bring more exposure to the area.
They did a nationwide search last summer and hired Scott Smith to be the director of coaching and varsity head coach. He also runs a competitive travel program, boys and girls camps, leagues and clinics.
Smith was coaching lacrosse at an inner-city school in Bridgeport, Connecticut, when the school dropped the program, forcing Smith on a job hunt. “I was looking for an opportunity to find another place where I could help grow the game,” says Smith, who has joined us on the sidelines. “I came out to Bishop Kelley and met with the Comets Lacrosse board and I instantly knew this is a place I wanted to be.”
Smith brought with him a lifetime of lacrosse experience. He was an All-American and a four-year letter winner at Johns Hopkins University. He played in three NCAA final fours. As the goaltender, in 2005, he helped his team win the NCAA Championship. He even made it on to SportsCenter’s weekly Top 10 Countdown for a pair of one-on-one saves in a contest that he says his players can hardly believe happened.
The plays were pre-YouTube, the Wilton, Connecticut, native explains. “I don’t have any record of them since it wasn’t digital,” Smith says. “The kids ask me how come they can’t find any highlights online, and I tell them we didn’t have the internet when I was in college.”
Lacrosse has a long association with money, privilege and Ivy League schools. “The sport is being played at some of the top institutions,” Smith concedes. “If you can get into a school based on your academics, you can get a world-class education and pay for it with a lacrosse scholarship.”
He is quick to add that there are opportunities for young people to excel and earn college scholarships while playing in Tulsa, no matter a family’s economic level.
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s in Connecticut or Oklahoma, once a kid picks up a stick and their parents are educated on what the sport can provide, the game’s popularity will continue to grow exponentially,” Smith says.
“The opportunities for girls are even better than for boys because there is a lot of scholarship money right now because of things like Title IX.”
The sun has disappeared, and the fields are clearing for the night. Smith watches the last group of junior high boys run through final drills at a goal. Soon those students will play for him at the next level.
“We’re about five years behind the East Coast in terms of competing at their varsity level,” Smith says. “It’s going to take time, but as we’ve seen over the course of the first month of practice, we’re getting a kid every week who wants to play lacrosse because of the experience their friends are having. I have 16 freshmen, who are going to make a great varsity team.”
Smith recognizes he’s coaching a sport that will likely forever fall into the shadow of football, but he’s optimistic about the future of the game. “As we break down the football-only mentality, you’ll start seeing kids get more scholarships in lacrosse,” he says.
Rawlings and Smith agree the next major challenge for lacrosse in Tulsa is becoming a sanctioned boys and girls high school sport across the state. Does he think that will take 10 years? Five?
“I’m hoping sooner than that,” Smith says. “With the growth of the metro-wide Bulldogs, and as more players break off to represent their schools with teams, I think we could be there in the next two or three years. That’s the ultimate goal.”
In lacrosse, players use a netted stick to carry, pass and throw a rubber ball along a field in an effort to score goals. The team that scores the most goals in the allotted time wins.
Native Americans began playing a form of lacrosse several centuries ago. French missionaries to North America gave lacrosse its modern name, as the stick the Indians played with resembled a bishop’s staff called “la crosse,” or “the cross,” in French. The game as it is played today originated around 1840.
According to Bishop Kelley coach Scott Smith, it costs about $200 to purchase the necessary equipment, which includes a lacrosse stick, solid rubber ball, helmet with face guard and chinstrap, gloves, pads and cleats or sneakers. Girls’ lacrosse forgoes the helmet for eye protection.
The game is divided into four quarters with a halftime. The length of the period/quarter is 12 minutes in high school and 15 minutes in NCAA. Each period begins with a face-off at midfield. Teams switch sides after each period. There are two timeouts per team per half.
A lacrosse field is 110 yards long and can be from 53-60 yards wide. The goals are 80 yards apart with a playing area of 15 yards behind each goal. The length of the field is divided in half by a center line.
In the crease
Attacking players may never enter the opposing goal crease, which is an 18-foot circle surrounding the goal. They may only reach in with their sticks when attempting to get control of the ball. Defensive players may enter their own goal crease, but not when carrying the ball. And, the goalie cannot hold the ball in his crease for more than four seconds. Such fouls result in the loss of ball possession.
There are various ways to play defense, including body check, stick check, poke check, slap check and wrap check.
Called anytime a team has fewer than four players on its defensive side of the field, or fewer than three players on its offensive side.
A player may not trip, slash, recklessly charge or use his stick or body to illegally check an opposing player. An illegal body check is a hit above an opponent’s shoulders, below the waist or from behind. It is further illegal to use the stick as a means to interfere with an advancing opponent. Depending on severity, the violating player sits out of play for one to three minutes in the penalty box.