I was sorting through some things in my basement – it tends to get cluttered after a few months and I found a pile of old Lacrosse Magazine issues. LM is a publication of US Lacrosse and I was saving them for some reason. I still haven’t discovered that reason, hence my willingness to throw them away. But on the January/February 2004 cover was the headline, “Narrowing the Separation of Lacrosse and State – A look inside high school sanctioning.” I am glad I saved this one. The article came out about a year before the MHSAA officially sanctioned lacrosse in Michigan.
After re-reading the article, I thought I’d use my 20/20 hindsight and take a look at the reasons LM gave for sanctioning and see if they were truly good for the sport.
Generally speaking, US Lacrosse is the source for information regarding the growth of lacrosse and they are the governing body, along with the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) who make the rules, so to speak. So, when US Lacrosse speaks, administrators, coaches and officials tend to listen.
The Lacrosse Magazine author, Brendan Harrington, stated that, “official sponsorship, (i.e. sanctioning) brings greater legitimacy and increased publicity to lacrosse in addition to providing an official high school state championship tournament.” He quoted then Executive Director Steve Stenerson, “…sanctioning by state high school athletic associations is a necessary step toward increasing the credibility and (media) recognition of lacrosse in those states…” The article implied that the news media would be less likely to cover a lacrosse event if it was not sanctioned by the high school governing body.
Harrington also said that, “…with sanctioning also comes increased regulation specifically in the areas of coaching, length-of-season and number of games.” Stenerson added, “For the most part, state sanctioning will take away that control and will lead to a higher regulation of play.”
That was the general backdrop for state sanctioning in 2004.
Let’s review the state of lacrosse in Michigan one year before the MHSAA took over.
- The governing body at that time was the Michigan Scholastic Lacrosse Association (MSLA).
- 54 teams were under the umbrella – 42 were varsity programs and 12 were club.
- The MSLA followed the same rules established one year later by the MHSAA except for four major exceptions.
1. They began their season a week early.
2. They did not restrict travel opportunities.
3. They did not restrict out of season coaching.
4. There was a state championship tournament with three divisions. (Class A, B and C)
Michigan differed from some of the other states who were considering sanctioning lacrosse (Florida, Georgia, California, etc.) as they had a governing body in place already –the MSLA. The sport had been in Michigan since 1970 and was part of the Midwest League.
In specific details pertaining to Michigan, Harrington stated that the “…sanctioning of high school lacrosse (in Michigan) may have little to do with the popularity of lacrosse, and more to do with efforts by the MHSAA to balance the number of sports in each season. “
Former Detroit Country Day head coach, John Kenney, was quoted in the article, “Sanctioning will assist the continued growth of lacrosse, and high schools will begin to recognize and embrace lacrosse as a legitimate sport.”
The travel regulation was a sticking point from day one. “MHSAA travel regulations will now prevent teams from participating in those tournaments.” There is a Jesuit tournament out east that U of D played in each year and Brother Rice would make trips to Maryland and New York as well. Kenney added, “People are upset about the travel rule because they believe the out-of-state tournaments are a chance for the kids to be seen by colleges.”
Overall, Kenney thought that, “Sanctioning may not be the best thing in the short term, particularly for the original eight programs, but I do believe it will give the sport some validity in the state of Michigan and some long-overdue recognition. I think you’ll see another wave of program interest come from this.”
So let’s review; these were the reasons for having the MHSAA sanction lacrosse:
- Increase credibility
- Increase recognition
- Increase publicity in the media
- Balance the number of sports in each season
- Continue the growth of the game
- Make the sport legitimate
Have these things happened? I believe that the sport would have had recognition and popularity regardless of the MHSAA involvement. . I haven’t seen a noticeable change in local media coverage. Nationally, the media loves lacrosse. The “balance the number of sports in each season” reason is laughable. Lacrosse has always been a spring sport and always will. The sport has grown and will continue to grow and it’s always been legitimate – we don’t need an association to tell us that.
In my opinion, since 2005, here are some of the positive impacts:
- Growth has been huge in the past eight years. High School teams have grown from 61 to 108.
- Youth programs have been steadily on the rise – Northville, Brighton, Hartland and Ann Arbor have seen a phenomenal surge.
- The game has expanded to Petoskey, Traverse City and Cadillac. They are club teams, but the growth potential in Northern Michigan is huge.
- The popularity of the game has increased – but that could be due to the rise in the college game. The University of Michigan, Hope, Alma, Adrian, Albion and U of D have added teams.
- The seeding of the state tournament has continued. This is a huge positive – as we are seeing the best teams oppose each other in the semi- final and final rounds.
And here are the negatives:
- The overall level of play has stagnated. There are 2 or 3 “very” good teams. A solid core of about 10 others and 60-70 teams that are mediocre – if I can be blunt.
- Michigan’s national impact in the lacrosse world has declined.
- The national competition disappeared. Yes, Brother Rice plays a couple of teams from New York but the Maryland connection has disappeared and the chance of playing teams from New England is 0%.
- The media impact has stayed the same. The Detroit News and Free Press have agate type game reports but the coaches call that information into the sports desks. Bloggers, writers and lax aficionados are the ones keeping the sport afloat in the media. Thanks goodness for the internet.
- The season is so compressed. Players and coaches have lost that extra week of practice and conditioning.
- Pre-season down time. When the players need conditioning the most, there is a mandatory down time period.
- The spring break trips are gone. This was an opportunity to build team chemistry and keep some of the student / athletes away from the temptation of drinking and carousing. At least the lacrosse coaches would bring chaperones on these trips.
- We lost a reasonable divisional alignment. In 2004, there were 5 divisions playing for three state championships. Now, there are two – and many schools have no chance in playing for a championship. None.
- Coaches lost a tremendous amount of input. Talk to the MHSAA the coaches might as well be talking to a wall.
- The state championships lost the festival atmosphere that existed at Cranbrook. The vendor tents are gone. The green grass is gone; the camaraderie is gone; replaced by big stadiums with turf and MHSAA approved vendors.
To conclude, I believe that lacrosse would have grown anyway, MHSAA or not. The sport is a major attraction at the college level and is seen on the ESPN family of channels as well as CBS College Sports Network. As far as media coverage, Inside Lacrosse has grown as a popular periodical as well as website. The Ann Arbor Lacrosse Examiner as well as Great Lax State provides information and opinion about the sport as well as M Live. Those that have a passion for lacrosse will talk about it and publicize it. Lacrosse was always a spring sport so the notion of MHSAA involvement was to balance the number of sports in each season seems suspect. The MSLA run state championships were fairly popular so I believe the MHSAA saw a cash cow and looked to dip their beaks. I also think that the MHSAA wields too much power and doesn’t listen to the coaches. The current coaches association has been trying to get the MHSAA Executive Council to lessen the travel restrictions for years to no avail. And that’s just one example. I was a coach for three years before the MHSAA took over and I’m currently coaching. There are many other coaches who can say the same thing. I would say that they miss the MSLA days. The governing body understood the sport and really worked to make it more popular. Yes, the sport has grown and that’s great, but it could be so much more.
Taking away the opportunities for the student / athletes to travel and be seen by college coaches has stunted the growth in the state in so many ways. I cheered for Brother Rice when they went to Maryland and beat Landon. It was great for Michigan lacrosse. It gave “us” some respectability. And I say “us”, even though I’m not part of the Rice program – it was great for any coach or player in the state. The summer club programs are doing a solid job to prepare these players as they are free to play in tournaments around the country, but they are doing it as mercenaries. And they have to stop in early August, because I’m sure the football coaches would object, and the MHSAA has “football rules” and rules for everybody else. And don’t get me started on the “marching band” rules.
Bottom line, I think the coaches association would have grown, learned, and evolved. New coaches would have brought in fresh ideas, all-star games would have brought college coaches to Michigan, the 7 on 7 tournaments would be easier to follow because teams could have played under their school name, Cranbrook would have put on a great championship weekend at the Oval. In my opinion, the MSLA did a great job on the tournament, on scheduling and managing its coaches and the sport. I’m certain that lacrosse would have done just fine without the MHSAA.