KANSAS CITY, Mo. — In the 2023 Lacrosse Association of Kansas City high school championship, perennial powerhouse Rockhurst High was up 10-4 against Blue Valley Southwest at halftime.
Head coach Tim Reidy and this program had been there before; the Hawklets were going for their third-straight ring, fifth in the LAKC, and 10th overall title.
Even with a big lead going into the third quarter, his demeanor was calm as he slowly paced the sideline reminding his players to be even-keeled.
“Not too high, not too low.”
That message and sentiments of “take your time!” were also harped to his players throughout the second half to slow down the tempo against a physical Southwest team that could get going at any moment.
The message worked as the Hawklets took home the title, winning 14-10.
“It’s special,” Reidy said after the game. “No team’s ever done it at Rockhurst and in the league.”
Reidy has seen Rockhurst’s lacrosse program rise from the ashes.
The Rockhurst Hall of Famer helped establish the program when it became a school sport in 1997, and was the first lacrosse All-American in Rockhurst history when he was a senior in 2002.
He has been the head coach since 2012 and has two U.S. Lacrosse Coach of the Year titles to go with five LAKC titles.
“Where these bleachers were, we weren’t even allowed to play in this stadium.”
“My first few years we practiced at Sunnyside Park and the support of this school, my athletic director, Mike Dirks, and our parents, and you know how far this program [has] come and from a player to, I was a longtime assistant coach to head coach.”
“I’ve been around many a years, so I can say that this is the best team ever.”
Rockhurst, St. Thomas Aquinas and Pembroke Hill are the only teams in the 11-team league with their clubs as a school-sponsored sport. Blue Valley Southwest along with the other seven clubs draws from multiple schools with Southwest drawing from BVSW, BV Northwest and Spring Hill.
On the girl’s side, the Kansas City Metro Girls Lacrosse Association wrapped up its 12th season with Shawnee Mission as the champion for the second-straight season and third championship overall.
Growth of lacrosse in the KC area
Over the past decade alone, the sport of lacrosse has grown nationally as well as locally.
NCAA Division I championship viewership numbers rise every year for the men’s and women’s tournaments. The professional outdoor lacrosse league, Premier Lacrosse League, has seen its viewership numbers steadily rise and announced plans to move from a touring format to a host city format after five years of existence.
Locally, there’s plenty of evidence to suggest the game is growing.
- William Jewell will play its first year of lacrosse on the men’s and women’s side in 2024
- Benedictine College women won the NAIA national championship in 2022
- Local small college programs (WJ, Rockhurst U, Missouri Western, Benedictine, Missouri Valley) have started programs in the past decade
- Rockhurst U men won its first conference tournament championship this season
- Former Shawnee Mission East boys HC Will Garrett won a conference championship/advanced to the D3 quarterfinals as an assistant with Washington and Lee
- KC native Wheaton Jackoboice is one of the first locals to play pro lacrosse in the PLL
Even after the LAKC championship, game MVP Colin Komenda reminisced about how he used to be a little kid watching the championship game every year.
“I remember these games when I was 5, 6 years old running up there, giving the high-fives thinking it was the coolest thing in the world, so it’s kind of great to be in that position where I’m kind of that guy they look up to now.”
The Rockhurst U championship team was filled with KC talent and head coach Kevin Kelley said he targets Midwest players because they are often overlooked with loads of raw talent.
“I almost exclusively go Midwest,” Kelley said.
“Everything west of the Mississippi. When I say Midwest, I throw Texas in there, I throw Colorado, I throw Oregon. I’m just throwing everything West. And I have had a ton of success.
“Lacrosse has predominantly been an East Coast sport and East Coast mentality still to this day, to a degree, is like, well, in the West, they’re not as good. And I wholeheartedly disagree.”
Kelley is an East Coast native himself from New York and won a championship in 2000 with perennial D1 powerhouse Syracuse, and played professionally in the now-defunct Major League Lacrosse.
He has built the Hawks’ program from the ground up based on his model of Midwest recruiting.
“Those Midwest kids are gritty kids. They’re athletic. They’re just wired different and I love that. I pretty much have embraced that Midwest mentality now. And it’s awesome, man,” he said.
Kelley, who also coaches club lacrosse, was a big inspiration to Jackoboice since he won a championship with Syracuse.
“It was like he walked on water when I was a kid because there was no one else in the Kansas City area who went and did that,” Jackoboice said.
“And now that we’ve had a few people go and play in huge games on the pro level and are now giving back to the community and coaching, I think that has elevated the whole league.”
KCMGLA President Cale Doornbos recalls Bishop Miege starting a girls lacrosse program recently which saw 75 girls come to learn a new sport.
“They had a lot of girls that wanted an opportunity to play a sport that couldn’t,” Doornbos said.
“None of ’em ever played lacrosse before in their life.”
The first season of the program in 2022 didn’t see many victories, the team was 2-9, but they did shows lots of progress. This season they finished with a 9-3 record that put them second in the West Division with a first-round playoff exit to eventual league champ Shawnee Mission.
“It doesn’t take long to bring ’em up to speed. It’s just convincing them that it’s okay and it’s a cool game to play,” Doornbos said.
Local coaches in the KCMGLA and LAKC said the talent and development in area players is night and day different, even in the span of just a few years.
Blue Valley Southwest offensive coordinator and travel squad Top Gun Midwest co-founder Dan Leff saw a quick difference when he moved to the area from the East Coast six years ago.
“I was coaching at Shawnee Mission East,” Leff said. “I walked into a practice and these kids just were really talented. They were really athletic. IQ was pretty good. And they just didn’t play college lacrosse. They went to KU, they went to K-State, they went to Mizzou. So we started a team. One team turned into two teams, two teams turned into four.
“We went from one division, three recruits to having seven D1s in a class. It’s just getting bigger and bigger every single year. It’s extremely competitive.”
Vice President of the KCMGLA’s youth program, Kristina Coppinger, has seen growth from when she started playing lacrosse in fifth grade and followed it all the way to playing at Arizona State in college. Now she coaches on a travel squad, KC Lacrosse Club.
“The level of play that we are seeing now at the third and fourth grade level and the fifth and sixth is 200% what it was when I was playing in fifth grade,” Coppinger said.
“The catching and passing the IQ, all of it. It’s so exciting to see the level that these girls are playing at.”
The rise of the LAKC and KCMGLA can be directly tied to the growth of the sport of lacrosse in the Kansas City area.
The formation of LAKC and KCMGLA
LAKC and KCMGLA are separate entities with similar origins, similar paths, and intertwine because of how niche the lacrosse community is.
Both were formed by a group of parents that had kids who wanted to play the sport; KCMGLA was established in 2011.
“Jay Coleman and Mary Orndoff were two parents of girls at St. Teresa’s that wanted to play lacrosse,” Doornbos said.
Doornbos’ daughter Grace will be a senior at St. Teresa’s and is committed to play at Rockhurst U.
“They wanted an opportunity to, you know, do a sport. Like most schools, there’s so many kids playing sports these days. It was harder to find access to different sports on the field,” Doornbos said.
“Those two really kind of developed at St. Teresa’s for their daughters to have an opportunity to play a spot and it just gets kind of grown from there. And they’ve both been involved in the sport on both the boys and girls side ever since that inception.”
LAKC was established in 2012.
“It’s literally driven by coaches and parents who wanted to bring lacrosse to Kansas City because it had not been here historically or had been very limited,” LAKC past president Brian Fries said.
Both leagues also have youth leagues to go along with it. Establishing youth leagues is the key to growing a sport and developing kids to be quality lacrosse players that play at college and even the pro level.
And the fruits of labor have already been seen by both leagues.
Rockhurst High School has college-level talent every year and is currently led by a group of rising seniors that include Utah commit Luke McNamara, Ohio State commit Jack Bichelmeyer and VMI commit Charlie Gormsen.
Blue Valley Southwest graduates are onto the next level, too, with Daniel Besheer headed to Division I Lindenwood and Connor Faulkner going to Rockhurst U.
Other local talents, like Shawnee Mission West’s Jack Hamilton (committed to Air Force), Lee’s Summit West’s Ty Washington (committed to Bellarmine) and a myriad of others highlight the upcoming senior talent in the area.
Fries thinks LAKC started at a good time because of the excitement in the game of lacrosse, rising concerns because of concussions in football, and limited spots on other winter/spring sports teams like basketball and soccer.
“The thought was because, you know, the idea is we wanted to have a kind of a pipeline. Our high school teams wanted, we want them involved at the youth level, recruiting players and developing players and bringing them up and it gives a little bit more continuity and structure and stuff too,” he said.
“You have parents involved longer and coaches involved longer. It’s a lot of it, you know, a lot of times people follow their kid and kind of move out.”
KCMGLA has seen players go to a number of local programs like Benedictine in Atchison, Kansas, Rockhurst and William Jewell.
Coppinger is a product of when the league first started. Orndoff is her aunt and introduced her to the sport in fifth grade. Coppinger is one of several girls who have played D1 lacrosse and returned home to give back to the league that introduced them to a new sport.
“They get [to] look up to the girls. That’s probably the coolest part for me, is I’m trying to give these girls the same opportunity I had. Even better, honestly,” Coppinger said.
“Give them the same shot and to go do this thing. Lacrosse has given me so much and to give back to this community is a very fulfilling thing.”
Getting athletes to come play the sport is the first step, next is getting the ones that want to keep playing the sport recruited to play in college, which is becoming more apparent by the year.
Playing on travel teams is the primary way of getting the attention for college coaches, especially in an area like the Midwest that is often overlooked.
Squads like KCLC and Top Gun Midwest have hectic summer schedules when they get to travel to the East Coast and play the toughest competition at all levels for just a couple of months.
It’s a chance for KC talent to play together on one squad along with other talent from all over the Midwest.
“We’ll practice about 12 to 14 times and we will go to about four tournaments,” Leff said.
“Most of them are Maryland, Pennsylvania. We start in mid-June in Philly and then a couple of weeks later we’re down in Maryland. And then we come home for a tournament at the end of July. Practices. Kids come from all over Arkansas, Nebraska, Iowa, St. Louis, Minnesota. Because we get all the same kids in the same place.
“We have a real high-intensity competitive practice. And kids who don’t get coaching all the time, really makes them a lot better. But it’s not even a coaching thing. It’s just going against the best kids every day in practice.”
Travel teams from the East Coast often write off teams from the Midwest because of the perceived lack of talent from the area. Midwest teams often prove them wrong by playing competitively with teams from blue blood areas, or even beating them.
“Two years ago, we went to the East Coast, first tournament in UMass, and our girls had never practiced together,” Doornbos said. “It was the first kind of all-girls team. You guys took on travel and they went 4-0 for the weekend. And these kids, these other teams were like, ‘Wait, who are these kids from Kansas City?'”
“It’s so fun to shock people. And it’s that Midwestern hustle and we love to go show them what’s up with Kansas City lacrosse,” Coppinger said.
How does lacrosse keep growing in KC?
Lacrosse has long been stereotyped as a sport for the upper class. Like many youth sports, the costs are steadily rising to play on travel teams that lead to college recruitment.
With most public high schools leaving lacrosse to be a club sport loosely affiliated (or sometimes not affiliated at all) with the school, athletes front their own costs for equipment/travel on travel teams.
Fries and Kelley are board members of a nonprofit called Lacrosse the City, which collects lacrosse equipment and financial donations to try to help break those barriers.
“It’s so hard,” Fries said.
“We had several meetings with the Kansas City, Missouri, school district, and they were intrigued by it, and they liked it. It’s a great path, and it’s a sport that’s trying to grow its diversity. There’s a lot of opportunities.”
For Fries, breaking the barrier in lacrosse is exacerbated by societal issues.
“If you’re a person of color and talent, you’ve got incredible opportunities. The obstacles were just so incredible. Getting it through the bureaucracy and getting it funded, and then trying to find a common field that kids could get to and could get home from. It’s like life, right. I mean, with lower income, you just got more hurdles you got to overcome,” he said.
“It has a reputation as being a rich kid sport. And there’s clearly something to that. But there’s a lot of kids out there that they don’t need new equipment, and they kind of take pride in having the five-year-old gloves with the holes in the palm. But it’s an issue. Absolutely, it’s an issue.”
There’s an emphasis to get athletes started early playing the game, which begins with exposure that has slowly crept into local schools.
“We’ve donated lacrosse sticks to the KCMO school district,” Doornbos said. “Troost Elementary a couple of years ago used sticks in their PE classes. My brother teaches PE in Wichita, Kansas, and they’ve got lacrosse sticks in their classes now that they use.
“I think it’s starting to break that barrier. It’s historically it’s been a kind of perception that it’s a barrier you can’t get through. But I think as we continue to grow, [it’s] slowly fading, it’s you know, it takes time. It takes a bit, but it’s starting to kind of break down,” Fries said.
“And I think most of it is just as parents find out, you know, it’s not an expensive sport, once you get down to it, it’s just stick and goggles for girls. You know, it’s no different. Roll a soccer ball out for your soccer.”
Fries’ son Griffin played at Marquette University in college and explained how his teammates come from all walks of life to make a melting pot of a roster.
“He had a teammate who grew up in Minneapolis, a block from the George Floyd murder, and he’s got another kid whose dad’s a massive real estate developer, and he’s got another kid whose dad’s a cop on Long Island. There is more diversity out there, but in Kansas City, it’s hard, right? I mean, you don’t have the infrastructure to support it,” he said.
“The good news is there’s a lot of people that want to overcome that. And so you see efforts, and there is an army of the willing there, but it needs funding, leadership, and that’s always hard to find.”
Coppinger thinks the bigger barrier for the girls’ side may be getting them to break out of KC’s popular soccer scene, especially since both sports are in the spring. Doornbos also points to Homefield Kansas City, which now has lacrosse programs along with other facilities that offer lessons and training in the sport.
“Five winters ago, you never would have saw lacrosse go on any of those facilities,” Doornbos said.
“Now you have opportunities through the winter and the fall to continue to practice and get out there and play. And that’s really important is it can’t be a two-month-a-year sport if you’re going to grow it. You’ve got to have these kids stick in their hand practicing, developing their skills year round. I mean, that’s how you compete with sports like soccer and baseball.
“I remember five years ago, my daughter’s first indoor lacrosse session was in a room about the size of, I don’t know, maybe 20 foot by 20 feet with a little patch of grass on it. And we call them lacrosse field. And now you guys practice at a home field on full-sized fields and play indoor leagues. That’s been critical to helping, you know, keep people in it, don’t lose interest and keep them stick in their hand and developing their skills.”
That lack of infrastructure may have been a factor in a number of KC natives that move to lacrosse powerhouse high schools to prepare for college, such as Wheaton Jackoboice, who transferred from Rockhurst High to Culver Academy in Indiana. Army commit Tade Wynn left Shawnee Mission East for Culver as well, and Towson commit Rocky Grossman left Pembroke Hill for the Perkiomen School that’s right outside of Philadelphia.
Jackoboice said he felt that his best opportunity to play at a high level in college was to take an opportunity to play at Culver, a high school powerhouse program. Some parents of lacrosse players hold them back a year in school so they could develop them further.
He decided to just transfer schools.
“Because at that point, the LAKC, they didn’t really send anyone to ACC schools,” Jackoboice said. “They didn’t send anyone to top schools. And I just kind of felt like I needed to take that next step in my own growth, both physically and as a player if I wanted to go play at the next level.”
Jackoboice, who lives in New York, often came back to Kansas City while he was in school at Notre Dame to help coach young lacrosse players and hopes to come back permanently someday to continue that work.
The PLL Whipsnakes midfielder has seen the transformation of the area up close.
“Coaches are receptive to kids from across the country. Whereas when I was playing, I’m not sure another a Notre Dame or a Maryland would have taken a random kid from Kansas City. Whereas, now I think the LAKC has kind of put the kids on the map a little bit more. I think there’s some real talent coming out of there and it’s a credit to the youth system and kids just starting to play earlier.”
But more high-level players like McNamara, Bichelmeyer and Hamilton are staying in the area to develop and still get to the top levels of collegiate lacrosse.
“I think it’s gotten a little better, and it will continue to get better,” Fries said. “And look, if some kid wants to play lacrosse, I think most of these teams find a way to make it happen if you can’t afford it. But that’s a kid who affirmatively wants to play and reaches out. And so you’re missing all the kids that don’t even know how to reach out and don’t even think it’s a realistic possibility.”
While barriers always remain, the growth of the sport has been a slow build since the beginning of the century. And with the way that things are looking, there is no ceiling to how good the talent can be coming out of the Midwest as a whole and out of Kansas City.
And with natives like Coppinger and Jackoboice who have seen the top levels and come back and coach combined with East Coast coaches contributing to the area like Leff and Kelley, the KC area and the Midwest could become another hotbed for high-level college and even professional lacrosse programs.
“For a parent to say, ‘I’m willing to leave my kid in Kansas City versus send them to somewhere where I know he’s going to get to the next level’ is a great risk that they’re taking, but it also shows that they really trust in the process and what we’re doing here,” Leff said.
“So many of these other schools or some of these other sports have crazy youth pipelines and now that lacrosse, even though it’s been on that way on the East Coast, is now starting to become a thing in Kansas City, I think is huge for the sport,” Jackoboice said.