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PADECKY: Lacrosse buzz surrounds Petaluma once again


PETALUMA - The conversation, say the people involved, is gaining traction again, the conversation to cajole, convince and ultimately connect the sport of lacrosse officially to Casa Grande and Petaluma high schools. The conversation, lo these five years since it started, has ebbed and flowed, almost disappeared at times, rendered nearly an afterthought, but has been kept alive by the most elemental and persuasive of arguments, success.

We want to back winners, right?

How about Joe Reid? Reid, who just completed his junior year at Casa, was named last week as a U.S. Lacrosse High School All-American. For the second consecutive year.

We want to know that effort and dedication lead to something besides an atta-boy pat on the back, don't we?

Weekend before last, Casa won the state club lacrosse championship in El Segundo by beating Petaluma, 14-8. Since 2008 at least one of the Petaluma-area teams has competed in the four-team club state championship tournament. Casa was state champion in 2010 and 2011.

We want to know that a sport has staying power, right?

A total of 350 kids participate in the Petaluma Youth Lacrosse League in Petaluma.

So what's wrong with this picture? Not much except this: While CIF has recognized lacrosse as a sport and has 206 high schools playing it, Casa and Petaluma field club teams, yet to be elevated to CIF status by their respective administrations. Casa and Petaluma are two of 37 club teams in California that play under their high school's name but without their blessing and support.

Even though he was a club player, Reid was named a High School All-American because of how he competed against CIF players in tournaments.

"I believe it's just a matter of time (before both high schools officially sanction lacrosse)," said Ben Hewitt, Casa's coach. "Somebody has to kick the door in to be the first public high school (in Sonoma County)."

Currently only two high schools in Sonoma County offer CIF-lacrosse, Cardinal Newman and Sonoma Academy. The girls play high school teams in Marin County, the boys in the East Bay.

Cash flow always has been a concern of high school administrators, a justifiable unease given a shaky economy.

Five years ago when Hewitt and other lacrosse officials began their pitch to school officials, an understandable wait-and-see response was given. OK, fine, the PYLL folks said, we'll show you we can self-fund.

"In those five years," Hewitt said, "we have traveled on spring break to play matches in Portland, Eugene, Boise, Las Vegas. We travel three times a year to Sacramento to play club teams. We go to Southern California to play for the state championship every year. You can't do that without having a steady revenue stream."

In-town rivalry also has been subject of conversation. In December 2011, the Egg Bowl, the football game between the two schools, was cancelled for the next two years.

It was Petaluma's most attended sporting event, dating to 1974.

Officials were concerned about increasing hostility on the playing field. Whether hostility still exists between the two school is open for debate — but not on the lacrosse field, said Hewitt.

"We played Petaluma four times this year, including for the state championship," said Hewitt, a scholarship lacrosse player at LSU. "There was never an incident, never a behavior problem. And if you ask anyone who has been at our games, they will tell you lacrosse had the most intensity and the biggest crowds of any of the other sports played between the two schools."

Perceptions easily can turn into reality and the people who love lacrosse have to take on those challenges as well.

"At first look lacrosse appears too violent because people are swinging sticks," said Casa's Conor Fenny, who will play football this fall at Willamette College in Oregon. "Looks kind of savage. It's not. When you get hit by a stick, you don't even feel it."

That would be because players are encased in helmets and pads covering every at-risk body part.

"There used to be a prejudice about the sport," Hewitt said, "that only wealthy Caucasians played it. That's not true anymore. Now the prejudice is that Caucasians play it. That prejudice doesn't match reality, either. We played Oakland Tech this past season."

One has to spend some time and look closely at what lacrosse does offer.

"To me," said Hewitt, a teacher at a Petaluma continuation school, "lacrosse is the ultimate athletic expression. You can run as hard as you want. You can hit as hard as you want. You can shoot as hard as you want. There's no other sport in which I can express myself more fully."

A lacrosse player, from a distance for many people, looks like a beekeeper trying to catch a butterfly. Appearances, like the cover on a book, can be deceiving.

"We just need exposure," said Reid, who has a lacrosse scholarship offer from the University of Denver.

"It's just a matter of time before lacrosse explodes (in popularity)."

Exposure translates to awareness, and awareness, Hewitt is convinced, is all that's necessary to take lacrosse from the periphery of sports to being the center of attention.

"I can go to Cloverdale right now," Hewitt said, "and hand sticks to a bunch of kids who never played lacrosse before. And I can guarantee you 80 percent of those kids will come back the next day to play the sport."

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.