Benefield: Lacrosse on the rise locally
Competition is good, but even better is a competition level that is growing all the time. At least Wendy Holland thinks so.
Holland, head coach of the Cardinal Newman girls lacrosse team that is two-time North Bay League champs and has not dropped a league game in two years, says lacrosse fans can look no further for evidence of an elevated level of play locally than the fact that three teams claimed a share of third place in league play. League officials had to turn to a number draw conducted before the season to determine the third and fourth seeds heading into the postseason.
Cardinal Newman heads into the postseason this week ranked No. 1 and will host Petaluma today at 7 p.m. in the semifinal round of the North Bay League tournament. Second-seeded Rancho Cotate will host Sonoma Academy.
“The competition in our North Bay League is getting better and better,” Holland said.
There are fewer club programs around here than say in Marin County or the wider Bay Area, so many athletes who show up to lacrosse tryouts as freshmen have never held a lacrosse stick before.
But the game sells itself, she said.
“If they are good athletes, they fall in love with it pretty quick,” Holland said.
More than half of the Cardinals’ 22-girl roster are multi-sport athletes, she said. “We have quite a few basketball players, quite a few soccer players and we have tennis players.”
“Basketball players make amazing lacrosse players,” she said. “The basketball play in and around the key is very much the same setup in lacrosse - moving the ball in the same way around the perimeter, your defense is the same footwork, you are setting picks.”
“And the transition game is more like soccer and ice hockey,” she said.
Cardinal Newman, as well as Sonoma Academy, benefit from having well-established lacrosse programs. Even though the NBL has only recognized lacrosse for two seasons, both Newman and Sonoma Academy have competed in the ultra-competitive Marin County Athletic League for years.
But Holland said interest in lacrosse is on the rise and it’s obvious in other schools’ level of play.
“It’s going pretty quick,” Holland said. “A lot of these schools have athletes that play other sports so they are picking up lacrosse fast.”
But clearly, for now, the Cardinals are the team to beat.
Their average goals per league game is 15, same as last year. Their average goals against per game is four. Again, same as last year.
Other teams may be on the rise, but they still are not at the level of Cardinal Newman.
But it hasn’t always been this way. Just two years ago, Newman was playing in the mighty MCAL and getting knocked around some.
“We used to be on the losing side all of the time,” said junior defender Dani Gilson.
“It’s very different being on the winning side. Because of that, we don’t take our wins for granted because we know how losing feels.
“We know that winning is a lot more fun.”
By design, Holland schedules nonleague opponents not only in the Cardinals’ preseason but during league play as well. And she’s not afraid to go after the biggees. Cardinal Newman took on University High School of San Francisco on Thursday - the same team that ousted them from the North Coast Section tournament last year.
They fell Thursday night, 14-8, but it’s the experience that counts in Holland’s book.
“We really benefit from playing out of league as well,” she said. “We are allowed up to 20 games a season and in league we only get 10.”
And playing top area teams is a good gauge of growth, said junior Noel Clark.
“Facing (University) again in NCS would be really great - to see how much we have grown even in a short time,” she said.
In league, Rancho Cotate has given Newman the best run for its money this season, but even those contests ended in scores of 11-8 and 14-4.
“We have good, competitive games with Rancho,” Holland said.
“They are very competitive,” Gilson said of the Cougars. “They have good drive and want to win and they are aggressive. We actually kind of appreciate that because it makes us think we don’t have this in the bag.”
Holland called Gilson the backbone of the Cardinals’ squad this season, the player often assigned to guard the opposing team’s best player. Those players are getting better.
“I know next year is going to be difficult,” Gilson said.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing, she said.
Not only does the rising tide lift all boats, it makes for better lacrosse to watch.
“It’s a lot more competitive and games aren’t stop and go,” Gilson said. “Last year was a lot of stop and go. This year it flows better and it’s actually entertaining to watch. When the whistle is being blown every five seconds, it’s not very entertaining.”
The Cardinals hope to keep the fun going as the NBL tournament gets under way this week. And after that? A push to make it past the first round of the NCS tournament.
Sounds like fun.
You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 526-8671 or email@example.com, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”