Strong youth league giving Petaluma schools' lacrosse players a firm foundation

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Petaluma is building the area’s strongest lacrosse farm system — and it’s paying dividends with the city’s high school teams.

The Petaluma Youth Lacrosse River Cats teams have provided both Casa Grande and Petaluma high schools with seasoned, skilled players who come into high school with years of experience often well beyond other athletes.

It’s translating well as they compete at higher levels.

In 2018, the Petaluma boys went undefeated, 9-0, to win the North Bay League, while Casa finished second.

This year, Casa has flipped the script and is rolling through the new Vine Valley Athletic League, 7-0, and is 17-0 overall. The girls are leading the VVAL as well, at 10-0 and 12-6.

The girls clinched the VVAL league title Tuesday with a 13-4 win over Sonoma Academy.

Casa’s boys also are likely to win the VVAL, only needing to win one of their final three games to clinch. Petaluma is in second place with a 5-2 record and would need to win out and have Casa lose twice to tie.

“It’s been a great year,” Casa girls coach Bob Merwin said. “And it’s been fun to do it together with the boys team, too.”

Merwin and boys coach Ben Hewitt both credit the River Cats system for preparing young lacrosse players — and both have been active in the volunteer nonprofit organization.

“We’ve got a great group of kids, supportive families,” Hewitt said. “It’s built into the culture of Petaluma now.”

What had been known as more of an East Coast sport has been growing in the West.

Merwin has seen that firsthand. His father, from New York, played lacrosse at Stanford and started a lacrosse club in Marin. Merwin played for his father’s teams and in college and has helped develop the River Cats over the last 14 years.

Over the years, Hewitt said, he’s seen the skill level of his athletes rise and a different kind of athlete joining the team.

Just over a decade ago, Casa started girls and boys club lacrosse teams. In 2015, the game became an official CIF-sanctioned high school sport. Seven high schools in the area have teams, all in the VVAL.

“Ever since 2015, it’s gotten more popular and it’s gotten more support from parents,” Hewitt said. “The schools have bought in.”

Now, instead of athletes who were cut from other teams, Hewitt and Merwin are getting kids who have played lacrosse for years. Many have played other sports and are looking for something new. Some join because parents are worried about concussion risks in football.

“It’s a great sport for multi-sport athletes,” Hewitt said. “It’s a lot of basketball, a little soccer, a little football, hockey.”

Two of Casa’s strongest boys players are midfielders Jeremy Bonner and Dylan Guth, both seniors who came up through the River Cats.

Bonner was in the eighth grade when Guth and other friends invited him to play lacrosse. He wanted to try something different than track, which he had been running in middle school. Guth was moving on from baseball.

“This is a great group, a group of friends who’ve played together for a long time,” Guth said. “We know each other well. This year we click.”

Merwin has seen his girls program expand as well, in part because of the success of the boys program.

“We wanted to model our program after them, because they’ve had years of success,” he said. “We looked to emulate what they’ve done.”

After some struggles, Casa’s team had eight freshmen last year that had come up through the River Cats system. Petaluma Youth Lacrosse provides teams for girls and boys from grades one through eight.

They won the NBL championship and advanced to the second round of the North Coast Section playoffs.

Casa previously had trouble scheduling nonleague games with other schools with high-quality programs. Not anymore.

“This year I started getting calls from other teams who wanted to play us,” Merwin said. “We jumped into the deep end.”

Going 1-5 in the first six games was a little humbling for the girls, he said, but it was meant to challenge the Gauchos. Four of those six teams were ranked in the top 50 in California. Casa is ranked No. 72.

“I knew we would lose more games than last year because we’d be playing teams that are who we want to be,” he said. “It has helped with league play. It proved itself.”

Indeed. The Gauchos haven’t lost a game since a March 5 loss to San Marin, ranked 28th in the state.

During that stretch, they’ve outscored their opponents by an average score of 15 to 8.

“What makes our team good,” Merwin said, “is that while most other teams have one, two or three players who are good, we are easily seven deep, all who can score easily. We just have too many weapons.”

The Casa boys are similarly finding a wide net against their opponents, outscoring them by an average of 14 to 6.

Margins are even broader in the VVAL, with Casa winning by an average score of 17-1. The Gauchos haven’t given up more than five goals in the VVAL all year — and that was in the first league game, against Windsor on March 15.

Both Casa teams will play in their respective VVAL tournaments before beginning the NorCal section playoffs on May 7.

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