Sean Cobenais sprinted down the left side of the field, a small ball snared in the webbing of his stick. As the defense closed in, the boy spun away from one opponent and flung the ball past the goalie and into the net.
Cobenais, a member of the St. Paul Lacrosse Association’s U13 White team, scored several more times in a 14-5 win over a team from Hudson, Wis., prompting smiles from his coach, cheers from parents and high-fives from teammates.
“Fun game, eh?” coach Scott Tapio asked players on the sideline. “Sean’s on fire today.”
The same could be said for lacrosse.
Among athletes ages 6-18 in the United States, participation in the sport has grown 158 percent — to more than 700,000 — since 2008, according to the Wall Street Journal. Most of that growth, however, has occurred in the suburbs, where youth teams and high school varsity squads have flourished as the game attracts more athletes who once competed in baseball and track.
In the city, it’s a different story.
Tapio said two factors — the cost of equipment and the still-fledgling identity of the game — have made lacrosse a tougher sell among city kids. No St. Paul public high school currently fields a varsity team.
“A big thing is just getting the word out,” said Tapio. “But money is also key. We want to be able to offer more scholarships to kids.”
It can cost $250 to $300 to equip a youth lacrosse player — $400 at the high school level, Tapio said. While youth participation in the game has grown steadily in St. Paul since 2007, Tapio said, much of that has occurred in more affluent neighborhoods, such as Highland Park, St. Anthony Park and Mac-Groveland. The city and the lacrosse association, which are not affiliated but work together, are trying to change that.
St. Paul Parks and Recreation this year started offering the sport for kids ages 6-9. The summer season drew enough participants for seven teams, said spokeswoman Clare Cloyd. The debut was strong enough to convince the city to offer it again for the fall, as well as add a U11 age group. All games are played at Oxford/Jimmy Lee recreation center at Lexington Parkway and Marshall Avenue.
To spur more interest, the city hosted a free lacrosse day camp July 1 and will hold another July 31. All equipment is provided free of charge. The city also offers open games for men every Sunday in July.
“Last year, we started to notice the growing demand for the sport and we wanted to make sure we offered that,” Cloyd said. “We wanted to position ourselves to make it available in the city.”
To help attract more players to its club, which has boys and girls teams from U9 through high school, the St. Paul Lacrosse Association loans equipment to new players for a $50 fee.
“We do everything we can to get as many kids involved as possible,” Tapio said.
Officials want to make the game even more affordable. But that takes money. To beef up the funds to draw more kids, the association formed a committee to appeal to local businesses. Kevin Flynn, the father of an eighth-grader with the club, is spearheading those efforts. Flynn’s son, Declan, has been playing the game since the third grade — ever since seeing an older kid spinning a lacrosse stick.
“He loves the action. He is athletic, so he loves that it requires athleticism,” Flynn said. “You need to run fast, you need to have good field vision. Yet, it’s a team sport.”
What will it take for lacrosse in St. Paul to grow as robustly as in the suburbs?
“In other communities, it’s part of the school sports program, giving them a more compelling energy,” Flynn said. “In St. Paul, it’s always been a club team — maybe with only a few kids at each school playing.”
It will be tough to persuade the schools to add teams if those numbers don’t grow, he and Tapio acknowledge.
And, yet, it grows. The St. Paul association has about 125 kids on its youth teams and another 80 on its high school club teams, Tapio said. As the teams have grown, players have gotten better, winning more games and playing in state tournaments. Several St. Paul players have been chosen for elite state and traveling squads.
On a day last week, on a field near Hwy. 280 and Como Avenue, St. Paul competed well against teams with greater numbers from outside the city.
Mary Jean Loomis, grandmother of St. Paul player Ronan Lauber, admitted that what she lacks in knowledge about lacrosse’s rules — “I just know what goal they’re supposed to go to” — she makes up for with passion.
“This is my purpose, I holler and I scream,” she said laughing.
Patty Schmidt, whose son Danny is the St. Paul team’s 11-year-old goalie, said her boy was drawn to lacrosse after playing football, basketball, baseball and soccer.
“He’s found his niche,” she said.
Danny certainly seemed to on this day, turning away several point blank shots in the victory.
“This is what he really wants to do,” Schmidt said.
Tapio said the goal is to attract even more kids like Danny.
“We’re getting more visibility,” he said. “It’s where soccer was 20 years ago.”