Orono senior Blake Leischow committed to play lacrosse at powerhouse Duke before his freshman year of high school.
That meant four years of jokes about his unusual background, four years of being asked: Shouldn’t you be a hockey player?
“I hear that all the time,” Leischow said. “That and, ‘How cold is it up there?’ ”
It is no joke to say Minnesota is heating up when it comes to interest from college lacrosse programs. Leischow is part of a growing number of local prep players drawing wider acclaim for their lacrosse skills. Next fall, 48 boys and 26 girls from Minnesota high schools will begin their collegiate lacrosse careers. The class of 2016 set a record on the boys’ side while the girls’ number dipped after an average of 39 college players the past three years.
Getting noticed on the East Coast-dominated lacrosse scene remains tough for Minnesota players. E-mails sent by college hopefuls can number in the hundreds. Offers from coaches typically are made only after Minnesotans travel to play in East Coast tournaments. But those offers are coming in greater numbers as Minnesota players continue to impress.
“I don’t think we’re a hotbed yet,” said Brandon Husak, White Bear Lake boys’ lacrosse coach and program director of Minnesota Loons Select Lacrosse. “But without a doubt, this is a growing area for quality lacrosse players.”
Last spring, Husak’s Bears became the first east metro school to win a state lacrosse championship since the Minnesota State High School League-sponsored tournament began in 2007.
A shift is taking place at the college level as well. In 2015, Denver became the first NCAA men’s lacrosse program west of the Mississippi River to win a national title. Carson Cannon, who played at Stillwater, served as the Pioneers’ captain. Eden Prairie product Jake Woodring also played for Denver.
The perception of Minnesota players is changing, said Danica Cutshall, Lakeville North girls’ lacrosse coach and former Panthers player. Just six years ago, when Cutshall told interested college coaches she hailed from Minnesota, “communication stopped or I would just get a walk-on opportunity.” Now, Sarah Kellner, her former college coach at Regis University in Denver, calls for advice on local talent.
“The growth of lacrosse in the Midwest and ‘nontraditional’ lacrosse areas has been tremendous,” Kellner wrote in an e-mail. “I’d take a few more Minnesotans any day!”
Battle for attention
Four Minnesotans who have committed to Division I programs — Josh Anderson and Matthew Brush of Minnetonka, Sabrina Seidl of Mahtomedi and Sam Tyo of Eastview — found garnering attention from college coaches to be as much work off the field as on.
E-mails containing their height, weight, statistics and links to video highlights poured out of their computers. Seidl said she reached out to “probably 100 Division I coaches.” The correspondence was sent in advance of recruiting tournaments in hopes the coaches would pay attention.
“To get looks at the Division I level, you have to go out to the East Coast where the talent is,” said Anderson, a senior who is headed to Rutgers.
No Division I lacrosse programs exist in Minnesota. Camps and showcases most popular among college coaches take place in states such as Delaware, Maryland and Florida. All four of the Division I-bound players traveled with their respective offseason club teams to compete against East Coast competition.
“When we go to these tournaments as a Minnesota team, there is a huge difference in the level of play,” said Tyo, a senior who committed to Iona. “We get killed. So for coaches to see the positives in our play, I think it’s an honor.”
When college coaches reached out, some couldn’t resist provincial jabs.
Brush, a junior who has verbally committed to the admission process for attending Holy Cross, said he often heard: “Minnesota — that’s where everyone plays hockey, right?”
Seidl, a senior who committed to Coastal Carolina, said she was told, “You have hands like a hockey player.” That meant she let her stick hang a little too far from her body.
Coming from the Upper Midwest also brought a measure of respect.
“Some schools said, ‘We like Minnesota players. They tend to be tougher,’ ” Brush said.
Where this first generation of Minnesota lacrosse players lags behind East Coast contemporaries is in game sense and stick skills.
Benilde-St. Margaret’s girls’ coach Ana Bowlsby said Minnesota players are seen as a high-risk, high-reward variety. Players who have experienced tournament games against East Coast teams concur.
“Those girls are unbelievable,” Seidl said. “They are born with sticks in their hands. They know the game so well and it’s so much faster-paced.”
Developing a more consistent brand of lacrosse starts with more players such as Seidl — who began playing lacrosse “when the stick was bigger than I was” — getting involved sooner with the sport.
Depth of knowledge also will increase as former collegiate players such at Cutshall and her staff return to Minnesota and coach.
For Leischow, playing a significant role at Duke, winner of three NCAA titles in the past six years, is more than a personal challenge. He hopes to remove any doubts about his unusual lacrosse roots.
“Lacrosse is so dominant on the East Coast that the Midwest or West Coast does not get the respect,” Leischow said. “But it’s come a long way.”