Lacrosse is no longer just a west Metro sport, with the South Suburban schools flexing their muscles.
Lakeville North coach Jeff Wright said he’s seen the shift coming for a while now.
Since becoming a sanctioned Minnesota State High School League sport before the 2007 season, boys’ lacrosse has been dominated by west metro schools. At least that’s the perception, Wright said, as schools from that region have won all but one state title.
“When people think of the power teams in the state, it’s usually Eden Prairie or Wayzata or the private schools — Blake and [Benilde-St. Margaret’s],” Wright said. “I think it’s always been that way, well, until this year.”
The 2014 season signaled a change, as the South Suburban Conference emerged as a true force in lacrosse. Seven boys’ teams finished 14th or better in the final regular season state rankings. Two of them made runs to the state tournament, including Wright’s surprising Panthers squad.
“I think people have never looked twice at our conference, and we opened some eyes,” Wright said.
Much of the attention was aimed at talent-stocked Rosemount, the state’s No. 1 team for much of the season, and the eventual runner-up for the state championship. Then there was Prior Lake, which finished 13-3, and was second in the final regular-season state rankings.
Eagan held the top ranking at one point until it was upset by Apple Valley. The Eagles started their season 4-0 and climbed as high as No. 5 in the rankings. Eastview, Bloomington Jefferson and Lakeville North all finished the season in the top 15 statewide.
“Every team, top to bottom, is very competitive in our league,” Prior Lake coach Chris Fleck said. “The top talent and depth is as good or better than anywhere.”
Neither Fleck nor Wright feel this is a temporary trend; it’s been a growing shift over the past several years that got started at the youth level.
South Suburban schools such as Prior Lake have worked to build their programs through programs at younger ages, Fleck said, focusing on bringing young kids into the sport and developing skills and a passion for the game at an early age.
“It’s such a skill-based sport that you have to build that skill at a younger age,” Fleck said. “Everything’s a process, and it wasn’t going to happen over night.”
With programs such as Youth Lacrosse Minnesota, communities can reduce the cost of playing lacrosse that might hinder some from taking it up. Fleck said there are now more than 10,000 kids participating on Youth Lacrosse Minnesotateams statewide.
Those programs have produced a slew of Division I players in recent years, many coming from the south metro.
Rosemount junior-to-be Luke Van Overbeke hopes to be one of them. He began playing lacrosse as a fourth-grader and moved up through the Irish youth system. He scored 34 goals and 56 points last spring as a sophomore.
Van Overbeke has had a close-up look at the southern metro’s rise to the top of the sport.
“It’s just difficult every game you play,” he said of the South Suburban. “It’s the best conference now, for sure. I think people are starting to see that.”