Like many young men, Joe Sternberg used to play baseball. A lot of baseball.
Sternberg, a senior at Lexington Christian Academy, was a catcher for nine years before his fascination with America’s pastime began to wane in eighth grade. He wanted something different.
As part of what he called a group “joke,” Sternberg and some pals tried out for the lacrosse club LCA was trying to inaugurate that spring. They made the team, which went 4-11 and was on the wrong end of several blowouts. But, by that summer, Sternberg and his friends were suiting up in “cheap pads” and playing in offseason leagues. A new passion was forged.
“That was the most fun I ever had playing a sport,” Sternberg said.
Lacrosse in Kentucky
While there are occasional defectors from baseball — kids who just missed the cut or who don’t see many innings in their future aren’t uncommon — cases like Sternberg’s are rare in Kentucky according to Sean Fox, president of the Kentucky Lacrosse Association. Growing more common, though, are football-first kids who take up lacrosse to improve their offseason conditioning and hone their eye-hand coordination.
The KLA in part exists to serve those kids who knew what a touchdown was before leaving the womb but might not even know how to spell lacrosse, let alone play it; as well as any other kid interested in taking up the sport. The volunteer body is an extension of U.S. Lacrosse which seeks to aid the development of the sport in any way asked of it — financing, education, training, league structuring. You name it, the KLA has probably done it. Their efforts at the high school level each year culminate in boys’ and girls’ postseason tournaments that end mid-May.
“We are effectively the cool rich aunt that we all have,” Fox said. “ … We give our best effort to make sure things are clicking along and kids are on the field with sticks in their hands.”
When Fox meets people and they find out what he does, their first response is typically, “I didn’t know they had lacrosse in Kentucky.” Right now the state has 32 boys’ teams and 25 girls’ teams listed as active on Laxpower.com, where rankings, schedules and previous results are maintained nationwide. That’s 14 more boys’ teams and 12 more girls’ teams than in 2006.
The KLA is trying to improve participation and competition statewide for girls, as well as boys. Both levels boasting strong numbers of teams figures to be crucial if lacrosse is to be officially governed by the KHSAA in the future, which is the hope of most coaches, players and fans.
“It’d definitely make the sport a lot more competitive,” said Rick Childress, an LCA senior who joined along with Sternberg. “Some teams, before, the school didn’t even let them practice on their fields. We’re lucky enough at LCA they do that for us.”
Fox said that a few years ago it appeared as if KHSAA sanctioning was imminent. Participation was up and teams had widely adopted rules in accord with the organization’s. However, the most recent triennial survey of schools — which the KHSAA uses to help gauge what sports, if any, should be up for sanctioning — was released in August and showed dance as well as boys’ and girls’ rifle as sports in which schools would be more willing to field teams if the KHSAA were to offer a championship. Trap shooting was also ahead of girls’ lacrosse in the poll.
At the earliest, sanctioning looks to be about five years away, and it could take even longer. Whether or not the KHSAA ever sanctions lacrosse is an issue on which the KLA is agnostic, Fox said. If it doesn’t happen, then it will continue to offer organizational assistance at the high school level as it does now. If it does, it would maintain an educational and financial presence as allowed. Were sanctioning to occur, he admits the KLA’s mission at the youth level would be bolstered.
“Our whole charter becomes more effective because we can spend time on the little guys,” Fox said, “and it’s the little guys who feed the middle schools, and it’s the middle schools that fill the high schools. … That’s where we’re going to get the best bang for our buck as things evolve.”
Louisville’s head start
Not all Kentucky high school lacrosse teams participate in the KLA’s postseason tournament. Twelve boys’ teams — nine in Louisville and three in Oldham County — comprise the Kentucky Scholastic Lacrosse League. Those teams schedule games with the other 20 boys’ teams in Kentucky during the regular season but vie for a separate state championship. That’s been the case since 2013.
St. Xavier, No. 4 in LaxPower’s computer rankings with an 8-9 record but the top dog among KSLL teams, has played for a state title 14 of the 15 years a high school title has been up for grabs in Kentucky. It’s won 10, all under Coach Scott Howe, who helped start the first high school club team in the state in 1998.
“It was me and 15 or 16 hockey kids in Louisville,” Howe said. “And that was it. There was nobody else playing. We used to have to go to Cincinnati and Indianapolis or Nashville and try to find a JV team that wasn’t gonna beat us any more than 30 to nothing.”
In his school and others in Louisville, lacrosse is respected on campus despite the lack of KHSAA affiliation, Howe said. It continues to grow — according to the most recent survey conducted by U.S. Lacrosse, it’s the fastest-growing sport in the nation — and Howe doesn’t have a hard time seeing why.
“It involves a little bit of everything,” said Howe, who won an NCAA Division I title as a player at Virginia. “Hand-eye coordination, contact, speed, toughness, intelligence. You play up-tempo offense like basketball, the field’s spread out like soccer, there’s contact like football, you’re subbing on the fly like hockey. It’s got a little bit of everything in it.”
Several coaches and players the Herald-Leader spoke with immediately likened lacrosse to basketball. Among them was Rhett Miller, a senior at Bryan Station, whose program is in its fifth season.
“I used to play basketball and I would say the fundamentals are very similar,” Miller said. “On defense the footwork’s almost identical except for you have a 6-foot pole in your hand that you can hit people with.”
Contact is a striking aspect of the game that attracts uninformed spectators, but Fox said typically lacrosse should flow with the finesse similar to, of course, basketball. He said he goes as far as telling young kids “this is exactly like basketball” when first exposing them to the game.
One stark contrast with Kentucky’s favorite pastime? The size of most players. One does not need to be of Karl-Anthony Towns’ stature to excel with a lacrosse stick. However, playing the game at a high level requires precision, toughness and lightning-quick reflexes.
“You’ve got to be able to use both hands,” Howe said. “You’ve got to be able to catch and throw while you’re running full speed and hit somebody who’s 40 yards away running full speed — while somebody’s beating on you with a stick and while somebody’s beating on the other guy. That takes some pinpoint accuracy.”
First-year Bryan Station Coach Mitchell Abel, who played at Trinity and for the University of Kentucky’s club team before it folded, is impressed by how lacrosse in Lexington has improved in the short time since he graduated from high school in 2013. He referenced a game this season when Trinity edged Lexington Catholic 10-9; when he played, the Knights never came close to the Shamrocks.
Louisville as a whole remains ahead of the rest of the state, but grassroots interest can still have phenomenal returns if everyone is on the same page. Bryan Station’s first team finished 3-6; for the last three seasons the Defenders have finished inside the top 15 statewide. They meet Henry Clay in the state quarterfinals Tuesday night.
Henry Clay is the defending KLA state champion and has played in three straight finals. Blue Devils Coach Taylor McCoun is among several city coaches who would like for the KSLL and KLA to be unified.
“I think it would mean more to the kids to have one champion rather than two champions,” McCoun said. “It would be huge for Kentucky and the growth of lacrosse.”
Lexington Catholic, whose only instate losses were to Trinity and St. Xavier (8-6), is favored to meet McCoun’s Blue Devils for the KLA title on Saturday. Matt Campbell, in his fifth season coaching LexCath, is in accord with his crosstown rival.
LexCath and other area schools are at a juncture where many incoming players might be natural athletes but had never given lacrosse a glance prior to their first practice. Louisville’s powers, on the other hand, benefit from a strong middle-school feeder system.
“Even if we do go on and win our championship, we’ll call ourselves the third-best team in the state,” Campbell said. “Which is a struggle. That’s just the facts.”
One new contributor for Henry Clay this season is Keyshawn Johnson-Sanders, a football player who’d never played lacrosse before this season. He said there are a lot more variables in lacrosse than football and he’s still adjusting to the game, but couldn’t resist the challenge a new sport offered.
Johnson-Sanders will play football at Wilmington College, a Division III school in Ohio, but has had a blast playing lacrosse. He thinks if he’d picked it up earlier, it would have had a “phenomenal” impact on his athletic conditioning. He might try to walk on to Wilmington’s team, he said.
“The game excites me,” Johnson-Sanders said. “Whenever something excites me, I can put all of me into it.”
Campbell said many of his players also previously played football and soccer. “Anybody can get good with a lacrosse stick as long as they put the work in,” he said. Howe noted that Division I lacrosse rosters were littered with guys who were multi-sport athletes in high school, mostly football players.
Fox, the KLA president, said the organization saw an uptick in interest after an exhibition between Lexington-area alumni and EKU’s club team was staged during halftime of a high school football game in 2014. Similar exhibitions are in the works, as he believes simply watching the sport on TV doesn’t do it justice. He said coaches try to take their teams to college games whenever possible so they can can gain appreciation for the speed at which the game is played at the next level.
There is some pushback from baseball supporters who perceive lacrosse as a threat to their ranks.
“They’re afraid you’re gonna take baseball guys who are tired of standing around in the outfield and want to play something that’s got some action,” Howe, the St. X coach, said with a laugh.
For at least one defector, the transition paid off. Sternberg, the catcher-turned-attacker, scored seven goals in LCA’s Senior Night win over Collins. Five years after halfheartedly trying out for lacrosse, he and his friends made history: their team was the first at LCA to ever finish at .500. They ended with a 7-6 record in 2016, each win part of a seven-game win streak; the Eagles’ previous best streak was two.
Sternberg believes the switch not only made him a better athlete, but a better person.
“Lacrosse is a sport that forces you to explore all areas of your athleticism,” he said. “ … I’ve learned more through the sport of lacrosse just as far as becoming a smarter person just by employing more parts of my body. I would have never used my left hand to try and throw in baseball. I was a catcher.”
He was a catcher.