One of America's fastest growing sports is expanding at an even faster pace in Nebraska.
Art Newsome, the Cornhusker State Games director for lacrosse, said the number of youths and high school kids participating has grown by more than 200 percent in the past two years.
“We had just under 100 kids two years ago when we started and now we're over 300 at the youth level,” Newsome said. “That's just in the kindergarten through Under 15 leagues.”
Lacrosse is becoming an alternative to football for many youth players because of growing concerns over concussions and other head injuries.
While lacrosse will likely never replace football in participation numbers or popularity, there are some similarities in apparel. Kids in helmets and shoulder pads were zipping around the football field at Omaha Creighton Prep on Sunday participating in State Games medal matches.
Family members made up the majority of the spectators, but some parents also were serving as coaches. Newsome said there is an adult organization in Omaha, but most of them are coaching and will participate in other tournaments later this year.
“The reason lacrosse is becoming so popular is because once kids get to see and play the game, they understand it's a fun sport,” Newsome said. “The last 20 years it's really started to catch on in parts of the country that aren't known for lacrosse.”
Lacrosse is best known as a sport played in the Northeast and Southeast U.S., but Newsome said it's also quite popular in California and even in Florida.
“With such popularity on both coasts, it's starting to press into the Midwest,” Newsome said. “Two weeks ago we were at a tournament in Chicago and there were over 1,000 participants from states like Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Nebraska.”
There are large groups of clubs in Kansas City and St. Louis at the youth and high school levels.
Newsome said there are nine current high school programs — Millard North, Millard West, Sarpy County (Bellevue, Papillion and La Vista), Omaha Creighton Prep, Omaha Westside and Elkhorn South along with teams from Lincoln and Des Moines.
The hope is to one day have lacrosse become a sanctioned high school sport, but Newsome understands that grass roots efforts will be needed in communities other than the Omaha and Lincoln Metro areas.
Omaha teams have taken advantage of a grant program funded by the sport's governing body, US Lacrosse, which is headquartered in Baltimore.
“They do a great job of helping new programs get started,” Newsome said. “We won one of the grants last year. What they do is give you 25 sets — head to toe — of equipment for teams.
“They are dropping money into areas where lacrosse is under-developed. It's a less violent sport that is attracting a lot more participants.”
As many of the other State Games sport directors are, Newsome and his crew are looking forward to hosting the 2015 State Games of America.
“The chance to play competition from around the country can only help the sport continue to grow in Nebraska,” Newsome said.