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Boomtown: Ithaca's growing lacrosse scene

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For the past seven years, the Ithaca High School Little Red have set the golden standard for high school lacrosse in upstate New York. In addition to consistently capturing the Section IV title each year, the team has also made noise on the state level, making back-to-back appearances in the state championship game in 2011 and 2012. Perhaps more impressive than the team’s success has been the quality of individual players that have sprouted from the program, as numerous players have moved on to compete at several prominent schools.

Luke Mendola, a senior defenseman for the Little Red and a starter since his freshman year, is one of four players from this year’s squad slated to play NCAA Division I lacrosse. Signing his national letter of intent to play lacrosse at Harvard, where his brother Gabe also plays, Mendola started training as a kindergartner with the same group of 15 guys he currently plays with on the varsity squad.

As an underclassman, Mendola was selected to play on the Under Armour All American team, the nation’s premier youth lacrosse all-star team, for two consecutive years. Ithaca High School assistant coach Justin Kaufmann says Mendola has been a role model for his teammates on and off the field.

“He’s one of those players that practices and plays hard, which is rare,” said Kaufmann. “He’s always positive and goes out and gives his all every day. He acts as my second defensive coordinator out on the field, making sure guys are doing the right things. He’s just a great teammate.”

In addition to the great local college programs like Syracuse and Cornell, high school players like Mendola have elevated lacrosse to a major role in Ithaca’s culture. Ithaca’s rising lacrosse culture is a microcosm of the national growth of lacrosse, which has become one of America’s fastest growing sports.

According to US Lacrosse, the official governing body of lacrosse, close to 700,000 people played lacrosse in 2011. Specifically, the number of of youth male participants increased a staggering 14.2 percent and the number of male participants at the high school level also increased 8.7 percent.

Improved connectivity and equipment, as well as the development of individual styles and the sport’s fast pace have contributed to the national growth of the sport, said George Baldassare, director of high school boys lacrosse at LaxPower.com.

“It’s an exciting game, it’s high scoring, and the games are usually close,” Baldassare added. “It’s not as scripted like football is, and I think kids are starting to like that more and more. It’s the kind of sport that leads to more expressiveness than the usual major sports.”

Considered a “hot bed area” of lacrosse along with New England and large portions of the Mid Atlantic and California, Ithaca also benefits from a strong lacrosse tradition that has provided kids with many opportunities at a young age. Ithaca High School head coach Frank Welch says this tradition has been a big factor in the program’s success in recent years.

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“Our kids are committed to working hard at a young age,” Welch said. “We have a really good youth program, and a lot of parents who used to play have helped the kids develop more as they’ve grown up. So it makes it a lot easier when you have kids that are being taught by people who know what they’re doing.”

Brian Delaney, who has covered Ithaca lacrosse for the Ithaca Journal since 2005, also attributes Ithaca’s love for lacrosse to an incident in 2004 when Cornell lacrosse player George Boiardi died after being struck in the chest with a ball during a game. He says the tragic event created unity within the community and really polarized the sport.

“I think the outpouring of support for Cornell at that time put a huge emphasis on the sport of lacrosse in Ithaca,” said Delaney. “This was also when Cornell started making the playoffs again, so I think that the support from the community coupled with the team’s success following the event really energized the sport and got more people involved.”

Early into the season, the Ithaca Little Red are adding to the sport’s buzz in the area, dominating opponents en route to an undefeated record. Much of the early success can be attributed to Mendola, who has anchored the defense and has given up only 13 goals all season. While in other sports, players of Mendola’s caliber would be focused on playing professionally, he is more focused on attending school and finding an alternate career path. The slow development of professional lacrosse, which can be attributed to restricted television contracts and conflicting schedules, has led many other top players to adopt Mendola’s mentality.

“[Pro lacrosse] is really in it’s infancy,” Mendola said. “Lacrosse is definitely a passion of mine and I love the game, but I’ll put my future for something else a little ahead of playing pro sports.”

For now, Mendola and the rest of the Ithaca Little Red lacrosse are only focused on one goal, which would help to grow Ithaca’s lacrosse scene even more.

“Our goal is to get to the state championship and win on June 8th,” said Jaedon Henderson, a senior captain who is headed to Division I Hartford University next year. “Until then, we just have to take it one day at a time so we’re ready when the time comes.”

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