The Lee boys lacrosse team is back in the postseason. The Wildcats were one-and-done two years ago, but second-year head coach Mike Snyder said he's hopeful that might not be the case this year.
Two years ago, the Wildcats opened up against Westfield and lost. Now, Westfield is in Division II and the Wildcats are in Division III.
"I think that it's a huge improvement for the sport," said Snyder. "I have 23 kids on my roster and we were playing teams with 40 kids.
"It's going to be great for teams like Lee that are smaller schools."
The MIAA's Boys Lacrosse Committee has changed its postseason to include four sectional champions in both Division II and III. This year's seeding meeting will be held Friday morning at West Springfield High School.
Previously, all Western Massachusetts teams were in Division II. Now, Pittsfield and Taconic will join the bigger schools in Division II, while Lee and the smaller schools in Berkshire County will slide into Division III.
Because of the changes, Central Massachusetts has now been split, with several teams joining the Western Mass. teams to create a new Central/Western Mass. Tourna ment. The remaining Central Mass. teams will play in a Central/Eastern section.
"At least now you have the Lees and the Wahconahs in Division III," said Pittsfield coach Scott Aitken. "You have a fresh opportunity and now they're playing similar-sized schools."
As Berkshire County heads into the final week of the regular season, four local teams have qualified for postseason play. Pittsfield, Lee, Mount Greylock and Wahconah have all qualified for their respective tournaments, while St. Joseph needs two wins to reach the Division III field.
This all can be a help to Berkshire County teams, who are a combined 1-7 since making their first tournament appearances in 2012. The first win by a county team came in last year's Western Mass. Division II tournament, when Mount Greylock beat 2012 champion Minnechaug 13-12. One game later, South Hadley beat Greylock 17-6. South Hadley went on to lose to eventual state champion Longmeadow in the title game.
The new Central/West Division II lineup includes not only Pittsfield and Taconic, but Longmeadow, Minn echaug, South Hadley and defending Central Mass. champion St. John's. Division III includes Springfield Cathedral, a tourney team from a year ago, along with six Central Mass. tourney teams including semifinalist Grafton.
The potential for a team, particularly in Division III, to play for a title is the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow that has been strengthened in Berkshire County.
"It's so much different. The basic fundamentals have improved across the board," said Wahconah coach Zach Sondrini, who played his high school lacrosse at St. Joseph. "It's refreshing to see how every team can catch and throw consistently now. Even when I was coaching four years ago, you didn't see that.
"With the youth leagues, it's coming. It's not there yet."
St. Joseph coach Ben Kline said coaching has changed as well. There's no more introducing players to sticks and balls.
"We converted five or six guys in my first year who had never played before," he said. "This year, it's down to one or two.
"We went to a game, Westfield vs. the Pittsfield Saints, and it's a much higher level of play than it used to be. The youth leagues have exploded."
Pittsfield's Aitken had coached at St. Joseph for 14 seasons and has shepherded the Pittsfield club to varsity status. He agrees that the basics have improved for every team in Berkshire County.
"It's turned the corner to where we play more lacrosse," he said. "We still don't have as many lacrosse players as the [Pioneer] Valley teams do. There are a few more lacrosse players then there used to be."
There are still a number of players who Aitken described as "athletes who play lacrosse."
Kline, another former Crusader player, said Greylock continues to set the bar every other team in the league is trying to reach. He said they're all getting closer.
"Talent has risen across the board. Greylock is still up on top, but the gap has closed a little bit," he said.
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