Saints program highlights growth of youth lacrosse in Berkshires
PITTSFIELD >> The sport of lacrosse is definitely more visible now in Berkshire County than it was at any previous time.
Youth programs, once few and far between, have flourished in many different towns in the Berkshires. Lacrosse's presence at the high school level has gone from one MIAA-sanctioned program in the 2010-11 school year to a full-fledged Berkshire County League with eight boys and five girls teams.
So it shouldn't be a surprise that, at the youth level, coaches have seen marked player improvement over the last few years.
"These guys are a lot better than I was when I was their age," Pittsfield youth coach Jeremy LaCrosse said after a recent Boys & Girls Club Saints practice.
"All it needs is some exposure and a little bit of room for us to grow."
LaCrosse — who, unsurprisingly, first learned of the game when an elementary school friend's brother connected him with the sport that shares his name — has been coaching the sport for nine years now. The 34-year-old is working with Louise Brogan, who also has plenty of experience in coaching, having led the Wahconah girls club team before WRHS added the sport at the varsity level.
Their Saints Gold squad, a senior (seventh/eighth grade) division team, plays in both the Berkshire County Lacrosse Youth League and Connecticut Valley Lacrosse Association. There are two senior level teams, as well as full junior and bantam teams, in the Saints program that had previously run through the Catholic Youth Center.
Brogan's son, Kyle, has grown up around the sport. He's an eighth grader at Richmond Consolidated School, and he's played in the Saints program for seven years. Even in that time, at a relatively young age for an athlete, Kyle has seen growth in both the sport and the program.
"It took five years, then we started winning games," he said. "It feels so much better. Eventually, it progresses. As kids stick with it and the sport grows, every year, the team gets better."
The players and coaches have learned to adapt — first to a new sport, then to a search for open fields, and now to weather restrictions. On a particularly cold, slush-filled night in Pittsfield last week, the Saints Gold squad played indoors on the Boys & Girls Club hockey rink, now devoid of ice.
Sure, they'd all rather be outside, playing on the Herberg Middle School or Camp Russell fields that are their home pitches. But, until temperatures went higher in the Saints' favor, they were just fine on the third floor of the club.
"This is a thousand times better than a basketball court," LaCrosse said. "It's big, we can run and we can really do some stuff here."
Like many other youth programs, the Saints emphasize basic fundamentals and sportsmanship over victories. If they can throw, catch and scoop ground balls, they should be able to progress to basic offensive and defensive concepts, and that will lead to improvement and victories.
"We know they're not going to be masters by the time they leave here, but they should be familiar with the concepts, so that when they get to high school, they're not starting from square one," LaCrosse said.
Louise Brogan added, "A lot of the gym programs in the area are incorporating it into their classes, so that's helping. The kids are just getting better and better."
The young players like Kyle Brogan and Justin LaBelle — whose mother, Stacie Hill, is director of the BGC boys lacrosse program and a Berkshire County Lacrosse Association representative — are looking forward to reaching the next level and playing high school lacrosse, but they know that their current goal is simply to improve and be ready once the dreaded freshman year comes along.
Brogan is working on his off-hand stick handling this season, trying to be as good with his left hand as he is with the dominant right hand. LaBelle wants to be a better scooper, as well as follow in Brogan's footsteps with off-hand work. Both hope to play at Wahconah next year.
Brogan, for one, is already taking a leadership role as a youth player, having seen many new players join the team in recent years.
"I make sure I'm passing with new kids ... and my other friends," he said. "Chemistry is an important thing on the field. If you don't trust the people you're passing to, then you won't succeed."
LaBelle, one of Brogan's good friends on the team, has high hopes for what lacrosse will look like in the future, once he and his friends have graduated from the Saints program.
"I think it'll grow a lot in five years," he said. "It's progressed a lot. The coaches have taught the kids to work together."
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