BY MICHAEL KELLY
NISKAYUNA — Looking out at the grassy area of the town’s Recreation Complex, filled with several hundred youth lacrosse players, Mike Wood smiled.
“When I was a kid,” he said, “this did not exist.”
The Niskayuna Lacrosse Club has been around for just more than a decade and fields teams at three different age levels for both boys and girls in Niskayuna. Wood coaches the girls’ fifth/sixth-grade team, the oldest level for the club. The club has boys and girls teams at the fifth/sixth-grade, third/fourth-grade and kindergarten-second grade levels.
The outdoor youth lacrosse season started with practices in April and opening games conducted the first weekend of May. The focus at all levels is on skill work and fun. The program’s teams have to play their games against teams from other communities — each age group has roughly 25 players, not enough for multiple Niskayuna teams — but considers itself a recreational program, not a travel program.
Not too long ago, there was nothing like the Niskayuna Lacrosse Club in the area. Matt Levine coaches the boys’ fifth/sixth-grade team and is a former Niskayuna High School player, having graduated in 2007 before playing at Amherst College. Only 25 years old, Levine never got the chance to play lacrosse until he was in middle school and ended up in a physical education class with teacher Mike Vorgang, also the high school’s boys lacrosse coach.
“He put a stick in my hand and I got to play through high school and college,” said Levine. “I owe a lot to him and his program, so I want to give back by coaching.”
Vorgang said Niskayuna’s youth lacrosse program started in the early 2000s. Before that, area athletes were mostly like Levine — unable to play the sport until their teen years. Now, Niskayuna’s youth program has 5-year-olds playing.
“It’s all about opportunity,” Vorgang said.
And, it likely makes for better players, too. The Niskayuna boys and girls high school programs are two of the best in the region, and each has alumni starring at the next level. Kayla Treanor is a finalist for college lacrosse’s top award for the second straight year at Syracuse, while Luke Goldstock recently set North Carolina’s single-season scoring record.
More potential future stars are set to join the college ranks in the coming years: The Niskayuna boys had not lost to a Capital Region team in several years through May 12, while the girls were 15-0 this season.
Jason Bach, head coach for the Silver Warriors’ varsity girls team, said the change in play in recent years has been easy to see at the high school level. He credits that to the chance athletes now have to get a stick in their hands at a younger age.
“Some of the seniors we have now, we were working with them when they were in the fourth, fifth grade,” he said.
“They’re getting to know what good lacrosse is at a younger age now,” he added.
In the past, modified and junior varsity levels of the sport were spent teaching basic skills. Now, coaches like Levine and Wood take care of the basics, leaving high school lacrosse coaches to act more like high school basketball and baseball coaches in that they get to teach systems and philosophies instead of skills.
At his team’s practices, Levine’s players work through individual drills for roughly a half-hour before coming together to work on anything as a team. Passing, catching, picking up ground balls — those are the focus areas of coaching youth lacrosse.
The main idea, Levine said, is to give kids the tools at practice to then head home to continue to work on their games. At one practice this spring, Levine said a full hour was spent teaching players drills they could do involving chucking a lacrosse ball at a hard surface — “wall-ball drills,” he called them — so that players could improve on their own.
“This is a skill sport,” said Levine. “They really need to be able to put in the work on their own.”
Youth lacrosse in the area, though, is not that lonely on the weekends. Those days, the region’s teams get together for play dates of round-robin action, in which teams all get in multiple 25-minute games. The Niskayuna girls teams played host to the May 3 meet-up, and Wood estimated a little more than 40 teams took part in the day’s games.
Youth lacrosse in the area still lags behind the sport in other parts of the state, such as Long Island or western New York. In those places, lacrosse is similar to baseball or softball, in that a single town will have several teams capable of playing one another.
“We’re trying to get that same feel here,” said Levine. “It’s great to see kids getting started with it earlier and earlier.”