Springtime now means lacrosse
Tradition-steeped sport hits the big time in Pleasanton
It was only a matter of time once lacrosse took hold in the Western United States at the youth levels before California became a major player in the world of the tradition-steeped sport.
That time has arrived and Pleasanton has certainly been among the leaders of the talent brigade of players making their impact across the country in lacrosse. Two direct benefactors of the boom at the youth level are the high school programs at Amador Valley and Foothill.
For years the spring meant it was baseball/softball season, but lacrosse has taken hold and it is commonplace to see lacrosse goals and players out on fields throughout the town.
Over the last few years, players from Amador and Foothill, on both the boys and girls teams, have dotted the rosters of some of the top travel teams, not just in Northern California, but throughout the Western United States. Following their high school careers, the players en masse are moving on to the college game.
It used to be the case that it was news when one player from Pleasanton made a prestigious travel team, but now there are groups of teens so honored each year.
"It seemed like only three to four years ago we might have one kid playing (high-level travel)," said Amador Valley boys' coach Eric McVey. "Now there are a lot of them."
McVey has been there since the beginning of high school lacrosse in Pleasanton, graduating from Amador in 2003. Back then only a few players had serious lacrosse experience, and it was the duty of the players and the coaches to hunt through the student body to fill out the teams.
In fact, initially some teams were made up of players from multiple high schools. Now cuts have to be made on the high school lacrosse teams due to the vast number of players trying out.
"When I was playing we were going to the football team for defense and the basketball team for midfielders and attack players. We were searching for athletes," said McVey. "Now I am seeing all these lacrosse players out there. It's been great to see the game grow."
McVey is quick to point out the hard work done at the youth levels that has seen the game grow, starting at much earlier ages.
"We've got kids with lacrosse sticks in their hands at the age of 8 now," said McVey. "It has taken a lot of dedication from a lot of people to build this. I am so thankful for all the youth coaches."
One of the coaches who have been around since the start of high school lacrosse is Foothill coach Bob McManus. He agreed with McVey that times have certainly changed for the best in lacrosse.
"We started noticing about three years ago," said McManus in regards to the talent level increasing. "We always had some really good players, but those were guys who had only played for three years (by the time they finished high school). Now the game is so much better off."
McManus, like McVey, was quick to praise the efforts of the people who spent the time to build the youth clubs. In particular, both repeatedly mentioned former Amador coach and Pleasanton youth coach/organizer Rory Manley.
"As far as the high school game advancing, it's all about the youth programs and Rory had a lot to do with that," said McManus. "A lot of credit goes to Rory and the other guys who put it all together."
"It's taken a lot of dedication from people like Rory to make this all happen," added McVey.
On the girls' side, it is much the same. Foothill coach Megan Miller graduated from Foothill in 2003 and has seen the same incredible growth -- both in numbers and talent -- on the girls' side of the ledger.
"When we started we were a bunch of athletes and we did well because of that," said Miller, who followed her Foothill career by playing at UC Davis. "Now the club programs have all grown and to see that is awesome."
Bob Mezeul has been involved with the Amador girls' program since 2005 and takes the reins of the program for the first time this year. A former coach on the boys' side of the ledger, Mezeul moved over to the girls' side after having three daughters.
"I remember four to five years there wasn't that many playing," said Mezeul. "Now every high school either has a program or is trying to get one going."
Mezeul has also seen lacrosse go from an outsider sport to a popular one.
"I often think about (why lacrosse has gotten so popular)," said Mezeul. "The sport hasn't changed much, but now it is cool to play and watch."
Mezeul is right. Head out on a Friday night for a lacrosse game at either Foothill or Amador and it is a raucous affair, with the student body at each school embracing the sport.
Following is a look at the Amador and Foothill varsity teams this year.
Boys: Amador Valley
Last year was a roller coaster season for the Dons with some high points but a fair share of low points as well.
This year McVey is excited about the prospects for the team.
"We've been doing weightlifting and conditioning for a while now and that is going to make a difference," said McVey. "We've got great leadership and a terrific attitude from the players."
At the top of the list for the Dons is a pair of seniors at either end of the field. Alex Sohn, who will move on to play at Whittier next year, is back in the goal and Geoff Snyder on the attack. Both are capable of taking over a game at their respective positions.
Charged with protecting Sohn are defenders Connor Veit (Jr.), Jordan Cain (Sr.), Alex Olguin (Sr.) and Dominic Ashley (Sr.). The top players in the middle so far are Kevin McManus (Sr.), Mikey Martin (Sr.), Tristan Baylor (So.), Ian Mills (Jr.), and the brother tandem of Broder and Tor Heggelund (Jr.).
Mitch Sherman (Sr.) joins Snyder up front to bolster the attack, adding more senior leadership.
Foothill returns a majority of its team from last year and is senior-laden with a talented lot.
Jerome Rigor (attack) and Mike Barbier (middie) are in their fourth year on the varsity, while seniors Brandon Becker (defense), George Curtis (defense), Elijah Caluya (middie), Collin Dal Porto (defense), Steven Patrick (attack), Zach Whilhite (middie) and Justin Gibson (defense) are getting ready for their third year on the Foothill varsity. In addition, there are eight more seniors with one year of varsity experience.
The junior class also has a decent amount of varsity experience as Matt Maria Cui (attack), Chet Kozoil (middie), Josh Miller (goalie), Conner McFarlane (goalie), Noah Geib (middie) and Logan Winn (defense) all earned varsity blocks last season as sophomores.
"A couple of years ago we pushed a number of sophomores on to the varsity because we had the room to do it," said McManus. "This year we have a lot of experience. We have the biggest senior class we have ever had and we expect some good things this year."
There are big shoes to fill in the goal for the Falcons as the starters the last two years -- Ben Krebs (2011 grad, currently playing at Duke) and Patrick Shevelson (2012 grad, currently playing at Kenyon College) -- have taken their talented games to the next level.
But Miller and McFarlane -- who both saw varsity duty last year -- have plenty of experience on high-level club teams.
Girls: Amador Valley
The Dons will start with one of the best goalie tandems in Northern California and build from the back.
Allie DaCar and Molly Grozier are both juniors and both highly touted. DaCar has committed to Stanford and Grozier to Marquette.
Right in front of the goal Mezeul sends out Madison Steele.
"She is our key on our low defense," said Mezeul.
Joining Steele on defense is Kira Ewanich and Hannah Stapp. In the midfield the Dons boast junior Evan Murphy, who has already committed to Oregon, and 5-foot-9 sophomore Jackie Gilbert.
Mezeul is also counting on Lynnea Flaherty and Lauren Hayashi to be key players on the middle of the field.
Up front Cambi Cukar -- better known to teammates as "The Distributor" -- returns to lead the offense for Amador and is coming off a season where she led the state in assists.
In all, Mezeul has high expectations for the Dons.
"Last year we were No. 5 in California and we want to improve on that," said Mezeul.
The center of the Falcons strength falls right into the center of the field with senior Laura Klein. Headed to Stanford next year, Klein has been among the top players in the area for a while now and will lead the Falcons.
Fellow seniors Katie Sieverding and Alyssa Keiner lead the defense for Foothill, with junior Lindsay Kail (already committed to Oregon) and Sabrina Ehlert also being key players. Senior Alexa Milus is another key player for the Falcons and will take her game to Wash College in Maryland next year.
It is a talented and experienced team -- the Falcons return seven seniors - but Miller knows it will be a battle from the beginning to the end.
"There will hard games from the very start," said Miller. "But I expect a lot of this team. We will work very hard every day. We won some games in overtime last year and it was because of the hard work we put in every day."