Local youths see lacrosse’s softer side during clinic at Immokalee High School

A couple of boys go head to head during Thursday's Soft Lacrosse clinic at Immokalee High School. The Indians' lacrosse program and the Boys & Girls Club of Collier County combined to host the event. RON HARTMAN/SPECIAL TO CSI

BY RON HARTMAN
SPECIAL TO CSI

IMMOKALEE — It’s almost scary to think what our sporting landscape is going to look like 20 years from now.

Will football still be around in its present form? Because all of the talk about serious brain injuries has produced a decline never seen before in both youth football leagues and high school football. 

Youth basketball is struggling, too, with a disturbing downward turn in numbers that shows no signs of reversing itself.

Yet, kids haven’t stopped playing sports — far from it. Participation in high school sports reached an all-time high in 2016-17 of nearly 8 million.

So, if not football or basketball, what is everybody playing?

Many have filled the void with lacrosse — America’s fastest-growing sport in the 21st century. (Side note: Did you know lacrosse is the oldest sport in North America? Dubbed “The Creator’s Game,” it reportedly was played by Native Americans “to resolve conflicts, heal the sick and develop strong, virile men.”)

According to one study, lacrosse jumped 218 percent in popularity between 2000 and 2010, and has continued to grow ever since. 

Once viewed as an affluent sport, lacrosse now has much more universal appeal — a point magnified by Thursday’s Soft Lacrosse Clinic at Immokalee High School.

“The kids have picked it up and love it,” Immokalee boys lacrosse coach Scott Rickard said. “I’ve heard some of our older guys say they wish they picked it up as freshmen.”

Soft Lacrosse is all about teaching good habits — on the field and off. The equipment is user-friendly — softer, safer and cheaper than regular lacrosse gear.

“It’s designed to prevent bad habits,” Soft Lacrosse Executive Director Thomas Moore said. “Then the kids don’t have to worry about fundamentals, they’re just having a good time.”

Moore should know. A former player at West Virginia, he also coached the Turkish team at the Federation of International Lacrosse World Championships. 

This photo shows some of the action from Thursday’s Soft Lacrosse clinic at Immokalee High School. RON HARTMAN/SPECIAL TO CSI

To some degree, lacrosse has become wildly successful by keeping its priorities in good order.

In Soft Lacrosse, the stick is much lighter and an air-filled ball is used instead of a rubber ball. Part of the organization’s mission is “to fight poverty, childhood obesity and childhood hunger while supporting educational systems and communities.”

“It’s great to see how the program has caught on down here,” Moore said. “We want to make these kids not just better lacrosse players, but better people as well.”

Julian Morgan, unit director for the Immokalee Boys & Girls Club, which sponsored the clinic, liked what he saw Thursday, as 37 club members participated on two adjacent fields.

“We do whatever we can to support school and special programs like this,” Morgan said. “We want to make sure our teens graduate. We give them the tools and help them. That’s what we’re here for.”

Rickard was hired to coach football six years ago at IHS and knew very little about lacrosse. Now he has turned the Indians into a winning program.

“They needed somebody to coach lacrosse so I took the job,” Rickard said. “Last year was our third straight winning season, and we even beat Naples. We still haven’t beaten Gulf Coast, though — they’re the best team in southwest Florida.”

Rickard likes the way lacrosse appeals to a wide swath of students.

“Not everybody can be a football or basketball player,” Rickard said. “It certainly helps to have the skills of a football, basketball or soccer player, but it’s not always necessary.”

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