This article appears in the November edition of US Lacrosse Magazine, available exclusively to US Lacrosse members. Join or renew today! Thank you for your support.

Luke Abeling might not have known fully the positive effect Albuquerque Youth Lacrosse was having on the sport’s development in New Mexico had he not recently volunteered for a competitor.

Despite ABQYL’s return to play over the summer, a statewide spike in COVID-19 cases led to a public health order prohibiting youth sports practices in July. When the restrictions were lifted in September, Abeling offered to help i9 Sports — a national multi-sport organization — with a local clinic. Six boys attended the session. Five had sticks.

“Where did you guys play before?” Abeling asked.

“We were at that clinic you guys ran last summer,” one of them replied.

The clinic was a US Lacrosse TryLax event, an accessible and affordable way for member organizations to introduce lacrosse and drive registration. It’s fast and fun, and in most cases, the kids walk away with a complimentary stick and membership.

Abeling, who played lacrosse growing up in New York’s Hudson Valley and had coached teams in New Jersey, assured the boys there would be a spot for them when ABQYL reopened for skill sessions and small-sided games in October.

A program administrator and Coach Development Program Level 3-certified women’s coach, Abeling discovered the value of US Lacrosse’s resources when his daughter came of age to play. They had moved to Albuquerque so he could take a job as an IT specialist at the University of New Mexico. There simply was no girls’ lacrosse south of Santa Fe. He worked with ABQYL president Eric Whitson, also an East Coast transplant, to start a girls’ program alongside the newly established boys’ program in 2013.

ABQ Youth Lacrosse was already all-in on coach certification when US Lacrosse rolled out the Lacrosse Athlete Development Model in 2016. “Being able to run clinics here with the help of [US Lacrosse’s] Kevin Greene and Dara Woizesko, being able to support coaches and really foster the growth of the game down here has been paramount,” Abeling said. 

Given New Mexico’s high poverty rate as the nation’s second-poorest state, ABQYL also has received a US Lacrosse First Stick Program grant.

“We’re leaning into US Lacrosse to help things grow,” Abeling said.

That was pre-pandemic, of course. But any concerns about stunting the sport’s momentum in New Mexico evaporated over the summer. ABQYL experienced terrific turnout for its free eight-week summer program focusing on station-based skill development three days a week. The league also staged unofficial pickup games three days a week during the same time period, following closely the state’s COVID-19 and US Lacrosse Return to Play protocols.

“Even when we had to go back to masks about halfway through that session, we didn’t lose a single kid,” Abeling said. “They were still out there huffing and puffing with their masks on.”

Abeling, Whitson and ABQYL boys’ division vice president Andrew Sweetman have helped orchestrate introductory lacrosse events at several pueblos in the Albuquerque metro area. They share the sport’s Haudenosaunee origin story, roll out sticks and balls and play. During one visit to a Native American charter school, Abeling in turn got schooled by a girl in a game of double ball, which is similar to lacrosse but played with two smaller balls wrapped in a leather hide that connects them. 

Sweetman, who grew up in Ohio, manages the water resources department for the pueblos of Santa Ana. He’s also the boys’ youth representative for New Mexico Lacrosse. Both he and Whitson agreed the long-term goal is to have the state sanction high school boys’ and girls’ lacrosse.

“It would be foolish right now to rush that,” said Whitson, who is from the Baltimore.

When he’s not recruiting kids to play lacrosse, Whitson is a recruiter for a bioscience manufacturer. He could be reassigned at any time, illuminating one of the challenges of growing the game in New Mexico: a transient population fueled by the military and scientific communities.

ABQYL has lured athletes from families that have burned out on costlier, high-intensity club sports like soccer, volleyball and ice hockey. “It’s a breath of fresh air when these parents come up and it’s not about the win. It’s about having a good time and learning a little bit about yourself,” Abeling said. “It’s something different that sets us apart.”

LOCALLY GROWN: PACIFIC SOUTHWEST

Arizona 

After public parks reopened in September, several Arizona Youth lacrosse programs had free clinics throughout the fall and plans to host its Lax4Life charity tournament for ages 8U-high school in December. Youth leadership met in October to discuss the upcoming season, scheduled to start Jan. 23.

California 

Practice looks a little different, but the Coronado Lacrosse Club girls are practicing in groups of no more than 12 players.

Nevada

The Southern Nevada Lacrosse Association abided by local requirements for social distancing and COVID-19 transmission mitigation to get back on the field with skills practices. Many new players were drawn to the sport.

Hawaii 

The Aloha Youth Lacrosse Association have held informal training sessions during the pandemic while implementing US Lacrosse’s Return to Play guidelines.