This article appears in the April edition of US Lacrosse Magazine. Don’t get the mag? Join US Lacrosse today to start your subscription.

Matt Russell was in fourth grade when his father took him to his first practice with the Madison Youth Lacrosse program.

“I saw a guy in the cage and there was an extra set of equipment,” Russell said. “I said, ‘That looks like a cool position.’ It was sort of by happenstance, but ultimately I fell in love with the position and being quarterback of the defense.”

Ten years later, Russell won the 2004 Ensign C. Markland Kelly Award as the nation’s top goalie for Navy. His starting point is the same as thousands of boys and girls who have come through the Connecticut New York Youth (CONNY) Lacrosse Association member programs since 1990.

“I have just great memories of Madison Youth Lacrosse in general, and what that developed into was an opportunity to take it onto a bigger platform,” said Russell, a three-time All-American at Navy who went on to play in Major League Lacrosse. “I went to the Cockeysville tournament and a number of other iconic tournaments for a youth lacrosse player from the CONNY all-star team that made me fall in love with the sport even more.”

CONNY is celebrating its 30th anniversary this spring, honoring past administrators and volunteers who have helped it become one of the largest and healthiest youth lacrosse organizations in the country. CONNY started in March 1990 with 16 towns. Now there are 55 towns, more than 12,000 players and 600 teams that span most of Connecticut plus extend into Westchester County in New York and the Hudson and Connecticut Valleys. Even Doc’s Lacrosse in New York City is a CONNY affiliate.

“I’m happy that it’s continued and thrived since the early days,” said Tom Parnon, CONNY’s first president. “I didn’t stay actively involved in CONNY after we got it going, but it’s great to see an organization that had inertia and carried the torch from that point forward.”

CONNY grew steadily as it added more towns and teams. Coaches with playing experience came on board, and the town programs improved as a result.

“We grew because the sport grew,” said CONNY secretary Jack Couch, who has been with the organization since its second year. “As it grew across the state and adjoining territories, we kept adding towns.

“We’ve been successful because of the game. The challenge is now for us to get better at providing the right kind of experience for the kids. We can’t just rely on the game’s popularity anymore.”

As CONNY expanded, it opened more opportunities for better lacrosse. Jack Reid played for Glastonbury Lacrosse Club in one of the towns that benefited from its CONNY membership.

“It was a great opportunity to learn a new sport with friends and classmates and kids in town,” Reid said. “As you progressed through CONNY, the competition kept ramping up. It had a regional feel, but there was also town pride in it.”

When Reid was a senior, he led Glastonbury High to a state title before becoming a three-time All-American defenseman for UMass and playing in MLL.

“It all starts with Glastonbury Lacrosse Club and parents sharing their passion with kids, boys and girls,” Reid said.

CONNY added a girls’ program 2010. In some towns, participation has grown at a faster rate than the boys, according to Couch.

“The girls’ programs themselves were on an upward climb all around the state,” said Lisa Hurst, director of the Greenwich girls’ program for eight years. “Pulling them into CONNY didn’t take a whole lot of muscle power. The girls’ programs were flying. I remember sitting on my computer with lots of schedules. It wasn’t a problem having teams commit to the first CONNY event.”

Being associated with CONNY helped girls’ programs develop more quickly and sparked better play in the region overall.

“The Connecticut teams are traditionally much stronger than the Westchester towns,” said Joanie Berkery, Bronxville Youth Lacrosse Association girls’ director for 11 years. “Being able to tap into that league and play those teams had a huge impact on how we were able to grow and get better. Those teams are the gold standard in the area. A lot of what we did was mimicking what they were doing.”

Bronxville High School has become a New York power thanks to the growth of BYLA. Lilly Grass is Bronxville’s all-time leading scorer and the first from her school to garner US Lacrosse All-America honors. She was Michigan’s second-leading scorer a year ago, and the senior attacker started playing BYLA when it was just gaining popularity and has admired the town’s growing interest.

“It was more popular with boys than girls,” Grass said. “I started playing in third grade. Now it’s so much earlier. Girls that are just starting to walk are playing lacrosse. It’s totally grown.”

Broxville High School coach Sharon Robinson sees players like Grass matriculating with far more skill and experience than in her first seasons.

“When I first started, I was coaching a bunch of athletes, soccer and field hockey players,” she said. “Now I’m coaching lacrosse players.”

CONNY requires training for its coaches through US Lacrosse and Positive Coaching Alliance. Coaches attend a US Lacrosse Coach Development Program clinic and must be working toward CDP Level 1 certification. They must also complete CONNY’s rules examination to be able to be on the sidelines. Strong coaching and long-standing volunteers in well-run community programs have kept attracting players to CONNY.

“Typically, a youth organization is very transient,” said Amanda Gerich, who became CONNY’s president in January 2019 after serving with the Stamford Lacrosse Association. “Those people that want to stay to see the success and growth of lacrosse is huge.”

Eugene Miller is one of those long-time volunteers. He predates CONNY. He’s in his 34th year coaching in Greenwich and has remained long after coaching his own children to pass along his knowledge.

“Most importantly, from the top down to the bottom, everyone is held accountable,” Miller said. “We want the kids to have a positive experience. We want to teach good fundamentals and more than anything else, we want these kids to get some life lessons out of it. Winning and losing is part of the game. Some want to win more than others, but we all do the right thing.”