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Stevens Builds Lacrosse Program From the Ground Up

Jed Hart, Stevens High's fourth-year lacrosse coach, helps freshman Matt Leclair adjust the stringing on his stick during an April 11, 2014 practice at Claremont's Monadnock Park. Leclair is one of more than a dozen freshmen on the team who played in the town's fledgling middle school program last spring. Valley News - Tris Wykes

Jed Hart, Stevens High's fourth-year lacrosse coach, helps freshman Matt Leclair adjust the stringing on his stick during an April 11, 2014 practice at Claremont's Monadnock Park. Leclair is one of more than a dozen freshmen on the team who played in the town's fledgling middle school program last spring. Valley News - Tris Wykes Purchase photo reprints »

Claremont — Across the Upper Valley, high school lacrosse teams are chowing down on the benefits of youth feeder programs.

Kearsarge High’s boys and girls teams are the beneficiaries of the New London Outing Club’s elementary and middle school programs. Hartford High squads have had their ranks dramatically swollen this spring because of an influx of freshmen players from the town’s successful recreation offerings. Hanover and Woodstock started the trend decades ago, which partly explains why their high school squads have long been state title contenders.

The latest program to get on board is Stevens High, where the boys team, long an NHIAA doormat short on numbers and experience, is enjoying the first payoff after a middle school team was established last spring. More than a dozen Cardinals are freshman who played on that squad, and they’ve arrived with a prior understanding of the rules and the ability to throw and catch that has made fourth-year coach Jed Hart’s job easier.

“We didn’t have to start with the absolute nuts and bolts of the game this year,” said Hart, a Charlestown special education teacher who’s almost single-handedly kept the Stevens program afloat. “I could mention a drill and the kids already knew how it worked and what to do.”

Claremont experienced stop-and-go efforts at youth lacrosse in past years, but most Stevens players weren’t immersed in the sport until their freshman year or later. Competing against opponents with a years-long head start has produced predictable results. The Cardinals are 2-28 during the last three seasons.

Without the ability to reliably pass and catch, Stevens often turns the ball over. It’s then forced to play defense for extended periods of time, which wears down its players and leads to lopsided scores. Other students are less likely to join a losing program and with few Claremont parents, teachers or administrators who played lacrosse, it’s long been a distant option to baseball and track.

Last year, however, Hart and new Stevens athletic director Aaron House — who previously worked in lacrosse-mad Maryland — teamed with Gordon Dansereau, the Claremont Middle School athletic director, to start a team of about 20 boys.

“Last year, in our first game, we got it handed to us,” said Stevens freshman defenseman Logan Bateman. “But after that, we learned how far behind we were from a skills standpoint and we really stepped it up. When we played that same team later in the season, we were competitive with them and it went a lot better.”

This year’s middle school effort has been a struggle so far. There were only three returnees and 10 players initially signed up before a late recruiting push brought in another eight players. The team begins play early next month and has been holding sporadic practices at Monadnock Park under second-year coach Micaiah Cormier, a 37-year-old computer machinist. A former club player in high school and college in his native Maine, Cormier stepped up so his son could have a team on which to play.

“The kids are good athletes, but lacrosse is a game that requires a lot of hand-eye coordination and knowledge of where you have to be and our kids just aren’t familiar with it,” Cormier said. “It takes practice to handle a stick while you’re getting hit and it’s just me and 20 kids out there.

“If I’ve got 10 kids who really struggle with basic catching, passing and cradling, I have to pay special attention to them and it’s tough to focus on drills.”

Claremont players recognize the casual ease with which some opponents have when handling the ball, and the new and expensive equipment they use. Some of the Claremont middle schoolers were practicing without arm or shoulder pads earlier this month. Cormier said the schools provide helmets but nothing else. When Stevens defenseman Robbie Knight broke his long pole during a recent practice, several teammates quickly approached in hopes of cutting off the broken end and using the shortened shaft themselves.

“Equipment is a frustrating issue,” said Cormier, noting that most of last year’s eighth-graders were allowed to take their helmets with them to the high school level. “But the purpose of the middle school team right now is to feed the high school team and it takes precedence. We pick up the pieces but we’re not bitter because we understand the purpose.

“Sometimes coach Hart manages to bring us a bag of (used) arm pads or helmets and that helps.”

Despite the struggles, all involved believe it’s beneficial to expose players to lacrosse at an early age. The sport is exploding in popularity across the U.S., but communities without feeder programs doom their high school teams to the role of punching bags.

“It’s incredibly crucial for the high school getting better,” Bateman said. “If you can get kids who have played for three years before coming up to varsity, like I have, they’re going to be almost completely caught up with the kids in other towns who start in third and fourth grade, as long as they’re working hard.

“Success will bring us more number and talent and that will make the program grow.”

Stevens lost its first three games this season by a combined 49-6, but the diminutive Hart remains upbeat and driven. He inherited a program known for behavioral problems and undisciplined play and has slowly changed its culture with committed leadership.

“He gets intense during practice and I like that, because it makes kids understand how focused we need to be and how hard we need to work,” Bateman said. “I’m optimistic we’ll be competitive and I think if people underestimate us, they could go away with a loss.”

Hart, who grew up near Syracuse, N.Y. and played for Keuka (N.Y.) College’s NCAA Division III team, said he and his players regularly visit middle school practices to provide encouragement and mentoring. The Cardinals raised funds by working the concession stands at winter sports events. This spring, they picked up an assistant coach, Brandon Woodward, who played at Rutland High and who fits practices and games in with his work schedule at the state prison in Springfield.

Bateman said he no longer gets as many strange looks when he walks around town with his long pole, and gets a sense that lacrosse is on its way to becoming a mainstream spring sport in Claremont. Cormier peppers his view with a bit more realism.

“Lacrosse hasn’t had a big presence here and if kids have been playing baseball already, they and their parents may be reluctant to start all over with a new sport,” he said. “Last year, we scrambled with having a new team and we didn’t build on anything we started, so we’re in the same position now.

“I think as a team, we’re on the edge and it can go either way at this point.”

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com or 603-737-3227.