Twenty-four years after its establishment, Bedford Youth Lacrosse (BYL) has reached a milestone.
The Bedford High School girls’ varsity battled all the way to the MIAA sectional finals before losing to eventual state champion Dover-Sherborn. That means the team, at its division level, was among the eight best in the state. And several of those student-athletes are alumnae of BYL.
Sarah Kohler, director of BYL girls’ programs, said younger players were inspired. “We had our first and second graders making signs. They look up to these older girls like they’re heroes.” Ryan Fitzgerald, Kohler’s counterpart for boys’ teams, noted that several BYL eighth-graders will be vying for spots on the BHS varsity next spring.
Bedford Youth Lacrosse administers teams for some 160 girls and boys in grades 1-8. The growth among younger players has been explosive in recent years.
“I am particularly proud to see numbers that are pretty equal. That’s the experience kids are having in our town and that’s a tribute to the parent volunteers and the leadership,” Kohler commented. “What we are seeing now are the rewards that come from hard work – the work that was put in starting when those kids were in first grade.”
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Andy Kinch, BYL president for the past three years, has eight years of coaching experience. “The goal is to teach them the great game of lacrosse and the skills they need to develop,” Kinch said. “It’s a fast-paced game and it’s a lot of fun. It’s really rewarding.”
“What we’re seeing in Bedford is not a Bedford phenomenon. The sport has been accelerating in popularity,” Kohler observed. “The piece that is exciting to me is to look at the success of this year’s team and recognize that Bedford is part of this phenomenon.”
“When you look at the number of sports kids have to choose from and how dedicated and focused they have to be to reach this level of success, our kids are right there with other towns.”
Kohler said the high school athletes—girls and boys—are “providing opportunities for younger children to learn from them and be guided by them. That has become a strength of the program overall and that reflects well on the community.”
There’s a learning curve for a sport that is still relatively new on the local agenda. Indeed, one purpose of the BYL, according to its bylaws, is “To develop, promote and provide opportunities for coaches and officials to receive training on the rules and skills of lacrosse… to enable coaches and officials to serve as positive role models for boys and girls participating in the sport…”
Kinch explained that for first- and second-grade players, the goal is to learn basic skills: to scoop, pass, catch, control the ball, shoot on goal. “Little kids don’t think twice — they just ask, ‘What do I do?’” Kohler said.
“You can see steady progression as they get older,” Kinch continued. “By the time they reach middle school, they really become masters to be able to handle the ball, set up offense, and play really great defense.”
Fitzgerald observed, “As families discover the sport in town, kids tell their friends. We hope to bring them in at the youngest age but we are happy to bring in kids at any age.” Kinch noted, “I have had girls who have been with the program since grade one or two. Then others pick it up in a couple of years. With skill development, they catch up. We are trying to welcome as many as possible and encourage them to play and become a part of a team.”
Kohler pointed out that in lacrosse, “different positions pull from different skillsets and strengths of the athletes.” This makes it easier for participants “to find success in a position on the field and fuels their confidence. So much of the game is played by people who don’t have the ball, by moving people out of the zone or defending. So when kids do try it they find that they like it even if they don’t have all of the skillsets. Each child is good at something that the team needs.’
Chris Rucker, BYL director of marketing, stressed the value of a “great team atmosphere. You really have to have camaraderie for your team to be successful, and that’s one thing Bedford Youth Lacrosse has been able to do.”
Rucker, who comes from a professional lacrosse background, noted that the sport originated with Native Americans. Nationally, Kinch observed, the sport continues to grow and gain visibility. As a kid in Texas, he said, he perceived lacrosse as a mid-Atlantic phenomenon (the National Lacrosse Hall of Fame and Museum is in Maryland). Now it has penetrated not only Texas but also the South and the West Coast. At the high school level, Rucker said, “We live in a traditional lacrosse hotbed.”
All of the Bedford Youth Lacrosse teams play intertown schedules only. When first-graders travel to a nearby town, it “whets their appetite as young athletes,” Kohler said. The teams are affiliated with the Massachusetts Bay Girls Lacrosse League and the Massachusetts Youth Lacrosse League. Beginning with fifth grade, there are select teams that play a higher level of competition.
As the level of play grows, some of the rules diverge between boys’ and girls’ lacrosse. “The boys’ game is a lot more physical,” Rucker explained. Boys’ teams comprise 10 players while girls field 12. Both numbers include the goalie. The field dimensions are slightly smaller for the boys’ game
“Boys wear helmets, shoulder pads, elbow pads, and gloves. The boys’ game is more like hockey and the girls more like soccer in the amount of physicality.” He added, “There are girls that might be interested in doing that.”
Rucker emphasized that BYL “makes a conscious effort to make it as affordable as possible,” and the cost of equipment should not be a deterrent to participating.
This year “is our first foray into a kind of a consistent off-season. So there will be BYL events until the start of the season in March,” Kinch noted. Added Rucker, “Parents are asking what can we do to play the sport year-round.”
Still, Kohler pointed out, “One of the things we recognize at the youth level is how important it is for kids to play multiple sports and not choose too early. So we want kids to experience without having to choose. This allows us to grow the program and keep the interest while still having kids participate in other sports as part of their youth experience.”
This year was the first of what it is hoped will be annual Battles of Bedford. Rucker said the match was between the seventh and eighth-grade boys’ teams of Bedford, MA, and Bedford, NH. Beginning next year, he said, it is hoped that the rivalry will include boys’ and girls’ teams at various age levels, played at alternating sites. “Events like that raise our profile with the town.”
Mike Rosenberg can be reached at [email protected], or 781-983-1763