A national sports trend has touched down on La Cañada High School’s home turf, where two groups of parents have dedicated themselves to promoting participation in their kids’ sport of choice — one an American tradition whose safety is being questioned, the other an upstart fighting for a foothold in a crowded athletic landscape.
Nationally, lacrosse participation is on the rise, up by about 10% in 2017 and 25% since 2013, according to a recent Sports and Fitness Industry Association report. Participation in football, meanwhile, is down nearly 16% over the past five years, the same report indicated.
Locally, parents of lacrosse players are campaigning to give their sons an opportunity to play for LCHS, where the sport, for boys, currently just doesn’t fit. At the same time, Spartan football parents are finding innovative ways to make that program more attractive to students who’ve been turned off by concussion concerns or poor on-field results.
Either way, supporters are facing a difficult task, but they say they’re resolute; they plan to leave it all on the field.
“I don’t like to be deterred very easily,” said Friends of La Cañada Lacrosse member Joleen O’Brien, whose two sons play for a local club. “And I know, certainly, that we’re going to hit some low spots, whether Title IX is an issue, or money or a gazillion other things. We’ll take it a little at a time.”
“We thought there has got to be a way that this [football] team can feel the support of not only parents but the community,” said Chuck Woodhouse, who helped form the LCHS Spartan Football Foundation after the varsity team — on which his son is a lineman — finished 0-10 last season. “The objective is to provide these young men with the kind of skills and training that is needed to go out and win.”
Sean Hartman, a rising freshman, would love to play lacrosse in high school. He was a defenseman for the LCHS 7/8 boys’ lacrosse squad, which debuted last year. (LCHS has fielded a girls’ lacrosse program for about a decade.)
“I wanted to try a sport, one that I hadn’t tried yet,” he said. “I got the hang of it pretty quick, I think because it’s a mix of a lot of sports, soccer and basketball — except with sticks.
“I think it should be part of the Spartan family because a lot of the other high schools have lacrosse and it would be a good challenge to see if we could beat them.”
LCHS girls’ coach Emily Mukai said that although there’s plenty of competition in lacrosse, it’s special because everybody collectively roots for the sport to succeed.
“It’s such a cool, unique sport that really offers a sense of community because it is such a small community of players and coaches,” said Mukai, who grew up playing lacrosse on the East Coast, where it is a long-established option for young athletes. “There’s a real sense of camaraderie that we have here that you don’t find as much with other sports. It’s a really cool thing to be a part of in an area where it’s just barely starting to take off.”
Anne Moratto grew up in La Crosse, Wisconsin, knowing almost nothing of the sport whose name echoed that of her hometown — until recently, when her son Angelo asked if he could try it.
“He’d played other sports, but this was just a whole new ballgame, and he really enjoyed it,” said Anne, who likes the “Three H’s” encouraged by a local lacrosse club, Tribe Pasadena. “‘Honor, hustle and humility’ is a nice thing to start instilling in a teen boy, or any kid at any age, really.”
That’s why she’s joined the Friends of LC Lacrosse in its push to bring the sport to LCHS, where Angelo will be a sophomore: “It’s been a real labor of love. I’m hoping that we can pull it off, and not just as a vanity project, but long term, because it’s such a great sport.”
Assistant Principal Kristina Kalb, who oversees athletics, said she appreciates the desire for the program to take root at LCHS.
“We always want to provide students with as many opportunities that we can reasonably and feasibly offer to them, and in a perfect world, if we had the space and were able to make all the numbers be even, it would be great to add a boys’ lacrosse program,” Kalb said. “But I just don’t, under the current situation — and situations always change — see how it’s feasible to add an actual team.”
Already at a premium, time on the school’s stadium field was further limited by the later start to the school day last academic year, a shift that’s meant to enhance overall student wellness. The new 8:30 a.m. start means school ends about 45 minutes later, too, taking a big bite out of the time Spartan sports teams can use the field before city-related activities take precedence each weekday at 5 p.m. as part of the joint-use agreement between La Cañada Unified School District and LCF.
“We need [the joint-user agreement] to keep and maintain our fields,” Kalb said. “We appreciate immensely the large amount of dollars that go into maintaining and preparing our grass fields; as a district, it would be difficult for us to take on that financial burden. But with that comes an agreement that at 5 p.m., we lose those fields.”
During lacrosse season in the spring, the turf field is shared by girls’ and boys’ track and field, girls’ lacrosse and football, which holds spring workouts. None of those programs has the luxury of using that space for a full two-hour practice, as teams at other schools typically will, Kalb said.
The lacrosse parents get it, they say. That’s why, on behalf of the committee, O’Brien addressed the LCUSD Governing Board at a recent meeting, espousing the sport’s benefits and presenting ideas for how the school might find field space for a boys’ team.
O’Brien’s suggestions included holding practices before school, during 0 period; raising funds to rent fields off campus, at a site such as the Glendale Sports Complex; and using space across the street in Hahamongna Watershed Park, as the middle school’s lacrosse teams have.
Unfortunately, none of those particular suggestions will work, said Kalb, noting that the district doesn’t want to encourage before-school activities that work against the extra sleep it’s promoting. Glendale Sports Complex already is booked, she said, by other area schools. And the California Interscholastic Federation isn’t likely to approve play at a non-certified field such as Hahamongna.
There also is the matter of financing a boys’ program, sustaining it and maintaining compliance with Title IX, the law that requires equal opportunities (including in athletics) for both genders in education programs that receive federal financial assistance.
“Right now,” Kalb said, “we’re even with boys’ sports and girls’ sports at La Cañada. We would have a situation where we’d have to add another girls’ sport, but there aren’t any other girls’ sports to add; we have girls’ golf, we have girls’ lacrosse. And if we did add another sport to make it even, we already have the other issue [of field space].”
Despite the obstacles, O’Brien and her fellow members of Friends of LC Lacrosse see the goal clearly: “It’s not just about the physical activity and learning a sport, but being part of a team and all the benefits that come from team camaraderie, whether that’s band or choir. What if lacrosse ends up being that thing that clicks with a kid and gets him excited?”
The word buzzing around the LCHS football program after last season’s historically poor results: Grit.
“We told the team last year, ‘This is a hard year, don’t give up, persevere, you’ve got to have grit,’” Kalb said.
Head coach Jason Sarceda, who was hired with little time to prepare for last season, has embraced that notion. So have his players’ parents, whose enthusiasm makes it tough to fathom that the Spartans were winless a season ago.
Earlier this year, Anne Moratto, whose lacrosse-playing son Angelo also is on the LCHS football team, penned a letter to the editor in support of the football program: “What is happening with that program is exciting,” she wrote.
In another letter, Karen Staron wrote glowingly of her sons’ experience: “If you have a son who might be interested or just want him to socialize with some excellent kids and staff and get them off that computer, this is the place.”
Staron also mentioned the new LCHS Spartan Football Foundation, which she said was “working tirelessly to get the boys ready mentally and physically.”
Sarceda said he drew inspiration for the foundation from those helping some of the school’s other successful extracurricular programs, ranging from music to baseball.
“When I took over, one of the things we were trying to build was just a way to have sustainability,” Sarceda said. “Our [Spartan Booster Club members] have been a huge support for us, but I’ve seen a lot of other successful programs that have been able to build on that with a foundation. So my vision was to be able to have one of those. And we have parents who really believe in what we’re trying to accomplish. That really makes me feel warm at the heart.”
In its first year, the football foundation’s efforts have included securing funding from corporate sponsors, including Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Citibank and CBRE. They made it possible for players to attend a several-day retreat at UC Santa Barbara as well as a SEALFIT fitness camp hosted by a former Navy SEAL and designed to elevate mental toughness.
In Santa Barbara last week, players worked out, participated in bonding activities and received a visit from Citizens Business Bank CEO Christopher Myers. He starred on the Spartans’ only CIF football championship team, in 1979, whose success happened to come on the heels of some painful losing seasons.
The SEALFIT venture on March 3 began at 3 a.m. at LCHS and ended several hours later on an Escondido beach, where the boys endured exhausting, muddy team-building exercises.
“It was your standard Saturday at the beach,” joked John Woodhouse, a senior lineman. “Actually, it was very intense. And what it did is it gave us one experience that everyone has and that everyone can relate to. So we’ll be running or conditioning during practice or lifting and think, ‘I’m tired, I don’t want to do this,’ but we all know we did something that was hard and we were tired and we were able to do it. Now we have that mind-set.”
Those sorts of opportunities might give the program some “street cred” on campus, as Kalb put it, but football participation numbers still continue to shrink.
“The numbers don’t lie,” Kalb said. “We used to have three robust levels and now we have two. But so does the majority of teams.”
South Pasadena and Temple City high schools also field only two teams, and though San Marino and Monrovia high schools still have three, those rosters are smaller. Interest is so low at Blair High School that the Vikings will play eight-man football this season, Kalb said.
Entering preseason practices at LCHS, Sarceda said there are 57 players in the program, 10 fewer than he expected to return when last season ended.
Woodhouse said he and his teammates are actively trying to recruit classmates to join them. It’s not an easy sell, he said, in part because everyone is wary of the concussion issues associated with the sport.
“It always comes up, every single kid is like, ‘I don’t want a concussion. I don’t want brain damage,’” Woodhouse said. “I try to tell them the fact that you play in high school doesn’t mean you’re going to get [chronic traumatic encephalopathy]. We have all-new helmets, we’re protected, and if you play with the correct form, and the other team is playing with the correct form, you shouldn’t get concussed.”
Dr. Alex Weber, an assistant professor of orthopedic surgery and sports medicine at Keck School of Medicine at USC, works closely with both Spartan and USC athletes. He said all the concern in the football community over concussions is making the sport safer.
“It has really led to a lot of good education and reform in the game and how young athletes are taught to hit,” he said. “And that has decreased the rate of concussions. It’s also really helped, not just in prevention, but it’s also brought attention to treatment of concussions. In the past, athletes would be encouraged to go back into the game, especially if it was a playoff game, but now everybody’s on board. Coaching staffs understand that when certain symptoms are present, that athlete is done for the day.”
Furthermore, he said, for all the attention it gets, football is not the only sport in which athletes are at risk of concussions.
“Contact sports have more concussions than non-contact sports, that’s 100% true,” Weber said. “But there are other sports that are less publicized that still have a high rate of concussions, such as women’s soccer.”
Some of LCHS’ current football parents admit they had reservations about their sons’ signing up for that reason, but now they’re glad they did.
Staron wrote that her fears dissipated when she saw positive changes in her sons, whose grades and eating and sleeping habits all improved.
“Right now,” she wrote in her letter aimed at fellow LCHS parents, “our school, the team, needs more young men to sign up. We need the support from you and the young men.”