Lacrosse is no longer just a novelty sport.
It’s as popular as ever at Indiana High School, and along with participation, expectations are up. The young program has had some success from which to build, giving the Indians a realistically promising outlook on their fifth varsity season, which begins at 7:30 p.m. Friday, when Penn-Trafford visits Andy Kuzneski Field.
“This is the culmination of experience,” Indiana coach Eric Wetzel said. “Our seniors, most of them, this will be their fourth year as starters, and the kids now that we get as freshmen, most of them have been playing since elementary school.”
The Indiana Lacrosse Club started with a junior high program, which began play in 2008 with 16 players.
The varsity team started a year later, and last season the Indians posted their best mark yet, finishing 8-4 and making their first appearance in the WPIAL playoffs.
From those original 16, Indiana has grown to 140 players through the high school, junior high and elementary programs. The high school varsity and junior varsity has 49 players this season.
“We always laugh,” Wetzel said, “Our first year it was really easy to pick the starters, because you play 10 guys and we only had 10 guys that could catch and throw.
“It’s real similar to hockey or basketball from a skill level. It’s really hard to just pick it up in one year and be good at it. It’s sort of a continual development. … Like other sports, good athletes pick it up faster, and we seem to be getting a higher portion of the athletes at the school. Kids like it, and I think that’s what’s driven it.”
A growing sport nationally, lacrosse has faced no exception in the Indiana community. The longer the program has stuck around, the more kids signed on, and the more experience they gained, leading the Indians to the point that they are able to compete with the top WPIAL programs.
“There are a lot more choices for kids today, so if they’re not having fun, they go do something else,” Wetzel said. “I always equate football to work in the mill; lacrosse is like going surfing. It’s kind of a different atmosphere, for better or worse. It’s more free-flowing, and I’m not saying anything against football. I think Coach (Mark) Zilinskas does a good job. Football’s more of a long grind; this is more short. I think, like a lot of the spring sports, it’s a lot more laid back and relaxed.
“Like all other sports, we believe that our numbers have been driven by not only what the kids tell us — that it’s a lot of fun — but the fact that kids want to play for a winner. … It’s sort of chicken-and-egg. You can’t get good athletes unless you win; you can’t win without good athletes. We’ve been fortunate to attract some good athletes, and when we compete against big schools like Gateway and Shaler, we have to get as high a percentage of the good athletes from each grade that we can.”
Indiana has good depth coming back. Senior attacker Andrew Wetzel is the leading returning scorer, with 40 goals and one assist last season. Senior Nick Cornell and junior Keldon Spicher each added at least 10 goals and 20 points. A midfielder, Spicher paced the defense with 38 ground balls — turnovers by recovering loose balls on defense. Garrett Sharp, Andrew Wetzel and Derek Stapleton each had 30 or more.
And backing it up is goaltender Sean Rhodes, a senior who will go on to play at Onondaga Community College in Syracuse, N.Y. Onondaga won the National Junior College Athletic Association championship last year.
“These seniors were undefeated as eighth-graders,” Eric Wetzel said. “Our team was really built on that. Then, when they played (varsity) in ninth grade, I think we were 3-6 or something, with a team that was predominantly freshmen. When they became sophomores we were around .500, and as they became juniors we were 8-4.”
Last year’s campaign ended with an 11-5 loss to Greensburg Salem in the first round of the WPIAL Division 2 playoffs. In the regular season Indiana lost to eventual division champion Hampton by just one goal.
“You want to do better than you did the previous year,” Eric Wetzel said. “It’s an unusually gifted class. We think we have the potential to compete for the WPIAL championship. I’m sure you hear that from all coaches, and some things would have to go right. … We’d certainly like to go further than we did last year, and ultimately the goal would be to win it all.”