by Guy Thompson
“The first time I played, it was weird. It took some getting used to.”
But it didn’t take Northridge High School senior Meghan Cawood long to get the hang of her new sport – lacrosse. She first played as a freshman and last month signed to play lacrosse at Kent State University, becoming the first lacrosse player from Middlebury to sign for a NCAA Div. I program. Cawood will be part of the first women’s lacrosse team at the university, which is fitting since she was one of the first to play on the women’s lacrosse team in Middlebury.
She got started four years ago after talking with Gregg Eash, who had started a men’s lacrosse team in the community, and was looking to start a women’s team as well. “I was unsure at first,” Cawood admitted. I wanted to do track to stay in shape for other sports.”
But she decided to give lacrosse a try, and found that she enjoyed this new sport. “Playing other sports like soccer and basketball helped out. But it plays its own way, too. It’s very fast-paced,” she stated. She noted that the women’s games are more about finesse in how they are played, compared to the men’s games, which tend to have harder contact. Still, “some think it’s aggressive enough,” Cawood said of the matches.
The sport involves a lot of coordination, as the stick, which includes a net to carry or cradle the ball, becomes an extension of the player’s arm. Watching a game, one may see similarities to others sports such as basketball in the way players move around the net. Or soccer, as players run and pass the ball up and down the field. The net is forward of the end of the field, like a hockey net, allowing for play behind and around the net. “It’s very unique,” Cawood noted.
For Coach Eash, the rise in popularity of lacrosse locally came with a lot of time and effort. But he’s seen plenty that, once they play, they’re hooked. “It’s fast-paced. High scoring, especially in the women’s games. They’ll score 13 or 14 goals on average in a game,” Eash said.
“There are more players on the field, too,” noted Meghan’s dad, Brendon. “More kids get to play. Players are all sizes and levels.” They don’t have to be just tall, or big, as in other sports.
For Meghan’s parents, Brendon and Nicole, the new sport was a little tricky to follow at first, but like their daughter, got into it. “As a parent, it’s a great sport. We’ve spent hours helping her practice. She even got me my own stick for Christmas,” Brendon said.
There is also less expense for equipment. As lacrosse is still a club sport in Middlebury, players furnish their own equipment, which includes the stick, goggles, and mouth guard. That’s it.
The local program is still growing, with Eash working to get younger players started in 4th through 8th grades. The men’s team, which started in 2013, has had as many as 62 players. A middle school team started in 2015, with around 40 players at that level. In all, there are around 120 players this season.
Practices begin in mid-January, indoors at the Sports Center in Elkhart and Heritage Intermediate School’s gymnasium. In early March, the practices move outside and games start in mid- to late March. The season runs until Memorial Day, with 13 or 14 matches in all.
Only a few area schools have a lacrosse program, so travel is necessary to find teams to compete against. Concord High School in Goshen is the closest. Other schools include those in Fort Wayne and near South Bend. The Middlebury team travels to LaPorte County and down to Indianapolis. Eash noted that often two teams will travel to a third school so they can play multiple games at one location.
Women’s lacrosse is also spreading fast into the college level. Before Thanksgiving, Meghan had been contacted by 43 different schools, wanting her to play for their women’s lacrosse teams. In July, Meghan and her mom went to a showcase in Rockford, Ill., where 1,700 female players showcased their talent, with 140 colleges represented, all looking for players.
“We had to contact a team in Michigan that was open to other girls playing with them,” Nicole said, as taking a Middlebury team wasn’t possible. “She met with them. Got a jersey and was thrown in the game. She got a lot of playing time.”
By the end of the showcase, coaches were coming up to Meghan, asking her to play for them. But Meghan had already visited one school, Kent State in Ohio. “I really liked it,” she said. “I went to a lacrosse camp there, which gave me a chance to see how the coach worked.”
They had been leaning toward Kent State anyway, Nicole noted, as it has a top-ranked pre-med program and would be starting a women’s lacrosse team in 2018-2019. Meghan also liked the size of the school. “The coach gave her a tour and sat down with her to tell her she wanted Meghan to play at Kent State,” Nicole said.
At the end of the showcase in Illinois, as other schools approached her, Meghan got a call from Kent State Coach Brianne Tierney. Meghan recalled she only had one question for the coach. “I asked if anyone else had committed to Kent State yet. I wanted to be the first. She said we’ll start the program together,” Meghan said.
Four other women players from Middlebury have gone on to play in college, along with eight from the men’s team. Gregg Eash’s son, Alex, plays for Hanover College in Southern Indiana. Colleges are hungry for lacrosse players, Brendon noted.
And for Meghan, the idea to try out a new sport has led her to the opportunity to study and play at a Division I school, a great example for others looking to play, like her sister Ashlyn, who is in 5th grade and taking part in the lacrosse camp, as well as helping Meghan practice in the backyard.
Ashlyn is already looking forward to playing in high school and beyond, just like her older sister.
Building a team – Lacrosse in Middlebury
The idea for a Middlebury lacrosse team started with Gregg Eash’s son wanting to play and Eash, who didn’t know much about lacrosse, decided to start a team here instead of sending his son to St. Joseph County to play. “I went and recruited as many as I could. We had 20 the first year. Recruiting wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” he said, adding that the contact aspect of the sport was appealing to players.
His son was invited to play with a travel team out of Notre Dame and Eash helped coach the team for two seasons, which gave him the opportunity to learn more about the sport. On business trips, he took the opportunity to watch college teams play and practice. “My wife even bought me a ‘Lacrosse for Dummies’ book,” he said. Online coaching clinics and videos helped to round out his lessons. “I watched clinics from Duke, Notre Dame and North Carolina State. If they’re good enough for them, they’re good enough for Northridge,” he added.
Eash had played different sports at Northridge and found lacrosse was a combination of different sports.
While lacrosse is spreading, it is not an IHSAA sport yet, as the state organization is waiting for more schools to have teams. Currently, the Middlebury team is a club sport, but Eash noted that the team gets “great support from the administration.”
Meanwhile, Eash continues to work on building up the teams, and expanding into the lower grades. The team is self-funded with player fees and through donations and fundraisers. The club is a non-profit organization. The team also has scholarships to help players join the team by covering part of the fee.
“We have to pay officials and rent the fields. Paint the lines on the field. Get nets, balls and other equipment,” Eash listed.
The Middlebury women’s team has a new coach this season, as former Trine University player Anne Mammel joins the program.
The lacrosse teams also hold a fundraiser, “LAX-Out Childhood Cancer,” set for May 5, which raises money to benefit Riley Children’s Hospital.
For more information or to join Northridge Lacrosse, visit their website at northridgelacrosse.com or email Eash at MILAX@gmail.com.