Sports

Mercer Island emerging as lacrosse powerhouse

The Islander lacrosse team traveled to Boston during spring break. During a practice session, attacker T. Claes Johnson, a MIHS senior, catches a pass during warm-ups. The team finished the trip 2-1. - Contributed Photo
The Islander lacrosse team traveled to Boston during spring break. During a practice session, attacker T. Claes Johnson, a MIHS senior, catches a pass during warm-ups. The team finished the trip 2-1.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

Ten years ago it would be difficult to find many Island residents who knew what lacrosse was. In just a decade, the sport — typecast as a prep school pastime — has come into its own on the Island.

Now the Mercer Island Boys Lacrosse Club is a full-fledged powerhouse program and one of the West Coast’s best high school teams. Its success and growth come from a tight-knit community of dedicated families and individuals who made lacrosse their lifestyle.

“The hallmark of the program has always been the sense of community that surrounds it. By that I mean anyone who plays lacrosse on the Island feels connected to other players,” said longtime parent, board member and boys junior varsity head coach Mark Larson. “The fact that elementary kids are coached by and know the high school players is great. College kids work the summer camps. Alumni always come back to play an annual game with the high school players. We have a sense of community that builds around our love of the sport and each other.”

Larson attributes the strength of this communal bond to the sport’s character-building quality, as well as the program director and varsity head coach Ian O’Hearn. He came with a vision for what the sport could be: a stadium packed with youth players, high school students and parents under the Friday night lights. That vision occurs every spring with a fervor rivaling some of the staple high school sports.

“When I got here in 2001, there were two high school teams, a varsity and junior varsity and only two middle school teams. That was it. The success of a program is with its feeders, so I started the elementary school program to feed into the middle school, and that in turn to the high school. It is a pretty self-sustaining feedback.”

Currently, there are over 15 boys lacrosse teams spanning grades K-12 at every public school on Mercer Island, approximately 350 total players. The girls’ program mirrors the boys in all respects with the exception of kindergarten teams and participation leveling just over 200.

Since 2001, the boys varsity played in nine of the last 10 state championship games, winning the title in 2004, 2005 and 2006.

In that time they have defeated teams from nearly all West Coast states, including some East Coast programs in New York, North Carolina and Maine. This season they just wrapped up their spring break trip to Massachusetts, winning two out of the three games they played.

“The sport really sells itself. The program on Mercer Island is built on tradition and success. People want to be part of that and it attracts athletes from the Island to play,” said O’Hearn. He also credits assistant varsity coaches Winn Cody and Kevin Mincio for their work, maintaining the personnel consistency for the past six years. Along with his coaching duties, O’Hearn runs the Washington state Breakaway Sports franchises, a lacrosse specialty store with locations in Bellevue and Seattle.

Lacrosse is not a recognized school sport of the Washington Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA) — meaning without that legitimacy, teams are not entitled to field time at local high schools among other benefits. However, for Mercer Island, it is recognized as a school sport.

“We’re a self-funded varsity sport. We get amazing support from the school district and administration,” said O’Hearn. The club’s yearly success also comes from consecutive generations of committed parent volunteers, organized by the Mercer Island Lacrosse Club Parent’s Board.

“My continued involvement grows out of my love of the sport and the sense of community that it gives me. I have to say that the players are the biggest reason I keep coming back. I love teaching young men to compete and enjoy the game. I know it is corny, but coaches occupy a special place in the lives of many high school students and I try to honor that place of trust,” said Larson, who is the father of two children who played for the program. For his service and dedication, he was inducted into the Washington chapter Hall of Fame of U.S. Lacrosse this past year.

During the program’s decade explosion, dozens of alumni have gone on to play NCAA men’s and women’s lacrosse at all three divisional and club levels.

Perhaps the most notable alumnus is Chris Taylor, from the class of 2005. His story with lacrosse began the same way as many other kids — playing catch with friends after school and on weekends.

“I first started playing when I moved to Mercer Island in seventh grade. One of my friends who lived up the street played, and he convinced me to try out during the season. Being a soccer player, I liked the conditioning aspect of the game, and the fast-paced, fluid style. Part of the attraction was the multiple skills involved,” said Taylor.

He was eventually recruited by Georgetown University, a Division I program.

In high school he played football as a quarterback, running back and safety.

In lacrosse he was an All-American during his senior year, a first team All-State selection and state champion in 2004 and 2005, and second team selection in 2003. As a Hoya, he was awarded the Outstanding Freshman Award in 2006 and went on to be a two-year captain his junior and senior year.

“Combining lacrosse and academics allowed for personal growth,” added Taylor. “It also gave me the opportunity to meet people from all over the country and the world. Unlike many sports, the community surrounding lacrosse is very open and welcoming.”

During his collegiate years, he returned to Mercer Island to coach at several summer camps. After graduating from Georgetown, Taylor played in Major League Lacrosse (MLL) for the Washington Bayhawks franchise, then traveled to Perth, Australia, to coach and play.

Now he resides in San Francisco and works for Google Inc. He continues to play for a men’s club team on the weekends. His story exemplifies the full circle of the Mercer Island lacrosse experience — growing up playing as a youth in high school and collegiately, then giving back to the program later on that provided him with valuable opportunities and a lifetime of memories.

“My fondest memory playing for Mercer Island was winning our first state championship (2004) under Ian O’Hearn against Bainbridge Island. We had gone to the championship game against them the past two years and came up short. Finally beating them in Qwest Field was something that still makes me smile,” concluded a nostalgic Taylor.

While a decade ago lacrosse was just beginning to rise, there are now 154 boys and girls varsity and JV teams across the state, fueling its continued rise in popularity.

Learn more

For those interested in following Mercer Island and the growing lacrosse trend in the state, check out www.Walax.com, a portal to all lacrosse news throughout the Northwest region, and www.mercerislandlacrosse.com.

Brett Bowker is a 2006 graduate of Mercer Island High School and a lacrosse player.

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