From Native American Beginnings to Adult Leagues
Beginning with the start of the game — its roots tracing back to Native Americans several hundreds of years ago — to the padded-player, televised version of the sport today, lacrosse has quite a history. Connecticut owns a notable piece of the game’s timeline with the United States Women’s Lacrosse Association having held the first women’s national tournament right here in the Nutmeg State, in Greenwich, back in 1933 — several decades before the sport latched on at the high school level.
Connecticut has had college champions crowned and hosted national championship games. It once had a professional team and boasts plenty of high school program powerhouses. It is a sport that continues to be enjoyed by adults in their 20s, 30s — and beyond — with adult league offerings and annual tournaments here in Connecticut. For those interested in adult league lacrosse and tournaments, the no need to hang up the stick and cleats after graduation.
XCEL Lacrosse, based in Worcester, Mass., runs adult summer leagues in area states including here in Connecticut with men’s and women’s offerings at the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford. The Connecticut league began in the summer of 2021 and plans to return and expand in 2022, according to XCEL Lacrosse owner Chris Widelo, who said there were approximately 80 Connecticut league players divided evenly by women and men each with their own league in the first year.
Widelo, 46, lives on Long Island and continues to play lacrosse. “We still think we can get out there and keep running with the young kids,” said Widelo, adding that most of the league players both where he plays and in the XCEL program are 18 years old on up to those in their low 30s. “It’s a physical sport. It can be physically demanding, even at the recreational level,” said Widelo, adding that the leagues limit the physical element as much as possible since many of the players are more focused on working careers and families and are playing mostly for fun and exercise.
Widelo said XCEL respects the tradition of the game that began with Native Americans many generations ago.”We do take it seriously. We try to be good ambassadors of the game they left us. It’s exciting. It does have a rich history,” he added. Widelo’s business parner with XCEL is Andrew Fink, head coach of the men’s team at the University of Saint Joseph. Fink and Widelo both coached at Mount Ida College in Amherst, Mass., and led the team to several conference championships with their coaching tenures overlapping and the tandem coaching some of those title-winning squads together. Fink built Saint Joseph’s men’s program and became its first coach when the program started in 2020. Widelo and Fink saw an opportunity to expand to West Hartford with several universities and high schools with programs in the area. “We thought it would be a great chance for players in the vicinity to play on Sunday afternoon,” Widelo said.
“It’s a close-knit community. There’s a great sense of community,” he noted, adding that in addition to his connections with Fink, players who join adult leagues often cross paths with former teammates or counterparts they have not seen in years. “The league offers a chance for collegiate athletes to compete in the offseason, as well as for those who have graduated high school or college and otherwise would not have an outlet to play the game they love,” adds Widelo, who played and later coached at Assumption College in Worcester earlier in his lacrosse life. The XCEL Connecticut programs included five summer games for men and women, each costing $80.
Karen Nell, is the head women’s lacrosse and field hockey coach at the University of Saint Joseph and runs XCEL’s Connecticut women’s program. “There are not many opportunities in the area for women to play lacrosse after they graduate from high school or college, and our adult league gives them that opportunity. Whether they are looking for an outlet from work, an opportunity for off-season training as college athletes, or just to continue playing the game they love, this is the place to be,” Nell said.
Last year, the women’s adult league athletes ranged in age from 18 to mid-30s and were mostly free agents or players who signed on to play individually and were placed on teams, according to Nell. “We are hoping to draw more attention to the opportunity to play and have people form their own teams, but of course, free agents are always welcome,” Nell said. She did not play lacrosse when she was younger because it wasn’t available where she lived in New York. She went to Boston College to play field hockey and first learned about lacrosse while in college. “That was my first exposure to the sport which was a club at the time,” Nell said. “I have not played competitive lacrosse. I’m a student of the game and love the opportunity to be creative in teaching the game.”
Nell has prior ties to Connecticut lacrosse; she was the head girls’ team coach at New Fairfield High School for seven seasons. Nell’s New Fairfield teams won three straight Class S State Championships from 2017-2019, and back-to-back South-West Conference Championships in 2018 and 2019. In seven seasons, the New Fairfield Rebels had a record of 124-32, and Nell was named Connecticut Class S Coach of the Year following the 2018 season. After the 2018 season, Nell took the two head coaching jobs at the University of St Joseph, started the field hockey program, and started the process of building the women’s lacrosse program. She is also the director of the Girls Program at 3DLacrosse New England South, which includes select teams and offers lacrosse training.
More Lacrosse Options
Colorado-based ULAX offers a men’s division at Fairfield University. “We’ve been hosting this particular summer league for about 10 years. We had 12 teams with over 300 players playing in the league last summer and expect similar numbers this summer,” said Neema Kassaii, co-founder of ULAX. “In addition to the social aspect of the league, it’s a great way for players to continue playing the game they love in an organized/competitive setting. It also gives many college/post-collegiate players an opportunity to play with their former high school/college teammates. Players can join with a team, group, or as a solo free agent,” Kassaii added. The ULAX program included six to eight games plus playoffs for $135 last summer.
ULAX currently offers high school boys’ and men’s league playing opportunities but is interested in getting high school girls’ and women’s leagues off the ground. For those interested, Kassaii asks that they email firstname.lastname@example.org. Brittany Ross-Branche, general manager of Wide World of Indoor Sports (WWIS) in Montville, said WWIS plans to add adult league play in the future as it sees athletes transitioning up from the youth leagues to older levels of play. Ross-Branche grew up on Long Island where lacrosse Is heavily ingrained in the culture.
The Glastonbury Lacrosse Tournament, which Widelo said is one of the bigger tourneys on the east coast, had its 36th year of competition for a variety of ages last summer.
High School Lacrosse
In high school lacrosse, the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference (CIAC) has held state championships for boys since 1995 and girls since 2004. The sport has grown significantly for both girls and boys throughout the years with both expanding from two champs, one each in Division I and II to three in a trio of class sizes. Joe Tonelli, who served as CIAC liaison to the girls’ and boys’ lacrosse committees from 2007-19, said girls’ lacrosse became CIAC-controlled in 2004 because the sport met the criteria since at least 20 percent of CIAC member schools offered girls’ lacrosse at the varsity level. “In the first CIAC season of girls lacrosse in 2004 there were 55 teams and the CIAC Tournament had a two-division set up. By 2007, that number grew to 68 teams, and by 2011, the number of teams was approaching the 80 mark. At that time, based on the overwhelming support of the coaches, athletic directors, and school principals, the CIAC Girls Lacrosse Committee received the approval of the CIAC Board of Control to add a division and conduct a three-division tournament — Class L, M, and S — starting in 2011. Currently, the number of girls’ teams is approaching the 100 mark, similar to boys’ lacrosse, which is remarkable,” Tonelli said.
“Under the guidance of the CIAC Girls and Boys Sports Committees and the hard work of the dedicated coaches, athletic directors, school administrators, and officials, the sport of lacrosse on the high school level in Connecticut has experienced excellent growth and increased interest, which has benefitted numerous student athletes,” Tonelli added. “I’m so encouraged with all the girls’ lacrosse growth nationwide. It is a sport that requires players to have a strong mental approach to the skill aspect of the game that has to pair with their physical strengths to make a well-rounded player. The fastest and strongest athletes sometimes struggle with partnering the stick skills needed to be dominant,” said Rob Troesser, head coach of the girls’ squad at Masuk High in Monroe.
Troesser has coached at Masuk since 2013 and prior to that coached with Monroe Lacrosse Association’s (MLA) youth program for a handful of years, beginning in 2009. Troesser’s three older daughters are in the MLA youth lacrosse league. “Lacrosse is a great field sport that combines stick skills, speed, and agility in a team sport that utilizes all of its players on the field. Some sports only focus on their top-performing athletes, but with lacrosse, everyone needs to pull their weight for the team to succeed,” Troesser said.
Fairfield County has been Connecticut’s hotbed for high school and youth lacrosse. Darien has won 11 girls’ state titles and 14 boys’ state championships. Wilton, New Canaan, Greenwich, Fairfield, and other southern Fairfield Country schools have also brought home titles and competed in title games on multiple occasions. Shoreline teams Guilford, East Lyme, and Branford have also been crowned girls’ state champs in recent years. “High schools in Connecticut continue to add girls’ lacrosse to their athletics programs every year as the popularity continues to grow,” said Nell, adding that the Prep schools belong to the Founders League which started in 1984, and many of their programs have been in existence for more than 20 years.
Although boys’ lacrosse did not have its first state playoffs under the CIAC until 1995, the sport had been played at some high schools for a couple of decades before that. Troesser points to wiltonlax.org for some interesting details on the history of the sport both at Wilton High and in the state. According to wiltonlax.org, in 1969, Wilton math teacher and football coach Guy Whitten was hired to coach the first school-sponsored team.
“Overall, 1974 was one of the most important years in Wilton and Connecticut lacrosse history. The Connecticut High School Lacrosse Coaches Association was born in Guy Whitten’s living room in Bethel, Connecticut. The Coaches Association chose Will Hunter of Conard High School as their first president and decided to sponsor the first Connecticut State Lacrosse Championship that Spring. After completing a 12-1 regular season, the Warriors beat Conard High School in West Hartford (9-4) to win the first State Championship,” according to the website.
According to the Wilton lacrosse website, in 1958: “Dan Cappal who played for legendary coach Milt Roberts at the University of Delaware and some of the students in his science classes at Wilton High School buy wooden sticks and ‘throw around.’ on a field outside of school. Al Dobsevage, Wilton High School Latin teacher and ex-lacrosse player lends his support to the effort.”
Wiltons girls’ and boys’ squads both captured the first CIAC D-I state titles, and have combined to win nine CIAC championships.
Division I NCAA Championships
According to the USA Lacrosse website, usalacrosse.com, NCAA held its first men’s championship in 1971 and first women’s national title game in 1982. Games at the collegiate and professional level are televised as the sport has grown in popularity. Connecticut has had some recent championship success. Yale University won the Division I men’s NCAA title in 2018 with a 13-11 win over Duke; the pinnacle game was held in Foxborough, Mass. In 2019, Yale returned to the championship round and fell 13-9 to Virginia, in Philadelphia. D-I championship lacrosse returned to Connecticut itself in 2021 when Rentschler Field in East Hartford hosted the big game. Virginia edged Duke in a 17-16 thriller. Rentschler Field was the host city for the D-II and D-III men’s championships as well; Le Moyne defeated Lenoir-Rhyne 12-6 for the Division II title, and RIT nipped Salisbury 15-14 in overtime to capture the D-III trophy.
Connecticut is home to another NCAA men’s team champion: The 2018 Wesleyan team which defeated Salisbury 8-6 for the D-III title in Foxborough, Mass.
The Connecticut women have made a mark as well with Trinity Hartford’s Trinity College, claiming the 2012 D-III championship with an 8-7 title game triumph over Salisbury at host Montclair State. Trinity went on to reach each of the next four championship tilts, finishing runner-up each time.
A Professional Team in Connecticut
Connecticut was home to professional lacrosse for a brief time. When Major League Lacrosse (MLL) was founded in 2001, the Bridgeport Barrage was a charter member of the league. The Barrage played at the Ballpark at Harbor Yard for three seasons until moving to Philadelphia in 2004. Bridgeport’s team shared the field with the former Bluefish baseball team of the Atlantic League. The Barrage, after losing their first game 19-13 to the Boston Cannons, defeated the Chesapeake Bayhawks 12-9 for their first win. MLL merged with the Premier Lacrosse League in December of 2020. During Bridgeport’s brief tenure, the city hosted the Lacrossestar Game, the MLL All-Star Game — in that inaugural season, in fact. It was goals galore as the National squad defeated the American lineup 23-18.
A Brief History of the Game
According to the USA Lacrosse website, usalacrose.com: “Lacrosse is the oldest team sport in North America with the sport documented back to the early 17th century. Originating among various Native communities, with regional variations on how the game was played, lacrosse was played throughout modern Canada, but was most popular around the Great Lakes, Mid-Atlantic seaboard, and American South. Traditional lacrosse games were sometimes semi-major events that could last several days. As many as 100 to 1,000 men from opposing villages or tribes would participate.”
The USA Lacrosse writeup in the game’s history adds: “Modern-day lacrosse descends from and resembles the stickball games played by these various Native American communities. The modern field game most closely resembles that played among the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois people, who also refer to lacrosse as the Creator’s Game.” It is unclear how many centuries ago lacrosse began, but it is known to be the oldest team sport in the United States.
According to a November 19, 2021 history.com article “The Native American Origins of Lacrosse” by Lesley Kenney: Lacrosse is America’s oldest team sport, dating back to 1100 A.D., when it was played by the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois people, in what now is New York and areas in Canada bordering the state.
For information on adult league and tournament lacrosse, visit the following websites: XCEL Lacrosse XCEL Lacrosse | Men’s 18+ Summer Lacrosse League (CT); ULAX ULAX Lacrosse League – Fairfield County Men Field; and Glastonbury Tournament http://www.gburylaxtourney.org/