Few youth sports organizations have had the big impact of Napa Force Junior Lacrosse in such a short time.
The Force program grew at such a rapid rate, as part of the ever-growing Northern California Junior Lacrosse Association, that took advantage of a relationship with the Force to add lacrosse to list of spring interscholastic sports offerings.
"I think that ultimately, having high school soccer teams at Justin-Siena and other schools will be a good thing for our program and other programs," said Force program president Bryce Whitlock. "We work well with Justin-Siena and we were a driving force in the school adding lacrosse."
The eight Force teams in boys and girls age divisions from Under-9 to teams for high school-aged players will open their season on Saturday and Sunday Feb. 26-27 at Dodd Stadium on the Justin-Siena campus.
"We're running teams from U-9 to high school now, but in the longer term we want to stop at Under-15 and then see players go on to compete for high school teams," Whitlock said. "We'd love to see and add high school programs, too."
There are 155 youngsters in the Force program, down from last year.
"This is the first time that we haven't grown because we have some players competiting in high school," Whitlock said. "We also had the misfortune of our high school girls team coach moving to the East Coast at the last minute. So, we had to drop that team."
Whitlock said the Force numbers will settle in the "100-225 players" neighborhood as high school lacrosse programs take older competitors from the Force program.
That doesn't mean that Whitlock sees the Force doing anything but growing.
"The Northern California Junior Lacrosse Association has A, B, C and D divisions. We're currently fielding teams in one division in each age group," Whitlock said. "We hope to be able to add one extra team in each age group so that we have teams in two different divisions."
There are 300 teams and 7,000 participants in the Nor Cal lacrosse organization.
"There are programs in Marin County, Petaluma ... we have teams from Monterey all the way north to Redding," Whitlock said. "So, we play a 14-game season and play games at home and on the road. There's traveling involved, but that's part of the growing sport."
Force teams continue preparation to open the 2011 season in Napa next week at Justin-Siena, and at .
"Justin-Siena has provided a really good partnership with us," Whitlock said. "They've given us access to their new football stadium. They've been very generous to us. We also work with other youth sports organizations to utilize other facilities, so we've been very fortunate to have Redwood and Silverado available to us."
Whitlock acknowledges that junior lacrosse intends to cater to a serious, more committed young athlete than some other youth sports.
"There's a learning curve involved in lacrosse that isn't always part of learning other sports," Whitlock said. "Playing with and learning to use the stick is one extra thing that requires time and practice. The game is simple to play, but we want kids who are out to play lacrosse for the long term."
Unlike a youth sport like soccer, lacrosse requires a fair amount of equipment to outfit each player. The gear isn't cost prohibitive, but Whitlock said that the Force is working with Napa's Replay Sports and other regional vendors to try to make the gear more accessible and affordable.
"We are trying to find ways to make it possible for players in our summer program to rent gear," Whitlock said. "We have a rental program with Replay Sports. We also have an exchange program at Replay Sports where families can find affordable equipment.
"There are, obviously, start-up costs for players. But, the gear they buy lasts them for more than one season. Older players can pass their gear down to younger players."
Whitlock thinks the rise in interest in lacrosse makes perfect sense.
"It's one of the oldest sports played in United States," he said. "Native Americans were playing a form of lacrosse hundreds of years ago. It's a great game."