Lacrosse gains fans, players as recognition spreads

Leaders of the Aztec Lacrosse Club are starting to see results from their nearly 14 years of determination to bring wider recognition to the sport, as well as a new generation of devotees.

Leaders of the Aztec Lacrosse Club are starting to see results from their nearly 14 years of determination to bring wider recognition to the sport, as well as a new generation of devotees.

Established in 2003, Aztec Lacrosse is a club sport at Corona del Sol High School. What makes it so unique, however, is that it doesn’t focus just on high school athletes—it welcomes kids K-12 and aims to introduce the sport at the earliest age possible.

“Our youth is going to feed our high school program,” said Kathy Wachtel, Aztec Lacrosse Club Booster president. “We’re being very aggressive this year in trying to get into the elementary schools and middle schools and just expose the sport to the kids.”

Two years ago, it was a challenge to fill all the roster spots needed to make the program complete. Now, in 2017, the dedication to spread the word seems to have fixed that concern.

“This past spring, we were able to field all our own teams because of the expansion of the youth program,” Wachtel said. “It’s super exciting.”

Wachtel and other highly motivated parents spend time at schools in the Kyrene district to inform young athletes about the opportunity to play in a sport that’s been growing in popularity.

Their work is complemented with free clinics staged by Remo Montalbano, who serves as program director and head coach of the high school team.

The clinic is Montalbano’s way to enlighten the younger generations about the sport he loves.

“We show them some basic skills, but really it’s ‘come try lacrosse for free’,” he said.

In 2015, Montalbano began his tenure as head coach at the high school level. A former college player, he was a three-year captain and a four-year starter for Dominican College in New York, where he scored over 100 collegiate points.

He went on to graduate school at Grand Canyon University, where he served as an assistant coach for four years. He said he made the move to the high school because he felt he was ready to be a head coach.

“It was also an awesome opportunity that popped up,” Montalbano said in 2015. “The timing was really, really awesome.”

Montalbano was one of those who preached building the youth program in its early days.

“When we first started doing the free clinics, we maybe had only 20-30 kids and almost half of those were in high school,” Montalbano said. “A year ago, we had about 40 kids.”

Now, Montalbano calls the clinics ‘a borderline event.’ Earlier this month, the club had 70 kids register; 60 percent had never played lacrosse before.

Montalbano said he is obviously excited about the increase in interest, but is not surprised one bit.

“It’s a great game,” he said. “It’s a fun game. It’s a mixture of a lot of different sports.”

“I’m just happy that the word-of-mouth is starting to spread and we’re getting better as a team.”

While the main focus is on the younger kids, Montalbano is also dedicated to improving his high school athletes, not just as players but as men as well.

“They’ve been great as far as giving back to the youth,” Montalbano said. “We’ll cut a couple practices short and they’ll go down and scrimmage and play with the youth players a couple times during the season,” he said.

“The kids really love it.”

While one goal is to continue to stimulate youth involvement, the high school program is always looking for additions to the team.

Since Aztec Lacrosse is a club team at Corona, it doesn’t officially qualify as an official varsity sport.

Therefore, students at Tempe High, Marcos de Niza and McClintock are eligible to play on the Aztec team based on district boundaries.

Montalbano said staff at Corona have been widely supportive in their efforts to grow the sport, yet he believes it will be a while before the team is sanctioned as an official varsity sport.

“When those first crops of youth players—with everyone putting in all this hard work—come up (to the high school level), I think it has a legit chance to go then.”

For now, the players, parents, coaches and volunteers will keep grinding away.

Their focus right now is on the next free clinic on Saturday, Sept. 16 at south Tempe’s Benedict Park from 6-8 p.m.

You can learn more about the club at www.azteclax.club