It’s not quite like “Friday Night Lights” — the TV drama that shines a spotlight on small-town football in Texas — but when these three New England transplants talk about their new roots, it comes close.
“If you give the kids a set play, they can run it really, really well and they’ll do it perfect every single time,” said Chris Delfausse, a former Connecticut College player who’s now the head coach of Westlake (Texas) High School and the director of their youth program. “But if you put them out there in a set and ask them to create, then they struggle a little bit more. It’s trying to help them become smart lacrosse players and not just robots out there on the field.”
That process is what Delfausse dubbed the “football-ization of lacrosse,” and he’s part of a trio who’s helping the sport find its own identity down in the Austin, Texas, area.
Specifically, his colleagues are Josh Blumenthal (Natick, Mass.), a former coach at Babson and Regis who now is the head coach at St. Andrew’s School; and Jordan Ruggeri (Milford, Conn.), who coaches at Austin High School and runs Austin Youth Lacrosse.
Jordan Ruggeri, a native of Milford, Conn., coaches at Austin (Texas) High and runs Austin Youth Lacrosse.
Lacrosse is a budding game down in Texas — Blumenthal said Dallas and Houston are further along than Austin — but the latter’s widely regarded as one of America’s fastest-growing cities. It’s a start-up hub where young families start life, and that enthusiasm has transferred to lacrosse.
“When I talk to parents, they say, ‘I wish they had this sport when I was playing,’” Blumenthal said. “It goes to show that if the fathers and mothers are excited by the sport, that shows it’s a growing thing. They’re past their playing prime, and they’re jealous of their sons getting to play the sport.”
There are moments, too, for grassroots guys such as Ruggeri and Delfausse, who work with elementary school-aged kids, that show players truly have taken to the game.
One inspiring moment, Ruggeri said, came at one point last fall, entirely unprompted.
“One of our players said, ‘We’re playing lacrosse. Now we’re actually starting to play lacrosse,’” Ruggeri said. “Where before they’d come back into the huddle during a timeout and want to know what’s next. Now they’re focused on their play and their skills and their IQ and reading and reacting. The game is changing here in Texas.”
Delfausse shared a similar experience, one where he said he saw tell-tale signs of a non-traditional hotbed such as Texas opening its eyes to lacrosse.
“We had the strength-and-conditioning coach for our high school football team come out,” he said. “First lacrosse game he ever saw was in the playoffs, and he fell in love with the game. He was like, ‘Man, our kids need to be doing this in the spring.’”
Even though lacrosse in the Austin area has grown by leaps and bounds, each coach said the sport still faces several obstacles.
For one, the state high school athletics association recently voted down a measure to sponsor lacrosse at the varsity level. From that, Blumenthal said, many schools end up reliant on private funding to rent field space, pay referee fees and purchase uniforms. There’s also the fact, he said, that many kids specialize early in sports outside of lacrosse, so they miss on part of the talent pool.
The biggest hurdle, however, Ruggeri said, is educating parents, many of whom serve as volunteer coaches and encounter lacrosse for the first time through their child.
“We grew a good amount this year, but with more kids you need more coaches,” Ruggeri said. “How do you echo the teaching points to all your coaches as you’re growing and the season is moving? It’s a good challenge to have, but you have to be aware of it and work through it.”
But, at least from afar, Blumenthal, Delfausse and Ruggeri seem to be doing just that — working through it.
Blumenthal said he’s been blown away by the talent level, and that’s translated to “a-ha” moments when everything seems to click. It shows up, he said, when he hears of families traveling for tournaments and camps, especially on the local level where lacrosse has become far more than a taboo or niche thing.
“They’ve been bitten by the lacrosse bug — though I should say ‘snake’ since we’re in Texas,” Blumenthal said with a laugh. “When I see them in the halls and I see them in the community, and they’re always walking together and have their lacrosse sticks with their St. Andrew’s lacrosse shirts, that means we’re doing our jobs.
“To me, at the end of the day, wins and losses happen, but people are going to remember if they had a good time,” Blumenthal added. “Seeing from the first practice to the last practice, seeing how much tighter they are and how much more they’ve bonded, that tells me we’re doing something right down here.”
The question, therefore, becomes such: Just how big can lacrosse get in the Austin area?
Delfausse said he’s not entirely sure, but said there’s a “neat” boom where kids are getting recruited by schools out east — or west — and show well on the national stage. Specifically, he referenced kids from the Lone Star State who will soon suit up for top-end Division 1 programs such as Denver, North Carolina, Virginia, Duke and Princeton.
And, as that trend continues to unfold, Ruggeri said the next step is those talents eventually coming back to their roots and joining the coaching ranks.
“It’s getting these kids to take advantage of some of the opportunities that lacrosse will provide in school,” Ruggeri said. “They can hopefully then come back and build that next chapter.”