With the 2017 MLL Championship Game slated for Frisco, TX, MLL Press Box decided to explore the lacrosse landscape in Texas leading up to the big game in our new series Lacrosse is Bigger in Texas. We talked to New York Lizards defenseman Kyle Hartzell, a Maryland native who now coaches at the high school level in Plano, to give his perspective on the state of the game in Texas.
When Kyle Hartzell first moved to Texas four years ago, he knew that attracting athletes to lacrosse would be a challenge.
"Football, as they say, is king here," Harzell said, "and that is true."
But in those four years as the coach of the varsity boys program at Plano West High School, Hartzell has seen noticeable growth in the quantity and quality of lacrosse players in the football-crazed state.
"Lacrosse is an up-and-coming sport here," Hartzell said. "It’s growing every year and the football athletes that play it, those athletes are better than anywhere in the country, I think, on the field."
The increased interest in the sport at the youth and high school levels has started to translate to the college level. In Hartzell's first season at Plano West, the lacrosse team sent one player to Division I college lacrosse. This year, he expects up to seven of his players to go on to the DI level.
"You can just tell that since I’ve been here, kids that I’ve gotten from the youth level that I’ve gotten to coach, they want to play at the next level," Hartzell said. "And a lot of these kids here want to go out and play at the big-time schools, and I think that’s across the board.
"Brandon Mullins played at Syracuse. He plays for the Boston Cannons now. And when he came out of Texas, he was a big football player. He got recruited by a lot of football schools and he chose to play lacrosse. I think a lot of these kids that are playing football, when they see lacrosse, they like to play it and a lot of them choose lacrosse over football in college."
His next challenge is showing more football players and coaches in that area the benefits of learning lacrosse, and he can point to Detroit Lions lineman Travis Swanson as a prime example. Swanson, a Houston native, picked up lacrosse as a long pole in his senior season of high school to improve his footwork. Now entering his fourth NFL season, Swanson to this day credits lacrosse for taking his game on the gridiron to the next level.
"In football, if you play lacrosse and you’re a wide receiver, your hand-eye coordination catching a small ball with the small head of the lacrosse stick, it’s only going to make your hand-eye coordination better," Hartzell said. "Speed and agility, cutting, explosion, change in speed, all that translates to football. But, a lot of these football coaches down here don’t see that or allow their kids to play."
Last month, Hartzell attended the Patriot Cup at Ford Center at the Star. The college game between Notre Dame and Georgetown gave him a sneak preview of what to expect when that same venue hosts the MLL Championship Game in August.
"I think the Dallas area is a great market for the sport," Hartzell said. "Come Championship Weekend, I think you’re going to see a sellout crowd come to that game because that area where the Star is in the Frisco area is a booming area for lacrosse right now, and all the surrounding areas around it will come see that game. I think they’re hungry for it and if they got a team here, the people would come and see it and support it. I think it’s a great market."