By Matthew Girard
Killeen Daily Herald
HARKER HEIGHTS – It's no secret that the state of Texas is "football country."
Football is so big that the Texas state motto could one day become "In pigskin we trust," but despite the enormous popularity of football there is another sport that combines Texans' beloved football with basketball and other well-known sports that is garnering significant attention around the state – lacrosse.
Although lacrosse is considered one of North America's first sports, lacrosse is touted as an East Coast sport because of its popularity in areas such as Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New England states.
Despite only two of the 57 Division-I college teams being west of the Mississippi, lacrosse has become one of the fastest-growing sports in Texas and the nation, according to US Lacrosse's Web site www.lacrosse.org.
Lacrosse has even found a place in Central Texas. Since the summer of 2005, the Harker Heights lacrosse club team has been competing in the Central Division of the Texas High School Lacrosse League, which features teams from areas such as Dallas, Austin and San Antonio.
Senior defenseman A.J. Travis said that he, like most kids in Texas, played football and ran track but gravitated toward lacrosse because of the combination of lacrosse features.
"My freshman and sophomore year I played football and ran track because that's what kids in Texas do a lot," said Travis, a student at Harker Heights high school. "I had a couple of friends that played lacrosse and I had heard about lacrosse before, and I remember thinking about it in middle school and I thought, Hey this looks cool.'
"It's constant motion and it's everything you like about every sport. You've got the hitting from hockey and football, you've got the off-ball movement with cuts like basketball and there is a lot of scoring."
This season Travis and Heights have amassed a record of 4-6 and will play their season finale against Round Rock McNeil tonight at Union Grove Middle School in Harker Heights.
Greg Bennett, president of the Harker Heights Lacrosse Association, said the sport has caught on in the Killeen area because of the influx of people to Fort Hood.
"We kind of have a unique community because we get a lot of families into Fort Hood that have lived in other parts of the country where they have lacrosse," said Bennett, whose son Gregg Jr. also plays for the Heights club team. "That gives us a core of players with some skill and then there is enough athletes in Texas that are not served by basketball, baseball or football that still want to play a sport."
Senior defenseman and captain John Campbell, who came to Texas from Virginia and played varsity-level lacrosse in high school, said he wasn't ecstatic about coming south because of the lack of lacrosse.
"When I found out that I was moving to Texas I was bummed because I didn't think they had lacrosse down here," said Campbell, a student at Killeen High School. "I got on the Internet, but I couldn't find a team and then when we got down here I heard that they had this team, so I came out."
Bennett said the team has continued to grow because of the support from parents and others.
"We only had six guys in the area that had any experience," Bennett said. "We worked with the KISD administration and the city of Harker Heights and we recruited at all four of the high schools and we ended up with about 20 new players. That was two summers ago.
"The last few years, we've seen a lot of growth. We've had more and more guys come out and they have picked it up pretty quickly."
Currently there are more than 130,000 high school lacrosse players around the nation and the number is rising because of the exposure of Major League Lacrosse, which airs on ESPN2, and the televising of the NCAA lacrosse championships every year.
Although the traditional elite college and high school lacrosse teams reside closer to the Atlantic Ocean, Travis said Texas lacrosse teams are beginning to make some noise.
"In Texas, it's getting a lot bigger," Travis said. "We have teams that go to the East Coast and challenge the traditional powerhouses in high school and we've been able to hold our own."
Bennett said the Texas High School Lacrosse League has been around for a number of years, but the University of Interscholastic League has, as of yet, not recognized lacrosse as a high school varsity sport.
"The challenge is that once you make something official with UIL, you have to provide facilities, provide a coach, you have to provide equipment and unfortunately it's a major step forward," Bennett said. "That's not going to be a small hurdle for the state to do. But in some cases it's more convenient to run it as a club because you're not relying on the state to provide everything."
Bennett said the Harker Heights Lacrosse Association accepts donations from businesses and individuals, and the donations are tax-exempt.
Campbell, who is planning on attending Texas Tech in the fall and playing for the Red Raiders club team, said he would like to see lacrosse eventually become a varsity-level sport.
"Down in Texas (lacrosse being a high school varsity sport) would be amazing," Campbell said. "I played on a varsity team in Virginia and it was awesome. I think it would be great if they had D-I (NCAA Division I) college teams down here so I could play on a college team."
Even though lacrosse isn't a varsity-level sport, Travis said he is proud to be a part of club team.
"You're the first ones to do a lot with the sport and so you're going to leave a legacy," Travis said. "People are going to remember you as really the first people to play the sport down here. I look at all these freshmen and see guys that are going to be really great. It's great helping to teach them to play and later on seeing their success as seniors."
Lacrosse is a spring sport and practices on Tuesday and Thursday evenings at 5:45 p.m. at Union Grove Middle School. For more information about the Harker Heights Lacrosse Association and club team go to www.eteamz.active.com/harkerheightslacrosse.
Contact Matthew Girard at firstname.lastname@example.org or (254) 501-7569