As Kyle Hawkins watched the Rock Bridge and Hickman lacrosse game from the sideline at Cosmopolitan Park, all he could do was smile.
Laughing children ran around the empty side of the field, shooting on empty goals and playing catch with their lacrosse sticks. This was one of the events that every player and fan of lacrosse in Columbia comes to.
Seven years ago, this didn’t exist in Columbia.
Kyle Hawkins began coaching the Missouri men’s lacrosse club team in 1998, when Columbia’s residents knew little about the sport and cared even less. Before his arrival, there was no team at the university or at any of the surrounding schools.
Now, Hickman and Rock Bridge high schools have lacrosse teams and the seven coaches and assistants at those schools are Hawkins’ former players. Twenty-three of his former players are coaches of youth and high school lacrosse teams.
Lacrosse is growing at a tremendous rate in Missouri and throughout much of the Midwest. According to a survey conducted by US Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, participation grew 39.9 percent between 2001 and 2003 in Kansas and Missouri.
n 2001, there were 2,215 lacrosse players in youth leagues, high schools, colleges and professional leagues. By 2003, player participation had jumped to 3,100. Nationally, the sport grew by 18.8 percent during this period.
“I don’t have any doubt that it will continue to grow,” Hawkins said. “Once people see it, it will spread quickly. The sport sells itself.”
“The kids playing lacrosse now are the pioneers,” said Barb Hogan, a lacrosse fan and mother of MU player Matt Hogan. “They’re the ones that are going to help the sport grow.”
As a coach, Hawkins has seen the talent pool increase dramatically.
“We used to have a handful of players that had never played lacrosse before,” Hawkins said. “Last year was the first year that we started cutting kids.”
Despite the growing popularity of lacrosse in Missouri, the Missouri team receives little funding from the university.
“The school gives us $3,000 a year,” Hawkins said. “Our total budget is close to $75,000 a year.”
The team has tax exempt status, which allows contributors to write off the donations on their taxes. The team also tries to pay for its expenses by selling advertising space on its website and gaining sponsorships.
“Our son has to sell magazine subscriptions,” Jeannie Schaller said, the mother of Missouri player Matt Schaller.
“The kids have to borrow from their parents and their own accounts. It would be nice to get more funding.”
“(Each player) pays $1,700 and has to buy their own equipment,” Hawkins said.
Eric Weiss, who played for the lacrosse team during the fall season, couldn’t afford to play another one.
“I couldn’t play because I have bad knees and it got really expensive,” Weiss said.
There is curiosity among those that are new to the sport. On his way to class, graduate student Joey Bryan noticed Missouri’s game against Southwest Missouri State at Stankowski Field.
“I heard the whistles and came over to see what it was,” Bryan said. “I’ve seen lacrosse played before on TV, but I’ve never watched a game live.”
Lacrosse is beginning to reach Jefferson City as well. Jefferson City High School is in its first season of lacrosse.
Hawkins is not only frustrated with funding, but also with how the university represents his team.
“The University of Missouri operates within a series of classifications that don’t apply to us,” Hawkins said.
“Most schools have created a couple of categories that more realistically address who we are.”
Hawkins said he thinks the stigma attached to club sports hurts the team’s reputation.
“A club team is associated with a very disorganized group of students that get together to play cricket, or ultimate Frisbee, for instance,” Hawkins said.
“In the old days lacrosse and rugby were sports where guys would bring a keg and hope that KU shows up. That’s the kind of thing that people think of when they think of club sports.”
Hawkins, who has devoted much time and energy to promoting the sport, said he wants it to grow faster.
“Day to day I’m frustrated with what appears to be slow growth,” Hawkins said.
“I want to see youth lacrosse explode. I want to see more kids playing at high schools and colleges. I try to help new programs get started. I do everything I can.
“On the flip side, when I look back, I can’t believe how much it has grown in the past seven years.”