ALBANY — A packed house in a stadium built for football. Two nationally-ranked teams contesting an NCAA tournament first-round game, one of which is the reigning national champion of the sport.
That’s the scene Saturday night on the campus of UAlbany, inside the school’s Tom & Mary Casey Stadium.
For a men’s lacrosse game.
“It’s wild,” UAlbany head coach Scott Marr said.
That’s the collective reaction of the Capital Region’s lacrosse community as Saturday night’s matchup between North Carolina and eighth-seeded UAlbany has neared. For lifers of the sport within the area, that there is this much attention on lacrosse is borderline unthinkable.
“It’s becoming mainstream,” said Mike DeRossi, a Delmar resident.
For the longest time, DeRossi helped lacrosse carve out a niche in the Capital Region. Starting in 1980, he ran Mike DeRossi’s Sports, a store specializing in selling hockey equipment in the winter and lacrosse gear the rest of the year, for more than two decades. Located off Western Avenue in Guilderland — just a few miles away from where Casey Stadium now stands — DeRossi’s store was perhaps the region’s only lacrosse-centric store for years. If he didn’t have what a player needed, he had catalogs on hand customers could use to place an order.
“That was literally where everyone went to get their stick,” Mike Vorgang said, “or at least get their stick strung.”
A 1988 graduate of La Salle Institute, Vorgang’s high school career ended six years after Section II first started competing in the state tournament — and four years before the area’s girls got that chance. After a four-year college career at Cortland, Vorgang started Niskayuna’s boys’ lacrosse program in 1993.
One of the first days after he got the job, Vorgang took a drive around Niskayuna. Now, it’s a town with a booming youth lacrosse program, and the high school has powerhouse programs in both the boys’ and girls’ games. Vorgang’s 2015 team won a state title, the first for a Section II team.
But back in ’93? Vorgang took his drive with a purpose, maneuvering through neighborhoods around the high school with his eyes peeled.
“And I didn’t see any lacrosse sticks out in yards. No lacrosse goals. Nothing,” he said. “For years, it was like that around here.”
But that’s changed. The sport’s growth numbers within the area are staggering.
Since 2009, the Adirondack Chapter of US Lacrosse — which primarily is made up of the Capital Region — has seen its number of youth players surge by 61 percent to 3,841 participants this year.
At the high school level, participation in lacrosse increased 35 percent in a 15-year span ending in 2016 across New York. During that same time frame, participation in lacrosse increased 62 percent in Section II.
This year, the state’s high school teams are divided into four classifications for the first time, creating an extra state tournament in both the boys’ and girls’ game.
“Lacrosse now seems like what soccer was in the ’80s,” said DeRossi, who helped start the Lake Placid Summit Lacrosse Tournament along with George Leveille, another lead Capital Region lacrosse figure. “Lacrosse has become a cool sport. It’s a team sport, but there’s individuality to it. You play on a team, but when you have the ball, the game is yours.”
“You have a lot of lacrosse-first players at this point,” said Shenendehowa High School boys’ head coach Jason Gifford, who played at Shaker. “Every school is a little bit different, but what it really comes down to is the development of your youth program. That way, you get lacrosse ingrained in kids at a younger age.”
But some of that growth? Purely by accident.
UAlbany’s women’s team — which played Friday in its national tournament — features Bethlehem graduate Kaylee Rickert as its sixth-leading scorer, but the sophomore only started playing lacrosse because her high school basketball teammates made her try out.
Niskayuna’s Alyssa and Kayla Treanor, one of the area’s top sibling duos? They only started playing because they idolized their baby-sitter, Meredith McKee.
“We just knew she played and we loved her,” said Alyssa Treanor, now an assistant coach at Union College after a playing career at Siena. “That’s why we played.”
But even 24-year-old Alyssa Treanor and 23-year-old Kayla Treanor — a three-time finalist at Syracuse for the Tewaaraton Award and a member of the U.S. national team — remember how rare lacrosse opportunities were when they were growing up. While the Vorgangs and Giffords remember playing pick-up lacrosse with the same dozen guys every weekend, the Treanors remembering learning the game’s rules as they went and playing with “cheap plastic sticks” for their first couple years. Heck, even Lucas Quinn, a senior now at Niskayuna, can relate to that. He remembers going to a major sporting goods store as a little kid, looking for lacrosse balls with his father, and going home empty-handed.
“And, I mean, this was like 10 years ago,” said Quinn, a Syracuse commit. “They just didn’t have them.”
Lacrosse equipment is well-stocked now in area stores, a necessity to supply the youth ranks that keep growing. Still growing, too, is the region’s roster of high school teams, which now includes 56 varsity programs, with Amsterdam fielding its first-ever girls’ varsity team this season.
Jessica Byerwalters coaches that team, which made the jump to the varsity level after two JV seasons. Success on the field is still developing, but a program that did not exist in 2014 now has 22 varsity players and 15 modified athletes.
“A lot of them just wanted to try something new,” said Byerwalters, who has found the player rare who comes out for the sport and doesn’t stick with it.
When Marr took the UAlbany job before the 2001 season, he understood lacrosse was not a major sport within the Capital Region. It’s part of the reason he took the job.
“I knew exactly what I was getting myself into,” Marr said, “and this is what I was hoping to accomplish: to be part of something bigger than myself.”
Marr will readily rattle off the names of the DeRossis, Leveilles and Vorgangs who started growing lacrosse in the Capital Region before he ever got there. Vorgang, though, argues you can’t undersell what a national-caliber program means for the area’s profile.
“UAlbany lacrosse has put the Capital Region on the map,” Vorgang said. “Before them, we were an afterthought.”
For sure, the elite players that have come through UAlbany in the past decade — from Frank Resetarits to Lyle and Miles Thompson to Connor Fields — have influenced area players. Saturday’s game at Casey Stadium includes a local player on each team — North Carolina’s Luke Goldstock is from Niskayuna, UAlbany’s Josh Egan is from Delmar — but there are 30 former Section II athletes in total playing in this year’s Division I national tournaments.
UAlbany senior midfielder Bennett Drake said whatever role UAlbany lacrosse has played in the Capital Region’s embracing of the sport, the Great Danes are happy to have played a role.
“We’ve been able to put a product on the field that they can sort of look up to and aspire to, have a little hometown pride in, and maybe play here when they get older,” said Drake, but “whether [they come] here or elsewhere, it’s just great to keep growing the game.”
Win or lose for UAlbany, that growth is what Saturday’s spectacle at Casey Stadium should further accelerate. More than 6,000 fans are expected, which would set a national attendance record for an NCAA lacrosse tournament first-round game in the post-2003 era when the tournament expanded.
Already, the night is a win for Capital Region lacrosse.
“It’s a big shot in the arm for everyone,” DeRossi said.
Reach Gazette Sportswriter Michael Kelly at 395-3109, [email protected] or @ByMichaelKelly on Twitter.