Tens of thousands of young people in Utah play organized soccer. Basketball standards are common in driveways and churches alike. Baseball, softball, football and hockey all have successful youth programs dating back decades along the Wasatch Front.

But the team sport in the state growing at the fastest rate, percentage-wise, the past 10 years is lacrosse.

That's not to say that lacrosse comes near the participation level — yet — of most of those other more established activities. It's just that prior to 1994, when the Utah Lacrosse Association was established, there really wasn't any organized lacrosse in Utah. Oh, there were a few transplants from back East that might get together to play games in the park, and there were club teams at local colleges, but nothing was organized for kids.

Cut to 2004. This spring more than 1,800 high school students are playing lacrosse in Utah. An additional 950 boys and girls from kindergarten through eighth grade are playing in youth leagues. Add college club teams and adult participation and it's safe to say more than 3,000 Utahns call themselves lacrosse players. While that pales in participation levels to the likes of soccer and basketball, the last decade has been a period of impressive growth for "America's oldest sport" in Utah.

What is Lacrosse?

For many in Utah, lacrosse is just some weird sport people play in New England that is as foreign to them as cricket or Australian rules football.

To people like Soni Taylor, lacrosse is "the greatest sport on the planet."

Taylor played growing up near Boston. When she moved to Utah to attend BYU in the early 1990s, she was disappointed there wasn't really many options for her to continue playing lacrosse. So she did something about it. While there had been a BYU men's lacrosse club team for years, Taylor organized a women's club team in Provo. She's been championing the sport in Utah pretty much ever since and is now the executive director of the Utah Lacrosse Association. While she has a couple of other members on her staff, Taylor is the ULA's only full-time paid employee. The ULA is a regional chapter of US Lacrosse, Inc., the national governing body of the sport in the United States. The ULA's modest offices are located in an industrial park in Sandy just west of I-15.

"It's exciting to see the growth we've had here in Utah," said Taylor of her beloved sport.

Lacrosse, or at least a game with a similar format, dates back to American Indians from the 15th century and perhaps even earlier. American Indian mythology has it that animals played birds in the first-ever game. While deer, bears and wolves had impressive strength, the eagles, owls and bats were too much and won that initial game because they could fly, according to legend.

American Indians played lacrosse for recreation — and to settle tribal disputes. Fields are now standardized on flat patches of grass, but in the beginning, games could be played over many miles of rugged terrain. Games could last several days and were played by as many as 1,000 men. Balls were made out of wood, deerskin, baked clay or stone.

It was serious business and seen as a religious celebration. In some tribes, medicine men would bless their players' sticks and put a curse on their opponents. Natives called the game baggataway or teewaarathon.

The modern name, as you might expect from the sound of it, is French. Jesuit missionaries from France who observed natives playing thought the stick resembled a Catholic bishop's staff, a "crosier" — or "la crosse" in French.

The modern game traces its origins to eastern Canada about 1840 with the first lacrosse club established in Montreal in 1856. It was later introduced in England, Ireland, Scotland and the United States. Modern women's lacrosse began in 1890 in Scotland with the first recorded American women's team being formed in 1926 in Baltimore.

While it still remains primarily an East Coast game, lacrosse is making its way west. In fact, California is now second only to New York in men's college lacrosse teams. Denver University and the Air Force Academy in Colorado both now have NCAA Division I lacrosse teams, as well.

In Utah, BYU and the U. of U. have club teams ranked in the top 25 in the nation. Both also have women's club teams. Utah State and Weber State have both men's and women's club teams, and Utah Valley State has a men's club.

Gender differences

The increasing popularity of lacrosse at the high school level in Utah has been the most eye-popping. While it isn't a recognized sport sponsored by the Utah High School Activities Association, most schools from Ogden to Provo now have varsity boys teams — 34 in all. The majority of those schools, in fact, also have one or more JV teams. Each team is made up of about 20 players. More than 1,300 boys participated in the Utah High School Lacrosse League this spring.

Girls high school lacrosse is starting to take hold as well. More than 300 girls play on the 17 high school teams across the Wasatch Front.

The cost of getting a girl involved in the sport is relatively inexpensive. It's more pricey for a boy — since differing rules require that boys have more protective equipment.

The field for girls is 10 yards longer and wider than for boys. The girls' sticks have heads with no pockets — making it more difficult to run with the ball without having it pop out — thus making passing even more important. Part of a girls uniform is a kilt or skirt. For girls, the game is considered a "non-contact" sport. For that reason, no helmet or pads are worn.

So the cost for girls consists of the playing fee ($100), a stick (ranging from $30 to $100), a mouth guard ($1) and protective eyewear ($15 to $50). Cleats, like those worn for soccer or football, are also needed.

"Women's lacrosse is a classy game," said Taylor, who also coaches the Jordan High girls team. "It's played with finesse rather than brute force."

Boys, on the other hand, play a much rougher game. Hockey-style checking is legal. There are even times when players can hit each other with their sticks and not be penalized. For that reason, there are additional costs involved. Helmets are the biggest added expense, as they range from $85 to $160. By the time shoulder pads, elbow pads and padded gloves are figured in, boys can easily spend $200 more than girls to play the sport.

Growing pains

Taylor says the three biggest obstacles in her job are finding fields to play on, getting qualified officials to referee the games and finding enough coaches with a knowledge of the sport — or at least with a willingness to learn.

"Finding fields to play on is, by far, the biggest challenge," said Taylor. "Soccer just dominates in Utah. We put in that we want to reserve fields months in advance, but it's almost always that they put soccer first and then we get whatever is left over."

So many teams practice and play in some not-quite-ideal places and on fields where years of drought and lack of watering have made the formerly covered-with-grass ground nearly as hard as concrete. For the most part, however, the players are just happy to have a place to play.

Since most adults — especially those native to Utah — haven't grown up playing the sport, getting people comfortable enough to officiate and coach can be a challenge.

But when there are 20 kids who sign up to play lacrosse and they don't have a coach, often a parent — with no background in the sport — will volunteer to try to learn the rules through books and videos and take the job.

Getting qualified officials has proven even more difficult. Since the lacrosse season is in the spring, the Utah Lacrosse Association has recruited some football officials to learn a new sport because football games are in the fall and the seasons don't conflict. They've also had success getting young, recently graduated former high school players and finding transplants from other parts of the country who grew up playing the sport to step in as officials. The ULA offers training courses — and competitive pay.

"It really can be a pretty good part-time job," Taylor says.

The future

Kids start playing most teams sports in their elementary school years with fewer and fewer participating as they get older so that by high school, relatively few are still playing competitively. It's the opposite right now in Utah when it comes to lacrosse — with more participation by high school students than by younger players.

That won't always be the case, however. The ULA is making a push to get kids playing the game at a younger age. In the past two years, they have started youth leagues for boys from kindergarten through eighth grade. Girls leagues have begun from sixth through eighth grades. About 800 boys and 150 girls are currently playing the sport prior to their high school years. Those numbers are expected to increase by approximately 20 percent or more per year.

The state high school championship and all-star games will be held on Weber State's football field at Stewart Stadium on May 22. With lacrosse becoming more and more popular with the high school crowd, it stands to reason that it may one day become sponsored by the UHSAA. Then again, it may never happen. At present, in fact, the ULA isn't pushing lacrosse toward becoming a state sanctioned high school sport. The ULA likes being in control and knowing that officials and coaches are getting training through them.

Some may feel lacrosse is just a strange game that won't take root — a fad, really. But its growth the past 10 years in Utah indicates it's here to stay.

"It's a great game," said Taylor. "It's not that we want people to stop playing other sports, but we do want more people to play lacrosse. It gives kids another option."

E-mail: lojo@desnews.com