What is it about lacrosse that gets in people’s blood? That has them drop other sports? Influences friends to play? Encourages them to coach the next generation?
Jim O’Dell, volunteer communications/technology director for Mt. Lebanon Lacrosse Association says it’s a combination of factors. “Many of the same techniques of soccer, hockey and basketball are employed. And the speed of the game is continual—there aren’t a lot of starts and stops.”
Mike Ermer, in his third year as coach of the Mt. Lebanon High School boys’ varsity team, agrees that lacrosse combines speed with a unique skill set. “To be a really good lacrosse player, you have to be able to catch and throw with both hands. It’s similar to a switch-hitter in baseball, but it would also be like a switch-pitcher. It takes a certain kind of mind-set to say, ‘yeah, that seems like an interesting challenge.’”
Many young people have taken that challenge, thanks in large part to Mt. Lebanon Lacrosse Association, currently in its 26th year.
Prompted by people who wanted to “make it happen,” lacrosse first started here in the mid-80s for high school boys, with the girls’ sport added a few years later, says Steve Gurtner of Parkway Drive, the association’s president. The sport really took off here around 1990, however.
Mike Ermer’s dad, Lou, grew up in Baltimore, where lacrosse had been popular long before its growth in Pittsburgh. Lou eventually moved to Pittsburgh, and in 1978, when Mike was in sixth grade, moved his family to Hazel Drive in Mt. Lebanon. Father and son practiced together. One night Peter Tulk, head coach for the high school boys (and today head coach at St. Vincent College) noticed Mike’s skill and said, “We need to start a youth program,” Mike recalls. Lou Ermer, Davd Palcho and Doug Smith were the triumvirate who got it going.
The youth program had about 25 boys, grades six to eight, who played intra-community games that first season. But to be competitive, the program soon expanded by playing well-established programs like Sewickley and Shady Side academies. Teams for elementary school students were added, and the success of the youth program ultimately created a feeder system for the high school teams.
Lacrosse was a club sport with the association supporting teams at all age levels until 10 years ago when it became a varsity sport for high school girls, and three years ago for high school boys. The association continues to oversee kindergarten through eighth-grade teams and helps fund the varsity coaches’ salaries. (Coaches below high school level are all volunteer).
With 499 boys and girls now playing lacrosse—up from 420 last year—the sport continues to grow rapidly. The season runs from the end of March to mid-May, plus playoffs.
Mike Ermer, part of the first generation to play youth lacrosse in the public schools in this area, also helped to develop the next generation. He played lacrosse at Denison University the late 1990s and began coaching there in his sophomore year. He was head coach at Fox Chapel when Mt. Lebanon High School coach Kee Joe Song left in 2009. Ermer was hired, and was grateful for the foundation Song laid.
“We were teammates and good friends. He did a great job of setting up a culture of discipline and accountability—that made my job easy. We’ve got great kids on the team who are really hard workers and are accountable.”
That stems in part from the players’ passion for the game. Jake Shure of Crestvue Manor Drive started playing in seventh grade. Now a senior, he says, “I got sick of baseball—I was tired of waiting for the ball to come to me. My best friend at the time, Pat Donnelly, was playing lacrosse, and he told me to give it a try. I like it because it’s really fast-paced.”
Donnelly says lacrosse started out as a sport, “but for me, it became a passion.” In addition to the on-field competition, Donnelly enjoys the friendships he’s made on the team. “Even on summer days, we just hang out,” he says.
Senior Dylan White, Roycroft Avenue, watched his older brother Chris play and took up the sport in fifth grade. “I’ve loved it ever since,” White says. “It’s a combination of sports I play—the physicality of football and the finesse of basketball.” Chris, who currently plays for Princeton, is one of many Mt. Lebanon lacrosse graduates who received a scholarship.
The teams’ accomplishments have been remarkable from the beginning: the girls won WPIAL championships in their first three years, and the boys won in 2009 and 2011. Part of that is thanks to the support of the Association, which raises money to send teams to play against top-notch competition. For example, the boys traveled to Baltimore this season and the girls played in Virginia. Girls’ varsity assistant coach Julie Buschman played at James Madison University in Virginia, where the girls went to compete against her high school team.
The program’s success results from everyone being on the same page from kindergarten through high school. Ermer and girls’ varsity coach Brian Kattan “meet with the youth coaches and train them so there’s a consistency,” Gurtner says. Adds O’Dell: “When the kids get to high school, they know everything. It’s a seamless program.”
Kattan has coached for 21 years at Mt. Lebanon but he never played lacrosse. Kattan, of Oakdale, got involved when he worked with Lou Ermer’s wife. “She said, ‘If you’re not doing anything after work, my husband could use some help with coaching.’ I thought sure, why not,’” he recalls. Kattan coached in various capacities prior to becoming head coach.
Unlike their coach, two of the senior girls have played for years. “I first became interested through my brother, Chris—he was playing in high school when I started in sixth grade,” says Cara Lucke, Woodland Drive. “I practiced with him in the back yard. I like the quick pace, the shooting, the different components that help you win.”
Katharine Pryor, Westover Road, a longtime soccer player, was enticed by her friends. “Lacrosse is completely different than what I was used to,” she says.
In addition to the fast pace and skills, the team camaraderie is a lure. “It’s almost like a culture,” Shure says. “We’re so close.” White adds, “I absolutely agree… we work hard at Mt. Lebanon, and we appreciate our teammates. It’s a brotherhood. And it excites me to see younger kids who are better than we were at that age.”
“Lacrosse is probably the only sport that can grab you and hold you almost mystically,” says Mt. Lebanon Lacrosse Association co-founder Lou Ermer, now of Memphis. “It’s difficult to explain, but those who have experienced it say, ‘oh yeah, it gets into your blood and becomes part of your spirit.’”
story by Lois Thomson photos by George Mendel