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Country Day joins field with new lacrosse teams

When Leslie Hunt was a 16-year-old high school junior in Maryland, she decided to try a new sport that was completely foreign to her: lacrosse. A standout soccer player, she picked up the sport quickly and grew to love it, enough so that she became quite good at it, and she achieved All-American status as a college player.

Hunt isn’t expecting the same success story from her players at La Jolla Country Day, but she knows that a love for lacrosse is infectious and hopes she can help some athletes enjoy a new sport. Hunt, the coach of the newly formed girls lacrosse program at Country Day - along with Mike Tobey, the coach of the brand-new boys team there - is simply excited to see players running around with sticks in their hands after school.

“It’s a totally new challenge for me,” Hunt said. “It’s what sports are all about. You do it because you love it.”

That being said, neither Hunt nor Tobey expects to compete for a CIF-San Diego Section championship, let alone a Coastal League title, in the program’s first year. Their goals are more modest as they hope to develop their teams and teach the sport to a group of athletes who have never been exposed to lacrosse.

According to the coaches, students at Country Day had expressed interest in starting teams in recent years. Two years ago, the mothers of some junior-high school students there started a middle-school boys team, and plans were eventually put into works to start the high school programs in 2007.

But the demand from the high school students was enough this year that they got started early. Because money to support the teams was built into the budget starting next year, athletes who want to participate this season will have to pay a fee to cover equipment and other costs.

Still, for those who have wanted to try this unique sport that some would describe as a mix between soccer, football and hockey, the extra financial burden is worthwhile. Hunt said she has 16 players out for the girls team, and Tobey said he has about 19. Both programs will field just a varsity team this year and will play in the Coastal Conference like the other athletic teams at Country Day.

Tobey has eight freshmen and one sophomore in his group, so is excited about the prospect of being able to teach a large portion of his current team for four years. Only a few of his players have ever played lacrosse before, so much of what he has worked on in practice so far involves developing basic skills like passing, catching and cradling.

“We’re definitely in a first-year phase,” he said. “Most of these guys are good athletes, but almost all of them have never had a stick in their hands. I think the jump between the program this year and where we are this time next year will be substantial, and I think we’ll improve exponentially over the next two to three years.”

Lacrosse has been said to be the fastest-growing sport in the country, and its growth rate on the West Coast in recent years has been remarkable. Even locally, the increase in the number of participants in the sport is astonishing. In La Jolla alone, Country Day, The Bishop’s School and La Jolla High School all field lacrosse teams, where 10 years ago that would have been unheard of.

And the formerly East Coast-centric sport will be featured in a four-team college tournament at UCSD on the weekend of Saturday, March 11. A few years back, an idea like that might not have gotten off the ground.

“This thing is just booming,” Tobey said. “We have lots of great coaches coming out to the West Coast from the East Coast, and I can see a time when the high school and college teams are just as good here as they are back there.”

Both coaches bring plenty of lacrosse experience to the field. Tobey played midfielder at a Miami-area high school and went on to play at the club level at UCLA. Hunt was a center at her Baltimore-area high school and played both soccer and lacrosse at Roanoke College in Virginia, where she was named an All-American.