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SOLDOTNA - America's first sport and one of this country's fastest growing team sports has arrived on the Kenai Peninsula.
On June 13, the Central Peninsula Lacrosse Club took the field for the first time. The club is the first lacrosse club in Alaska and practices each Monday and Wednesday from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at a field in Soldotna on Sunrise Avenue.
Scott Cunningham, the driving force behind the club, said 70 kids are signed up. He said 50 percent are 12- and 13-year-olds, 30 percent are 14 and older and 25 percent are girls.
An indoor version of lacrosse, called box lacrosse, is played in Juneau with drop-in sessions held from 6-9 p.m. every Wednesday at Treadwell Arena. But Juneau doesn't have a formal club program.
In lacrosse, players use pouched sticks, called crosses, to try and advance a small rubber ball across the field and into a goal. The Web site uslacrosse.org calls lacrosse a combination of basketball, soccer and hockey.
"It's the fastest field game in the world," Cunningham said. "Soccer, baseball, football, rugby - there's no other field game faster than lacrosse."
According to uslacrosse.org, lacrosse was started by North American Indians. French pioneers in North America started playing the game avidly in the 1800s.
The game is currently growing quickly. Since 1999, 15-and-under membership in US Lacrosse has doubled to over 60,000.
Part of that growth is now on the central peninsula. This past hockey season, Cunningham and Todd Duwe, who both have kids who play hockey, started talking about how neat it would be to have a lacrosse club in the summer.
The two got a start-up kit from US Lacrosse. They took what they had learned in being involved with other youth sports and moved to start getting children registered for lacrosse.
The cost was $70 for those 15 and under and $85 for those over 15. Vince Redford, the owner of Red Line Sports and a lacrosse club coach, said entry-level gear can be had for $150, although high-quality gear can be much more expensive.
Many lacrosse players were able to cut costs by using their hockey pads.
Although club members have uniforms, they are not playing in official games. There will be some scrimmages at practice, but for the most part this first summer is designed to let players get familiar with lacrosse's fundamentals.
Cunningham said he expected that the club would be made up of mostly hockey players, but that the percentage of hockey players in the club is not as high as he would have thought.
"We've gotten a lot of interest from kids who just didn't want to play baseball or soccer," Cunningham said. "Lacrosse is something new and exciting. People have uncles or cousins playing in other parts of the country, so when they had a chance to play here, they took it."
Redford, a longtime supporter of hockey in the area, said it is easy to see why lacrosse appeals to hockey players.
"There's a lot of skill development in this game that gives you an advantage playing the game of hockey," Redford said.
A good example comes in the lacrosse skill called the cradle. This is when the player uses strong wrist action to cradle the ball back and forth in the crosse and make it harder for defenders to knock the ball free. Redford said the wrist action required for the cradle mirrors stickhandling in hockey.
Eli Waldrip, 15, played on the hockey team at Soldotna High School last year.
"This is great for the off-season," Waldrip said. "It's a lot like hockey. You get to hit. I watched it on TV and it looked like fun so I tried it out."
Carlee Drobnick, a 13-year-old who will enroll at Soldotna Middle School next year, also said a lot of the techniques in lacrosse are similar to hockey.
"I like playing defense and taking the body out so they can't score," Drobnick said.
As the words of Waldrip and Drobnick show, lacrosse can be a physical sport.
Cunningham said he hopes to have two older and two younger teams play games next year. He also would love it if other clubs would start popping up elsewhere in the state and providing competition.