As recently as 2008, lacrosse was virtually non-existent in West Michigan. The only competitive high school lacrosse programs on this side of the state were East Grand Rapids and a combined program at Grand Rapids Forest Hills. The rest of the state’s high school lacrosse programs were in Lansing and Detroit.
“I actually played lacrosse in Grand Rapids, one of the first two teams on this side of the state in the ‘90s,” said Grand Haven’s John Heritage during Lax Fest. “When I played, we had to drive over to Detroit for a rivalry.”
Lacrosse may not have the rich national history baseball or football share, but it has been flocked to in droves by Spring Lake student-athletes. Current boys head lacrosse coach, Doug Sharp, dubbed by some as the “father of lacrosse” in Spring Lake, helped build the program 10 years ago, and has watched the fruits of his labor mature into a program headed toward elite status.
“Lacrosse growth in the area has been an absolute joy to watch,” Sharp said. “It’s been awesome to witness so many teams across West Michigan create successful teams and programs.”
Sharp’s love of the game runs deep. He moved to Michigan in 1996, and he was instantly disappointed at how few opportunities he had to play lacrosse. At the time, Grand Rapids had just the two lacrosse programs; Lansing also had two, which meant the majority of the high school lacrosse programs resided in the Detroit area. It made competition for Sharp difficult to come by, but it also sparked his influence on the game.
With an assist from his brother, Sharp helped build lacrosse programs throughout West Michigan. He coached one season at Caledonia, and his youngest brother ran a lacrosse camp at Grand Haven. Driving became an issue, however, as Sharp lived in Spring Lake, worked in Grand Rapids and coached lacrosse at Caledonia. He decided to redirect his approach and focus on Spring Lake.
“Spring Lake is an incredible community, and I think lacrosse is one of the best sports out there,“ Sharp said.” Lacrosse takes the greatest aspects of other sports and combines them together. It’s phenomenal and fun.”
Lacrosse in Spring Lake started out as a club 10 years ago. Five years ago, the high school sponsored the first boys team, and one year after that Spring Lake high school adopted the first girls program. Spring Lake always had the numbers to run successful lacrosse teams, but how did it affect other sports within the school?
“When the lacrosse program first started out, it had an affect on the school’s other sports like baseball and track,” said Spring Lake athletic director Cavin Mohrhardt. “They had to limit how many student-athletes could play lacrosse, but now baseball and track numbers are back up. While it started out affecting other sports, the numbers have quickly leveled out.”
Although enjoying the success of the lacrosse program, Sharp admitted its rise likely did affect the school’s other sports.
“I’d be foolish to say it doesn’t affect other sports,” Sharp said. “The girls, especially, have so many great options in the spring. It’s a little easier for the boys, but tough for the girls (with soccer, track and softball also an option). The baseball team likely had an overabundance of players, so we weaned those numbers down. Kids ultimately gravitate toward the things they are good at. If kids spent hours on the Little League baseball field, they won’t jump ship over to lacrosse when they reach high school.
“All spots (at Spring Lake) have kids who want to be there, and it shows. Spring Lake is a nice-sized school, but the student-athlete ratio is otherworldly.”
Located just 4 miles from Lake Michigan, roughly 20 miles from Grand Rapids, and in the middle of a high school sports mecca, Spring Lake turned out to be the ideal place to build a lacrosse program. Community members have embraced lacrosse just like they have every other sport before it.
“(Lacrosse) is no different than any other sport here, that’s just Spring Lake,” Mohrhardt said in regards to the popularity lacrosse has had throughout all age levels. “It’s great to have the community involved. Not many schools have a field dedicated just to lacrosse. We are fortunate to have the facilities we do, and a lot of that is attributed to the excitement from the community.”
While player turnout for lacrosse has never been an issue for Spring Lake, at any age group, proper training was an early concern. Sharp had to ensure that athletes new to lacrosse were given proper coaching and training. Aspects like conditioning, fundamentals and even the rules had to be taught the right way to help the program grow in a healthy way.
“Having new players and coaches made it more difficult to be an expert in what you don’t know,” Sharp said. “We had to make sure kids were learning the proper fundamentals at an early age.
“Our players are coming through the program with great coaches across the board. We’ve established a culture of excellent player development to instill a positive culture. As the program has matured, the players have matured with it.”
After starting the season 7-0, the Spring Lake boys are hoping to make a deep run in the tournament. Since the program’s inception, Lakers boys lacrosse has been thwarted by one of the major Grand Rapids programs en route to a state championship, but Sharp may have found the athletes to contend this year.
On the girls side, head coach Jason Vinkemulder has balanced senior leadership with a group of talented underclassmen to give his team a shot at a deep run, too. Regardless of either team’s end result, lacrosse certainly has found a lasting home in Spring Lake.
“If you build a lacrosse stadium, they will come,” Sharp said, quoting the iconic line of the movie Field of Dreams, and athletes certainly have flocked to Spring Lake’s rising lacrosse program.