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On the Way Up: The Rise of the WHSBLA

High school lacrosse has existed in some form in Washington since 1979.  The early days consisted of very few teams, spearheaded by a small group of coaches that would meet periodically at the Lakeside School (Bill Gates' alma mater).  By the early 90's, just over a dozen programs played under the loose organization of the Washington Lacrosse Council.  One member of that council was Vern Smith, an Illinois native who played lacrosse on the Johns Hopkins freshman team, and over the years had helped form multiple programs in the greater Seattle area. 


Brandon Fortier, who first picked up a stick through the Bellevue Boys & Girls Club and later played college lacrosse at Whittier, returned to his hometown in 2000 and immediately devoted his time to growing the game.  In 2002, he linked with Smith and others from the Council in efforts to truly legitimize high school lacrosse in Washington.  The result was the creation of by-laws and the first board of the Washington High School Boys’ Lacrosse Association (WHSBLA), a 501c3 non-profit organization that oversees boys high school lacrosse to this day. 


For lacrosse to continue its growth in the state, the WHSBLA needed to recruit more coaches that were passionate about the game. With the influx of Microsoft employees in Seattle, and other east coast transplants, more former lacrosse players made the move to Washington and felt the same pull that got Smith, Fortier and others to join the effort. Add in names like New Jersey native Dejon Hush and former UAlbany player Ian O’Hearn, whom each helped inject energy and stability into the coaching ranks, and things began to truly take off.  O'Hearn also joined the WHSBLA Board, and along with Fortier, has served for nearly 20 years. 


 “One of the things we established as young board members was the idea of legitimizing everything,” Fortier said. “We need rules, we need boundaries in place. We brought that intensity to the WHSBLA, and that resulted in the board and the league being more disciplined and structured and going after the real athletes in the state.” 


The WHSBLA continued to add a handful of programs each year, and by 2011 the number of high school teams in Washington had reached 50. In 2019 alone, a total of 12 new programs began their first year of boys’ lacrosse. This exponential growth began in 2003 — going from 19 high school programs to a record-high 94 programs in 2021, before the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily saw a decline. 


The next task was spreading the word about the "Vertical Model" — a system designed to develop youth programs based on school district boundaries and build a pipeline that directly feeds into each respective high school. The ultimate goal is for every high school lacrosse program in the state to have its own specific feeder program, drawing athletes from their respective elementary and middle schools. This system does not rely on finding children that already play lacrosse, rather drawing kids with no experience and developing them into lacrosse players over time. The true definition of growth. 


Thanks to this growth strategy, the WHSBLA has helped spark the formation of countless youth programs across the state, which in turn has developed sustainable models that allow for more high school lacrosse teams to blossom in Washington. The exponential growth has not been by accident, and it has made an impact both in the Seattle suburbs and beyond. 


“The key to our success has been how we pushed for this.  We fought hard to shift from a conglomerate mentality to a vertical model.  It was this transition that triggered the phenomenal growth,” Smith said. “At Tahoma for example, within two years we had a 7th-8th grade program. Then, we got it down into fifth and sixth grades, and then third and fourth grades. Eventually, we were able to play at the kindergarten level. These kids all transition perfectly into our high school program.” 


As a result, Washington has surpassed states like Colorado and Oregon on the list of western lacrosse powerhouses (all states west of the Mississippi), trailing just California and Texas for overall number of boys’ high school lacrosse programs — two states with populations significantly higher than the Evergreen State. 


The WHSBLA continues to work with the five boys’ youth lacrosse organizations (CWLL, GELL, SSL, NSYL, SMYLA) to encourage this vertical model mindset. WHSBLA Board members help lead this charge, offering to drive hours across the state to help interested programs learn how to create an infrastructure for success. 


“We didn’t recreate the wheel,” said Richland head coach J. Chad Mitchell. “Brandon [Fortier] was happy to answer any questions we had and walk us through how they built their program. If you want to grow the sport, the vertical model is the only way to go. If you have that program, you know where you need to spend time building that pipeline.” 


For programs like Richland, the vertical model created an environment that allowed teams to play locally. In the early 2010s, a 3.5-hour trip through the Cascade Mountains was essential for finding competitive lacrosse programs in Washington. 


Nearly a decade after adopting the vertical model, Mitchell, whose six children played lacrosse, is witnessing a culture shift in the Tri-Cities of Eastern Washington (Kennewick, Pasco, Richland). Now up to five teams in the region, Mitchell is excited for the future of the game and grateful for the progress made. 


As he built his Richland program, he envisioned it playing games at Fran Rish Stadium in the heart of town. The school received a bond in 2018 to install a new turf field — one in which Mitchell and his team fought to feature lacrosse lines.  He’d walk his team onto the field and allow his players to dream of a brighter future. 


“Guys, this is what we’re building,” he said while his team kneeled collectively. “One day, we’re going to play on Fran Rich Stadium.” 


Mitchell and the Richland boys’ lacrosse program got their wish. This year, they got the chance to scrimmage on the new turf field — fully equipped with lacrosse lines. 


“We’ve always wanted to see lacrosse lines on that field,” Mitchell said. “People on the East Coast are going to think it’s not a big deal, but when you’ve been working on growing lacrosse in the Tri-Cities and see the day when the Richland Bombers can step onto Fran Rish, under the lights, that’s a huge deal.” 


Mitchell’s vision and success in Richland is one of many stories of inspiring growth in Washington. 


In addition to the vertical model, the WHSBLA pushed for top high school coaches from eastern lacrosse hotbeds (i.e. West Genesee, Ward Melville, Garden City, Manhasset, McDonough, Boys Latin, St. Paul's, Haverford, Lincoln-Sudbury, etc.) to travel west and develop new coaches in Washington. The new wave of interested coaches needed top-level instruction, and the WHSBLA created a professional experience to speed up the process.  


“The professionalization of the coaching staff has been a remarkable change,” Smith said. “It’s what’s elevated our lacrosse to a competitive level.” 


Collegiate players from the state of Washington are making an impact in Division I, II and III programs. In any given year, there are 100+ young men from Washington playing on NCAA lacrosse teams, in addition to others playing on MCLA teams. High school teams from Washington are competing with some of the best of the Eastern Seaboard — something hard to imagine 20 years prior. As the single largest lacrosse organization in the Pacific Northwest, the WHSBLA has been instrumental in producing and developing these high level high school programs, and future college lacrosse players. 


Every spring, dozens of Washington high school teams travel around the country over their spring breaks to compete against some of the best programs in the country (i.e. NY, MD, PA, MA, NJ, FL, TX, etc.). There has also been a sharp increase in high school teams traveling in the summer and fall for college recruitment tournaments and preparation for their spring seasons.


Lacrosse in the state of Washington is skyrocketing, and the WHSBLA has led the charge. As it heads into its 20th season as a sanctioned sport, lacrosse is continuing to rise in popularity across the state. 


“We’ve grown a lot, and fast, and it’s not an accident,” Fortier said. “It’s not the luck of the draw. We’ve done very specific things to create that growth, and it’s working.” 


Story by Matt Hamilton - Baltimore, MD