By Steven Gorgei
Over 60 girls under the age of 9 gathered at midfield with their lacrosse sticks raised high, smiling and cheering after a morning of games on a cold Sunday in early May. Five years ago, East Ave Lacrosse didn’t even have a girls program. But today, more than 200 girls on the club’s four community teams participated in a day of competition, coaching and fun.
“To think that we coached over 200 girls that are not even in high school yet is insane to me,” said Tracy Bonaccorsi, East Ave’s girls travel director. “On my first team, I had two or three girls that had ever played before high school, and now knowing that we’re helping the development of so many girls in so many different areas is so awesome.”
The popularity of East Ave’s youth lacrosse program may not come as a surprise, given that participation in girls lacrosse at the high school level grew by over 500% between the 2011 and 2019 seasons in Illinois, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. But in some places, like Oak Park and River Forest, the opportunity to play the sport was limited until recently.
“There really wasn’t anything around the area,” said Maddie Berni, a River Forest native and East Ave alumna who’s now a senior on the Carthage College women’s lacrosse team. “There was never a club team that was near us. We had to drive like 30, 45 minutes away. If you’re a young kid in like high school or middle school, it’s hard to get out there.”
Then, East Ave came along.
East Ave was born in 2015 when Jerry Considine, Dan Applebaum and Joe Opron, three lacrosse players turned high school coaches, created a boys tournament team made up of high school players from the Oak Park and River Forest area. The club then started running youth lacrosse programs for boys in the community and created travel teams for more advanced players.
As East Ave established itself on the boys lacrosse scene, parents started to inquire about girls programming.
“It was just nothing we really thought about before we were asked, and then we started talking to some of the local high school girls coaches, and it just seemed like a no-brainer,” Considine said. “Especially because coach Dan and I grew up in the Oak Park area, and we went to OPRF (Oak Park and River Forest High School), so there was a lot of pride there in the community.”
One of the coaches Considine spoke with was Bonaccorsi, who at the time was coaching at Trinity, a private girls high school in River Forest. Trinity was a fledgling program with a roster consisting mostly of players who had never played the sport before high school. Bonaccorsi said she saw potential in her team, but it was limited by the lack of opportunities to play outside of the high school season.
“I just kept thinking to myself, ‘I have some girls that are super good athletes that just are learning,’ but when you’re only playing three months out of the year, there’s only so much you can grow,” Bonaccorsi said.
Bonaccorsi’s players were looking for more opportunities, but she said she felt uncomfortable pushing them to join established clubs that required long commutes and major financial commitments.
Bonaccorsi saw an opportunity to solve that problem, and in 2017 she became part of the East Ave team as she collaborated with the founders to launch a youth program serving girls in Oak Park and River Forest, along with a high school club team.
East Ave now sponsors travel teams at the youth and high school levels, and has expanded its youth community program to Glen Ellyn, Hinsdale and Wheaton in addition to Oak Park and River Forest. The growth of the youth program has enabled the club to host a full day of games between the community teams on Sundays, something Considine said is beneficial for multiple reasons.
“Players get a lot better when they play games,” Considine said. “They have a lot of fun when they play games, and that’s kind of how you compete against some of these other sports.”
Since the creation of East Ave’s girls program, grassroots efforts like the community teams and gym class takeovers have played a critical role in its quest to grow the game.
“One of the things we focused on was really getting people in at a young age and trying to provide really quality coaching experiences for them,” Considine said.
In Oak Park and River Forest, the fruits of that labor are starting to show at the high school level, with OPRF fielding a varsity, junior varsity and freshman/sophomore team this season. East Ave’s expansion into other communities could create more parity at the high school level, something that would benefit the sport, according to Considine.
“Girls lacrosse has been a sport where the rich get richer,” Considine said. “If a team’s much better in girls lacrosse, then they could win every single draw and just go score, and score and score. Sometimes, some people get a little bit discouraged. So, I think more areas getting people to play at a young age makes it a lot more likely that more people will start having fun playing the sport.”
Steven Gorgei is a sports media graduate student at Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @GorgOnSports.