FOR YEARS lacrosse in Colorado meant one thing: the annual Vail Shootout, at which club players and current and former college players from around the U.S. gathered for a long summer weekend to play the game as well as a good hangover cure would permit. Vail remains as big a bacchanal as ever, but lacrosse is also thriving virtually everywhere else in the Rocky Mountain State: the youth fields of Littleton, Cherry Creek and Colorado Springs; the Division I varsities at the University of Denver and the Air Force Academy; the "virtual varsity" club powers at Colorado State and Colorado; and Denver's 19,000-seat Pepsi Center, where the Colorado Mammoth of the pro indoor National Lacrosse League sold out the house even before the NHL lockout left lacrosse as the lone sticks-and-pads show in town.
Last spring Virginia took its defending NCAA men's champions to Denver and Air Force, only to slink home with two losses. Meanwhile, two of the game's most talented and charismatic figures--former Syracuse attackman Michael Powell, 22, and former Maryland star Jen Adams, 25--call Colorado home, and retiring Mammoth star Gary Gait will move to the state in August. "Our numbers grow by a third a year, and almost all of that is youth," says Abby Burbank, president of the Colorado Lacrosse Foundation. "Now you can start in kindergarten and play competitively in second grade."
Why is lacrosse so visible in Colorado? By straddling the divide between team sport and Gen X pastime, lacrosse jibes with the state's sporting spirit. "Colorado kids aren't year-round players," says Kate Dresher, who stages lacrosse tournaments and clinics for girls. "They do a lot of things--ski, snowboard, hike--and lacrosse allows for that." Girls in the Rockies account for 18% of all female players in the U.S., according to a 2004 study by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. "Soccer is at a saturation point here," says Burbank, "and because lacrosse is such a conglomeration of different sports, it's easy to convert to." On the men's side, says Denver coach Jamie Munro, "more and better athletes are playing, but critical mass is still five or 10 years down the line."
Last month the University of Denver inaugurated its 5,000-seat, $6.5 million Peter Barton Lacrosse Stadium--the only college venue in the U.S. designed solely for the sport--with a tournament that drew, for a Sunday game between Denver and Towson, a capacity crowd. Meanwhile, Gait, president of the elite National Development Program (NDP), which helps high school players catch recruiters' eyes, will base the organization in Commerce City, near Denver International Airport, where Mammoth and NDP owner Stan Kroenke is building a 360-acre sports complex. Major League Lacrosse, the outdoor summer pro league, should add a Denver franchise when it expands westward with four new teams in 2006. All of which would augur a bright future for the game in Colorado, if the sport there didn't suffer from the same problem that crops up wherever lacrosse is booming: "We have hundreds of thousands of kids who want to play," says Burbank, "but we don't have enough coaches or officials or field space."
The Mammoth (in maroon) are one reason lax has caught fire around Denver.