In early August, about 96 boys lacrosse players gathered at a private school in the Baltimore area to compete for four available spots on an elite club lacrosse team. That meant 92 players went home disappointed, while four others could briefly celebrate before turning their focus to actually earning playing time.
This is just one example of the new normal for lacrosse players across Baltimore and Washington, D.C. Families spend weekends throughout the summer traveling to states as far as California and Colorado for tournaments.
The talent level has gotten so deep that some players have to re-tryout for their own teams as more boys and girls enter the fray. The costs for playing club lacrosse can also be high, sometimes more than $1,000 per player.
Despite the challenges, club lacrosse is widely regarded as a key component for growing the sport.
"Club programs have been vilified because they represent a shift in the culture of the sport, and they present a free-market economy approach to youth sports," Steve Stenersen, president and CEO of US Lacrosse, said on his organization's website. "However, I don't think that club programs are necessarily the evil empire. There are a lot of club programs out there that are doing great stuff. We just have to be vigilant about making sure that we're being good consumers."
As club lacrosse teams continue to grow, the opportunities at the next level are increasing with them. A report released by the NCAA last year showed lacrosse is the fastest growing college team sport in the nation. The women's game grew from 225 teams in 2000 to 470 in 2014 (109 percent), while the men's game grew 72 percent.
This growth has helped spark the commitment to the sport by young athletes and their families. Many have seen the benefits of being part of these elite clubs.
For one, the players build camaraderie by being on a team and often forge friendships that can last a lifetime. Their skills also get better with the additional time on the field. There is also unprecedented exposure to college coaches at many club tournaments. That is one of the reasons many players are committing to NCAA Division I programs in their sophomore and sometimes even freshman year of high school.
Furthermore, the most competitive high school programs have players who also compete with club teams.
"In areas like Glenelg, lacrosse players do not have much of a chance of playing unless they are club players." longtime Glenelg, and current Wilde Lake, coach Ginger Kincaid said. "Almost every player on our last year's roster were club players and committed to play DI in college. Only a few were not. One of our biggest challenges is to merge players coming from different clubs with different philosophies together. We have to work hard to get them to buy into our defensive schemes and attack motions."
In the end, the majority of players competing for lacrosse teams simply enjoy the game -- the outside pressures notwithstanding. Lacrosse will likely continue to grow and become more diversified as more inner city schools expose their athletes to the game. The end-goal is to make the sport accessible to all athletes regardless of where they live or go to school, according to sport's governing body.