There's nothing 'LAX' about this sport

Kittatinny Youth Lacrosse going strong after 11 years

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  • Alexa Shotwell, #29 in the center, in action, is a seventh grader in The Kittatinny Youth Lacrosse Club Photos provided

  • Group of LAX ladies in action during last year's season

  • One of Kittatinny Youth Lacrosse's boys teams

  • This season got underway with first-time clinics for young players down to the kindergarten age thanks to the idea of Bob Mangino, the program's President

  • Members of the boys' Kittatinny Youth Lacrosse Club enjoyed venturing to New Brunswick recently to watch a Rutgers game

By Laurie Gordon

— The adrenaline rush you feel running across the field with your teammates is unparalleled, players will tell you, and the speed of the sport overwhelmingly exhilarating. Play is fast, super fast, and the team bonding, character and self-confidence it builds are phenomenal. This is the sport of lacrosse, affectionately called LAX.

Fate, and their daughters' soccer game, brought John Major, of Sandyston, and Bob Jellinek, of Hampton together. They learned they both had played lacrosse and were both perturbed that the sport had no presence in Sussex County. They decided to do something about it, and in 2007, lacrosse was put on our county's sports map. Now, 11 years later, The Kittatinny Youth Lacrosse Club has grown exponentially and has become a vital feeder program for Kittatinny Regional High School's lacrosse teams. The 2018 season just got underway, and if you want to experience one of the most action-packed games you'll ever see, check out one of the games this spring.

In the beginning

Major and Jellinek held an organizational meeting with some interested parents in early 2007 and quickly decided to start a program comprised of the Kittatinny High sending district area.

“We initiated registration for a 5th and 6th grade team and a 7th and 8th grade team in the winter of 2007,” Major said. “Registration was considered coed, and a couple of girls were a part of 33 players that what we would later name 'The Originals.' Along with [Jellinek] and myself as head coaches, we were fortunate to have the spirited assistance of Dave West, Ken Armstrong, Larry Deem, Bair Schreiber, Joe Romyns and Bill Hendershot. These parents all carried the dual roles of charter board members of Kittatinny Youth Lacrosse Club as well as being assistant coaches.”

The team practiced at the Paulins Kill Lake field and set up games against a number of towns. The program was able to really showcase lacrosse and what they were all about at their final game held at the Hampton Day festivities.

From the outset, the idea of starting a program for girls was part of the discussion, and in 2009, two years after the program's inaugural year and proven start-up experience behind them, Major started a girls program for a 5th and 6th grade team with the plan to add a 7th and 8th grade team the following year.

“While my lacrosse experience was based on playing the boys game dating back to high school, I was unfamiliar with the nuanced differences of the girls game,” Major said.

The most important difference is that men's lacrosse allows checking while the women's game doesn't. The guys wear helmets and protective gear while the girls have mouth pieces and eye goggles. Major took courses and learned, and 32 girls joined that year. They were later named "The First Ladies,” and Kittatinny Youth Lacrosse Club now had a dedicated girls program.”

“The spirit was catching hold and the inquiry and demand increased,” Major said, “We also had some experience at the coaching level to think about adding additional/younger teams. In 2008, we added a 3rd and 4th grade team for what was still considered a coed program. Our registration came close to doubling in the second year.”

After establishing the girls' program in 2009, the following spring, Major recruited Jessica DeMartini to voluntarily coach a new girls 7th and 8th grade team for the girls who were now moving up, and added to his own coaching responsibilities by adding a 3rd and 4th grade girls team. In one year, the girls program tripled. In four years the club had grown from it's 33 "Originals" to approximately 125 youth players.

This year, the Kittatinny Youth Lacrosse Program has a new president, and Bob Mangino, introduced a fun and successful entry level clinic for Kindergarten through 2nd grade for boys and girls this winter at the Fredon Recreation Center.

Mangino commented at a parents' meeting, “Other areas are way ahead of us with kids starting much younger. It's time we do the same.”

The success on the field and the respect that The Kittatinny Youth Lacrosse Club has earned from its sportsmanship on the field has been recognized by the greater lacrosse community throughout New Jersey, and this quality aspect has helped to keep the program strong and flourishing.

Tom Knutelsky has volunteered as an assistant coach for a number of years. He said, “Lacrosse is such an exciting sport. Growing up many, many years ago in sussex county, organized lacrosse was not an option. The only spring sport option for young girls and boys were softball and baseball. The sport of lacrosse has added a very fun, fast paced, team oriented sport to local youth programs. I was a baseball guy and coach, and when my sons decided not to pursue baseball any longer , I was disappointed, but decided to learn to coach lacrosse and have not looked back. I am thrilled that lacrosse has become such a popular sport in Sussex county."

His wife, Robin, added, “Kittatinny Lacrosse has been wonderful for my family, my kids and out towns.” She added that as her boys moved from elementary school to the regional middle school, “They went in knowing kids from the other schools thanks to this program”

Andrew Knutelsky, who has played for several years and is now in seventh grade said, "Home is where you are surrounded by friends, family and peopple you love. Lacrosse is my home."

Andrew's twin brother, Matthew, also plays, and their older brother, Tim, who is high school volunteers. Tim Knutelsky said, "Lacrosse is the sport I love and I want to pass it on and I want to help grow the sport."

To facilitate its growth and game scheduling, the club joined the boys North Jersey Junior Lacrosse League in 2008 and the Jersey Girls Lacrosse Association in 2010. Not including the boys and girls high school program, 74 boys and 64 are part of the 2018 program.

While Major, as a spectator, has seen other teams' parents get a little “over enthusiastic” on the sidelines, in its 11 year tenure, this has never been the case with the Kittatinny parents.

“I believe that the Kittatinny spectator sideline has comported itself in a very respectable manner over the years, however, the vigilance to prevent 'over enthusiasm' is ever more present,” Major said.

In a time when technology is so dominant and kids can end up becoming sedentary, lacrosse is the antitheses. Practices and games are fast paced with constant running and little downtime. Concentration is required at all times as players learn to master their stick skills.

“Shortly after starting their lacrosse careers, you will notice kids carrying their sticks around ready to play catch with anyone else who has a stick: year-round,” Major said. “When something is challenging and fun, the kids come back. They look forward to games and practices, and the electronics have become secondary to the fun the game has to offer.”

Emily Popek, of Stillwater, has been in the program since she was in the third grade,

“It's great to see how we have evolved as a team from third to seventh grade is really great,” the Kittatinny Middle School student said.

The youth program has also kept enrollment at the high school level very healthy. As testament to this, for the first time in its history, Kittatinny Regional High School will field a freshman team for several games for both boys and girls. This speaks to the growth of the Kittatinny Youth Lacrosse program and its players.

At the end of the day, a great coach is defined by the relationships he/she is able to cultivate with the players. The programs' coaches go above and beyond to perpetuate the program. All of the many volunteer coaches for Kittatinny Youth Lacrosse nurture the philosophy of good sportsmanship, working hard and having fun.

All members of the board and coaches volunteer their time. Each puts in an amazing amount of personal time to make the program a success. Bob Mangino is the board's president with Jeff Shotwell serving as vice-president. His wife, Kersten Shotwell, is the treasurer. Maureen Riva is the board secretary, and Michelle Sealander is in charge of communications and the program's yearbook. Hilary Manser does fundraising, the Boys' Program Director is Art O'Toole, and the Girls' Program Director is Major. There are also representatives from the schools in the Kittatinny sending district.

Kittatinny Youth Lacrosse is a family, and parents are an integral part.

Said Jeff Shotwell to the parents, “You are vital to the success of this program. We need you to not just spectate, but actively volunteer so this program can continue to be successful.”

It all starts at the youth level. That was the vision of Kittatinny Youth Lacrosse from the beginning, and it has perpetuated feeding a whole new generation of avid “LAX” players who are scooping, cutting, cradling, checking, charging, blocking, shooting and fast breaking into the future of the sport.

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