Lacrosse league’s founders ready to move on
December 29, 2009
By Christopher Huber
When Matthew Balkman and Scott Wiley founded the Issaquah Youth Lacrosse league on the plateau in the spring of 2004, they were expecting to have two teams. To their surprise, about 80 athletes signed up — enough to form four teams. The league’s popularity has continued skyrocketing from there.
As lacrosse has grown in various pockets around the state, they noticed a growing hunger for the mostly unknown sport among athletes and their parents around Sammamish and Issaquah. Having played lacrosse in high school in New England, Wiley knew the sport better than most in the area. Balkman got into it when his kids became interested after watching a tournament on vacation in Florida.
Five years later, as they finish up registration for the 2010 spring season, the league has 40 boys and girls teams. That’s about 600 athletes from first grade to high school. And that doesn’t count the leagues spun off from IYL in the past few years — Eastlake Lacrosse and Eastside Crusaders Youth Lacrosse.
“It’s taken on a life of its own,” said Wiley, thinking back on the immense and growing popularity. “And it’s partly taken over our lives. We’re really lucky we had a lot of great parents.”
Balkman, of Issaquah, and Wiley, of Sammamish, recently announced they will step down as IYL co-presidents this winter. Charles Mauzy and Eric Bean, both heavily involved in coaching or administrative aspects of the league, will take on the co-president role for the next two seasons, according to a letter to players and parents.
“Scott and Matthew add such a passion for the sport and just a passion for working with the kids,” Bean said.
That passion translated into one of the most successful and fastest-growing youth lacrosse leagues on the West Coast, Mauzy said.
“Our vision was to have every youth in the community have a lacrosse experience, which means to try it out for a season,” Balkman said.
Growth since 2004:
Since U.S. Lacrosse, the sport’s national governing body, began compiling statistics in 2001, lacrosse participation more than doubled to 524,100 nationwide, according to its 2008 Participation Survey. In one year, girls youth lacrosse participation increased from about 85,000 to more than 96,000.
“A lot of these kids, once they see it, they get hooked,” said U.S. Lacrosse Public Relations Manager Colleen Sperry Aungst. “It’s still in (regional) pockets a little bit, but it is growing like wildfire. It’s not just on the East Coast anymore.”
In the spring of 2004, Washington had 26 teams, Balkman said. IYL’s growth spurt has added 40 and the state now has more than 100.
“We’ve pretty much added teams every single year,” Balkman said.
The key seems to have been the league’s desire to include all who are interested in playing. When a team gets past 20 players, they try to make a new one, so as to give the youth plenty of playing time.
One could also attribute the league’s success to Balkman and Wiley’s backgrounds in sales and marketing. Balkman’s business card sums it up. It says “You would make a great lacrosse player!” He said when he passes them out, he tells prospective players to read it aloud once, then take it home and read it to their parents.
The duo’s stress on sportsmanship has played an important role in the success of the league, Bean said. It’s popular with youth because they get to run around with pads, wielding a stick, Bean said, but they also learn the value of playing for the sake of playing.
“It really infuses that whole spirit within the whole organization,” Bean said. “There’s just more positive energy that goes around in this sport than any other.”
The league has a 95 percent retention rate, Balkman and Wiley said. That’s partly because youth can play football, soccer or other sports in the fall and come out for lacrosse in the spring. It’s also because the athletes learn skills that are useful in other sports, Balkman and Wiley said.
“What they build in lacrosse is quickness and agility, and that is transferable,” Balkman said. “We’re huge fans of multi-sport athletes.”
The meaning of service:
When you get them going, Balkman and Wiley can talk a lot about lacrosse; you name it, they know it. They scheme about how to better reach new players and families, how to get more fields available and how to continue to win.
“They’re really the two that popularized it. They really fired the kids up and popularized it,” Mauzy said.
IYL teams consistently win select tournaments, the Issaquah High club team has been to the state playoffs seven of its nine years, including two championships, and Skyline’s club team had gone to the playoffs in all of its five seasons.
But in the end, it’s all about serving the community, they say.
“They’re not doing it for glory,” Bean said.
They tend to have the whole community in mind when running around like crazy to take care of league operations and such.
“It’s not about your kid,” Balkman said. “It’s about the community, about the sport.”
If it were about their kids, they wouldn’t still be involved. Balkman’s last son graduated the league in 2007; Wiley’s first son in 2005.
“We could’ve just bagged it after our kids graduated,” Wiley said.
Although Balkman and Wiley stepped down as presidents, they said they will still assist in various capacities around the league. Mauzy and Bean said they look forward to taking Balkman and Wiley’s foundation and building it even stronger.
Bean said he looks forward to “helping to build an organization that allows people to plug in and do something they feel great about.”
Reporter Christopher Huber can be reached at 392-6434, ext. 242, or email@example.com.