Last modified: Friday, September 12, 2014
NORTHFIELD — The high school lacrosse season grinds along with a shifting focus as the goal changes from making the postseason to winning the championship.

But for athletes wanting to play at the next level, a winning season — one game over .500 or going undefeated, state title included — no longer guarantees that lacrosse players will be noticed by collegiate coaches. Travel and club teams, like Indoor Action Sports out of Greenfield, are designed to help cover the lag.

“High school lacrosse only runs March through June and then the season is over, and college coaches don’t go to high school games anymore,” said Jeff Coulson, founder and director of lacrosse at Indoor Action Sports (IAS). “(Travel tournaments) are an opportunity to be seen and, truthfully, coaches themselves aren’t concerned with the wins and losses. When they show up to watch a game, they are looking at individual players.”

IAS is the only lacrosse program in Franklin County because the area high schools don’t support teams. Through word of mouth and a 28-year history, IAS now draws players from across New England and beyond, but also has seen a constant stream of talent from Hampshire County.

The IAS girls program coach Maud Lonergan, who is an assistant coach of the Amherst College women’s program, said the influx of Northampton and South Hadley players, with a sprinkling of Amherst and Hatfield participants, is a nod to the strength of the high school programs.

“I think they have a feeder program,” Lonergan said. “Our strongest players are from Northampton, Hadley, South Hadley, and then some Northfield Mount Hermon players, but we need everyone.”

The difference between high school lacrosse and a travel team is the mind-set. Filling a trophy case isn’t the IAS program’s goal, nor will that change.

For Coulson and Lonergan, taking teams to tournaments isn’t for the title. Tournaments give the girls, and Coulson’s boys and adult programs, the chance to put the skills they have gained to use and learn how to adapt to different in-game situations.

“It’s all about how we play on the field,” Lonergan said. “In general, it’s all about getting them to play together, to look good, and finding who they are in this sport, not winning. I tell them, ‘This isn’t a high school. This isn’t about our record. It’s not about being on varsity. You’re supposed to make mistakes and learn from them and get better that way.”

“One of the things we say is, ‘Winning is for the moment, but learning is for the lifetime,’” Coulson said.

Unlike some travel programs, joining IAS isn’t on invitation or based on tryouts as Coulson and his staff welcome all levels, from new players looking to make their high school squad to those focused on playing in college, whether it be at the Division I or III level. IAS looks for dedicated players who want to be their best and go as far as they can go.

“The goal is to learn self-confidence, teach them skills, general basics of lacrosse, and what is the best fit for where they are going,” Lonergan said. “Sometimes they have visions where they are going to go as rising sophomores, but most of our kids don’t commit until their junior year and definitely by their senior year.”

Caitlin Keefe, a rising Williston sophomore, wants to play college lacrosse and said the IAS program will be a difference-maker when recruiting starts in a year. Earlier this month, she was named a Brine National High School All-American and Brine National Lacrosse Classic All-Star.

“It’s different (than high school) because you get to play with girls from all over,” Keefe said. “You go to other places and see all the amazing talent out there. ... (IAS has) helped me because I get to see how much I need to practice or how my skills match up against others.”

Northampton’s Fiona D’Ambrosia has her eyes set on playing in college, but as a rising junior, she is just starting to look at all her options. D’Ambrosia said IAS has helped her refine her game. As a Blue Devil, she plays defense, and through IAS, has had the opportunity to learn from multiple coaches in addition to Sue Biggs at Northampton. She also had played outside her comfort zone.

“I’ve now had five or six different coaches that have taught me different defenses,” D’Ambrosia said. “As of right now, I just want to get my options open and be able to show all of my aspects of lacrosse rather than just defense. That’s what this is here for.”

Sarah Lacey, a rising sophomore at South Hadley, echoed the flexibility on the field and said she likes the individualized attention and focus from the coaches that she doesn’t get while in a playoff chase with the Tigers.

“You learn so much more than you do in a high school season,” Lacey said. “My defense has gotten better since we all play all positions all the time.”

They are just three locals on the girls’ lengthy roster of roughly 45, but they agreed that one of the added benefits of playing IAS in the off-season was becoming teammates with high school rivals.

“I think it’s awesome to play with each other,” D’Ambrosia said. “You get to see other people’s ways of doing it. I get (Lacey’s) experience of playing on South Hadley just by playing here, and she gets some of the Northampton things from playing here.”

The deep roster allows Coulson to create travel teams based on interest level for a given tournament, and only when necessary does he limit a squad to skill level. He said one of the challenges is knowing which other programs will be at a given event as team registration for the tournaments can fill up in minutes.

“It’s not about, ‘Oh, we’re inviting this club instead of Jeff’s club.’ It’s about how fast you can type.” Coulson said.

Additionally, tournaments attract other like-minded players, allowing IAS athletes to judge where they are and where they need to be to meet their personal goals.

Tournaments have also become lacrosse’s main college recruiting circuit, much like this weekend’s tournament in Virginia. Lonergan is taking a team of 20 under-18 players, including Northampton’s Megan McCarthy, South Hadley’s Emma and Olivia Slysz, Gabby Schwalm and Keefe, to the 2014 IWLCA STX Capital Cup in Midlothian, Virginia. The cup is one of the bigger recruiting events and is only for girls teams.

“I’m excited to see the different talents from all the different states and see what’s out there,” Keefe said.

The summer travel season will come to a close at the Lake Placid Lacrosse Classic, Aug. 4-6, and Coulson will be traveling with two girls teams, in addition to boys and adult teams from IAS.

D’Ambrosia, Lacey and Keefe said traveling with IAS is completely different from taking a bus to an away game, as blasting music and less stress on winning allow the teams to relax.

“You’re having fun. When in-season, it’s like ‘Playoffs, got to get to the championship. We’ve got to win.’ With this, you’re just trying to learn and get better at what you do,” Lacey said.