A group of kids from Grand Rapids swarms Corbyn Tao (left) and Ryan Benesch (right).
Grand Rapids, Minn. - Corbyn Tao took a step and with a long windup, fired a hard shot towards the net.
A crowd comprised of boys and girls sitting only a few feet away in a row of bleachers, watched in awe as the ball whistled by and hit nothing but mesh.
“90 miles an hour,” yelled a brave parent, who clocked the shot with his radar gun near the net.
The now wide-eyed group of kids, applauded in excitement.
It might have been the Swarm’s bye week last weekend, but Tao still found himself doing what he does best: putting on a show with his lacrosse stick.
And Tao wasn’t alone on this particular afternoon. Alongside him was someone who is quite accustomed to finding the back of the net – fellow teammate Ryan Benesch – the Swarm’s leading goal scorer and the NLL’s defending scoring champ.The two found themselves taking shots 3.5 hours north of Treasure Island Field in the city of Grand Rapids this past Saturday while visiting close to 80 kids for a lacrosse clinic.
When Tao and Benesch entered Grand Rapids High School that afternoon, it took only a few short seconds before they felt right at home despite having traveled 200-some miles from St. Paul.
“See that, Corbyn?” asked a smiling Benesch, who pointed to a young girl down the hall sporting his No. 21 player t-shirt.
The two would soon discover that the city of Grand Rapids has been buzzing over the sport of lacrosse for quite some time – and with Swarm fans.
As Tao and Benesch made their way into the gymnasium, the dozens of laxers, who were anxiously awaiting their arrival, greeted the two pros in the midst of passing drill. Several kids in attendance were proudly sporting their orange and black Grand Rapids lacrosse shirts; others donned Swarm tees.
With the sound of a whistle, the group raced to the bleachers and gathered around their Swarm visitors.
A memorable afternoon had gotten underway.
The birth of a program
Four years ago, lacrosse was a foreign word to the 10,869 residents of Grand Rapids. Today, lacrosse has become the sport to play in town.
At first glance, Grand Rapids, which is located 1.5 hours both north of the Brainerd Lakes area and west of Duluth, might night not come to mind when thinking about some of the hotbed lacrosse communities in Minnesota.
But take a visit into town, and you’ll learn quickly that the community has developed a strong connection to the sport. You’ll also meet a group of people that is committed to helping it flourish both on the boys’ and girls’ level.
One of those individuals is Brad Gallop, who helped arrange this past Saturday’s clinic on behalf of the Grand Rapids lacrosse program. When Gallop learned that several Swarm players were going to be in the area to visit SAM 101.5 FM in Aitkin – the radio station that broadcasts Swarm home games in the Brainerd Lakes area – he made every effort to set up a unique opportunity for his program. After a few phone calls, the parties arranged a special meeting in Grand Rapids to have Benesch and Tao stop by for a clinic.
“We’ve been excited for the season to start for quite some time, and then to have it kick off with something like this is just awesome,” Gallop said on having the Swarm visit town.
Gallop, who serves as the head coach of the boys varsity team and wears many different hats in the program, helped jump-start what has become of the Grand Rapids program four years ago. It all started when he decided to host a lacrosse clinic at that time to gauge interest in the sport around town. His inspiration came after he re-discovered his lacrosse sticks that he had played with as a student at the University of North Dakota during the mid '80s.
“I didn’t touch a stick for 20 years, saw it on TV – a college game – pulled the sticks out and I’ve got twins – a boy and a girl – and at the time they were in 7th grade and I said, ‘What do you think about this game?’ They thought it was awesome.”
With his kids fascinated by their newly discovered sport, Gallop decided to send out an invitation at the local arena to attend an “intro to lacrosse clinic.”
“I had 100-some people show up just to see what it was about,” he explained.
But because springtime was winding down and the school’s registration process had already passed, the sport really didn’t take off until the following year. When it did launch, the Grand Rapids program started with just 15 kids. Today, that number has grown considerably to over 100 boys and girls, Gallop says.
“For the kids it’s a no brainer,” he explained. “We get the sticks in their hands, they’re sold.”
Last year, the Grand Rapids boys varsity team featured its first graduating class, and this year Gallop said he expects to have 50 kids competing for varsity and junior varsity spots in just its third year of competitive ball. Gallop also helped launched a 4th/5th/6th grade team this year in an effort to help get kids playing at a younger age.
“We’ve got kids competing, kids invested in it, and so this will be a breakout year for us that way,” Gallop added.
On the girls’ side, the sport has grown just as fast. Around 20 girls attended the clinic, which included a handful of girls who were inspired to pick up a stick for the first time after receiving word of the event.
“All of those girls were playing amongst the boys, wanting to learn, which was great to see,” Benesch said.
Renee Bymark, who serves as the head coach of the girls club team said the program began with 10 girls two years ago, and now has grown to nearly 50 participants.
“I’ve never been involved in a sport like this before, especially starting from the bottom and seeing it grow like it has and with the intensity of the lacrosse community,” Bymark said. “… I expect it to continue to grow.”
While the participation numbers continue to grow across the board, there might be no better way to chart the growth of lacrosse in Grand Rapids than to take a look at what will be taking place the first weekend in May, when the city hosts its annual LAX Shootout tournament.
Because of its size, the Grand Rapids LAX Shootout is held on a local golf course to make room for the 42 teams and 800 participants traveling to the area. All of the teams play a minimum of five games and the weekend event attracts teams from as far away as Winnipeg.
“A lot of organizations make it their primary event,” Gallop said.
To pull off such a large-scale event certainly deserves praise. Take in consideration the following factors: the location of the tournament is 3.5 hours north of a majority of the lacrosse programs in the state; the Grand Rapids lacrosse program is only its fourth year of existence; and most impressive of all, the tournament is held on a golf course. One has to applaud those involved for coordinating one of the premier lacrosse tournaments in the Midwest.
“Obviously to be able to take over a whole golf course and create an event like that and have the community support is huge,” Gallop said.
"Bringing kids together"
Sophomore Grant Gunderson entered Saturday’s clinic eager to take lessons from two of the game’s best. The sophomore midfielder, who was geared up in his “Swarm Lacrosse: It’s Like Hockey… With Balls” t-shirt, could be found with a stick in his hands 15 minutes after the clinic had concluded, still practicing away.
“As soon as I started playing, lacrosse was my new favorite sport,” Gunderson said.
Now in his fourth year of participation, Gunderson is one of the many kids who has joined the lacrosse movement in town, and is enjoying every minute of playing the fastest growing sport in America.
“For a small town, it’s exploded,” he explained. “It started out really slow, and then one year it doubled. It’s been doubling every year. The kids just love it.”
And when word of Saturday’s clinic reached town, the news traveled fast.
“A couple of the kids in attendance had never played before,” said Kayrn Surface, a parent who helped set up the event. “They heard the radio announcement, and saw it in the paper that the Swarm guys were going to be here, so they wanted to see what the Swarm was all about.”
With Benesch and Tao in attendance, the kids received tips on a wide range of skills ranging from the proper techniques on shooting, passing, dodging, and ground balls.
“It’s good to see that many kids interested in lacrosse and wanting to learn,” Tao said on the turnout. “It’s good for the sport.”
If there’s been one obstacle in the Grand Rapids program, it’s been a lack of coaches. Due to the large growth of the program over the past few years, both Gallop and Bymark noted that they’ll need more coaches to keep up with the rapid growth rate.
With that in mind, the program was ecstatic to have the Swarm around to help coach.
“We’ve never really had that sort of thing before,” said Alexis Tatter, a senior on the girls club team. “… It’s not everyday that we get to have professional people come up here for a sport that we like.”
At the end of the clinic, Benesch and Tao wowed the kids with a few stick tricks and electric shots to the net. The two then proceeded to sign autographs and posed for pictures afterward – several of which reached the phones of Benesch and Tao via Twitter on their drive home.
In just a short matter of time, it was evident that Benesch and Tao had made an impact.
“A few (kids) grabbed registration forms at the end,” Surface said. “…The sport is bringing kids together.”
A trip to ‘The Hive’
In just a little over a month, the Grand Rapids lacrosse program will make the 3.5 hour drive down to the Twin Cities with a group of over 150 people to attend the Swarm’s nationally televised game against current West Division leader Colorado on April 28.
“We’ll be there in full force,” Gallop said. “…It’s going to be a big weekend for Grand Rapids lacrosse.”
It will be a big weekend for the program, not solely because they’ll be at the Swarm game, but because all of the programs’ teams will be spending the weekend in the Twin Cities to compete in tournaments.
And when they do make their visit to Xcel Energy Center, Gallop said it will be fun for the kids to watch Benesch and Tao in particular, now that they’ve gotten to know them.
“It becomes much more personal and exciting for the kids, and I know they’re all looking forward to it,” he added.
Last Saturday’s clinic was certainly a special event for those in the Grand Rapids community, but it was just as enjoyable for Benesch and Tao, who likewise left smiling.
When Benesch learned that the Grand Rapids program would be making the trip down to St. Paul in the coming weeks, he was taken back by their generous support.
“It’s an honor,” Benesch said. “It’s a great feeling when somebody is willing to spend that much time to come watch our team play. We definitely need to put on a great performance for them.”
Editors Note: Special thanks to the great folks at SAM 101.5 FM for playing a large part in making this past Saturday possible.