This Friday, June 11, a group of select young athletes is heading to the Baltimore metropolitan area and Pennsylvania to play their hearts out against teams representing much of the eastern seaboard in a game that requires speed, cunning, and a complete lack of fear. The two-day competition is called LAX MAX and the sport is lacrosse, now in the midst of an explosion of popularity across the country. And nowhere is that boom more evident than in West Windsor and Plainsboro, home of Lightning Lacrosse. Like most of the youth sports that roll on with the seasons, Lightning Lacrosse is fueled not only by the energy and enthusiasm of the players, but the dedication and sweat equity of their parents. “The program has grown by word of mouth and the heart and soul of its volunteers,” explains Leanne Bell, a Lightning mom.
“People understand that our program is inclusive, not exclusive. It’s like one big family and you do things together. There are so many things where parents try to live vicariously through their kids but I don’t see that so much in lacrosse where parents are just so ‘peace, love and LAX’. We want them to win, yes, but we want our children to want it for themselves.”
After serving two years as head of concessions, Leanne currently serves on the Lightning Lacrosse board as treasurer. Rounding out the board are Cory Easter, president; Linda Domino, secretary, Dale L’insalata, registrar; Gina Ochs, vice-president for girls; and Jim Hirt, vice-president for boys, taking over for long-time VP Jeff Matthews, whose two sons have gone through the Lightning program. Jeffrey Matthews now plays for High School South and can often be seen manning the grill for the concession at home games, and John plays for Grover Middle School. Lightning alumni have won spots on the High School and Collegiate All-American teams and have gone on to play at such prestigious schools as Syracuse, William & Mary, Yale, and Colgate.
Leanne and her husband, Chris, have three sons. Oliver, 15, is a freshman at West Windsor Plainsboro High School South. Cameron, 12, plays on Lightning’s sixth grade team with head coach Doug Donaldson. Leanne can’t speak highly enough of Donaldson, with whom Cameron started playing as a third grader. “I’ve seen Cameron become more self-confident because he’s in a sport that he loves. He’s not out there picking flowers on the baseball field. He’s found his niche. It’s also the encouragement and positive reinforcement he gets. Donaldson blends praise with great teaching and constructive criticism. He coaches the kids in a way that is assertive, not aggressive, and helps them grow as athletes and sportsmen.”
Four-year-old Declan, who was practically born on a field with a lacrosse stick in his hand, started with Little Laxers last year. 2010 is the third season that Little Laxers has opened up what the website calls “the greatest game on Planet Earth” to the pre-K to second grade crowd. While the program is based at West Windsor Community Park, it is open to children from all towns, especially since many communities don’t have the resources or numbers to field programs for the smallest participants.
“Declan wants to be fully padded out like the big boys,” says Leanne. “He sees bigger boys as role models. If you ask him ‘what is your favorite sport,’ he’ll say lacrosse because it’s cool and we hit each other. It’s the perfect sport for boys (and girls) with lots of energy,” she laughs.
Leanne and her husband moved to the Walker Gordon Farm neighborhood of Plainsboro in January 2001 from Tokyo, where they lived for three years while Chris worked for Merrill Lynch Asset Management. Chris left Merrill Lynch in April, 2001, and then five months later, September 11 happened. “That changed our lives as it changed the lives of so many people, and after that tragedy, he decided he wanted to do his own thing and truly follow his heart.”
Chris decided to open his own business; he is Mr. Handyman of Greater Princeton, and in his spare time, he volunteers with the Plainsboro Rescue Squad.
Leanne was born and raised in Texas and graduated from Plano Senior High School right outside Dallas. “Friday Night Lights could have been filmed at my high school,” she says. “We were the state champs for football, and it was crazy with the whole school spirit thing. Every Friday we’d have these huge pep rallies, and though it’s a different mindset, I’d love to see that kind of spirit recreated here. We have a tremendous resource in West Windsor Community Park. Not only is it the home of Lightning Lacrosse and Wildcats Football, but it also has fabulous baseball and soccer facilities as well.” When Leanne is not volunteering for Lightning, she volunteers for the PTSAs at High School South and Grover.
Lightning Lacrosse recently hosted the Thunderbolt Tournament, which drew more than 2,000 young lacrosse players representing the entire state of New Jersey and parts of New York and Pennsylvania. It was a tremendous success, both in terms of how well Lightning teams fared, and how the league did in raising funds for next year and beyond.
“The volunteer infrastructure that ran that tournament was like a well-oiled machine,” says Leanne, “and we couldn’t have done it without the parents, who stepped in as time-keepers and score-keepers, food servers, water delivery people –– no matter what needed to be done, there was someone to do it. The kids work so well together on the field and the parents work well together off the field.”
Lightning Lacrosse is open to boys and girls age four to eighth grade. Scholarship programs are available, and the equipment trade-in program makes it easier for families to set up their kids with gear. For more information, E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.