Germinated a scant three years ago, the Billings Scorpions Lacrosse Club sprouts in our community, thanks largely to the Pied Piper lead from a young man who tired of counting hotel receipts and walking his black Lab up on the Rims.
Blake Wahrlich co-founded the local club in 2011. He serves as its president – his duties include adding up an ever-expanding number of lacrosse players and teams.
Beginning April 12, the Scorpions will play host to their annual lacrosse jamboree held at Daylis Stadium and Amend Park. More than 30 youth teams in various age categories from around Montana, along with Wyoming and North Dakota clubs, come into town to participate in the three-day event. This includes boys and girls competition, ages 11-15, along with high school-aged matches.
Prior to 2011, Billings had no lacrosse presence. Nada. Zilch. Wahrlich, who had come to Billings a few years earlier to handle the books at his father’s downtown Best Western Clock Tower Inn, sought activity away from the office to occupy his time. Along with his dad, Stephen, Brynn Schwarz and Michelle Kern, Wahrlich formed the blue and orange Scorpions lacrosse club, a nonprofit group.
“I was just bored,” Wahrlich said when asked how the group got off the ground. “I used to take my dog (Bell) up to the Rims, and play fetch (using a lacrosse stick and ball) or would play some with a friend here or there. I just realized I wanted to bring lacrosse into this community. I have a passion for the game.” And he knew the game.
Wahrlich spent part of his youth in New Jersey, where he was introduced to lacrosse in sixth grade. His family moved to the San Francisco, Calif., area when he was a sophomore in high school. Nuts then about lacrosse from living on the East Coast (where the game’s popularity is greatest), Wahrlich and a buddy started their own local club in the East Bay area.
By the time they were seniors, their high school had a varsity lacrosse squad. And the local club the boys started, The Diablo Scorpions, eventually grew to 650 members.
He later played four years of collegiate club-level lacrosse at Chico State University (Calif.). So the 30-year-old has been around the block with this lacrosse club-starting endeavor.
In addition, Wahrlich spent a year in England after college developing physical education programs in public schools. While there, he also coached men’s lacrosse with the England Lacrosse Association before coming back to the U.S. to work in his family’s hotel business, which has operated in town since 1967.
Wahrlich taught from the beginning the skills and strategies of the game, not to mention proper stick and athletic cup sizes (the game’s balls are very hard, and goalies need added protection) – all the way down to wearing the zany, colorful shorts lacrosse players proudly display – to a community that, for the most part, was totally ignorant about the game.
But Wahrlich sensed the game could appeal to a niche of Billings youth. It has. It’s a mix of hockey and soccer, with elements of football and basketball. The game is fast.
Lacrossers boast it’s the fastest game on two feet. Up and down the field continuous action, more rapid than soccer, but with almost as many players – ten to a side with boys, and the girls play 12 aside. Depending on where the ball is on the field, action is there for all, not too much idleness, like that Little Leaguer stuck out in right field.
And the boys’ game is physical. Once players reach the teenage levels, they can hit, or check, each other (there’s no checking in girl’s lacrosse). Boys will be boys. It adds to the interest. Gear includes gloves, elbow pads, helmets, even football-like shoulder pads.
Ian Quinn is a junior at Skyview High School. He runs cross-country, so his aerobic lungs are ideal assets for the lacrosse midfielder who constantly motions up and down the field helping out on offense and defense. But teamwork attracted Quinn to the game.
“In cross-country you’re part of a team, but you are not really working together. You run by yourself,” the 17-year old said. “In lacrosse, you can’t win unless we work together as a team.”
Quinn was introduced to lacrosse by Will Stephenson, a Skyview senior, who’s been part of Billings lacrosse for three years and hopes to play at the University of Montana after high school. He notes that players come in all sizes.
“You don’t have to be the biggest or the strongest athlete around to play lacrosse, because finesse is a big strength in this game,” said Stephenson, who plays the goal-scoring attacker position and played two years of high school football before turning to lacrosse. “And being smart, playing smart, is such a big part of the game.”
Stephenson captains one of the two high school-level teams in the city, the East team (the West being the other). Perhaps the biggest thrill he gets out of Billings club lacrosse is being part of something new in the city, with a sport that’s rapidly grown since he began with Coach Wahrlich from the inception back in 2011.
Lacroix Plainfeather is in his second year of lacrosse. He says he knew the game originated from Native Americans, and being part Crow and Cheyenne, he believed there was no reason he couldn’t be good at the game. But what really attracted the 225-pounder to the game are the licks he can lay on opponents from his defensive position.
The Skyview senior hopes to go to welding school after high school.
Looking at the upperclassmen, one can see they’re all athletic, and could, or have, played other sports. But they were all drawn to this new sport of lacrosse and say Coach Wahrlich is a big reason why.
Scorpion players cite their trust and respect for the coach’s knowledge of the game. He has a passion to make them better. He’s always around to teach the honorable way to play a physical game, where sticks can be mistaken for weapons. He’s a clear communicator, but a patient one, knowing his kids haven’t played this sport for years, unlike, perhaps, baseball or volleyball.
And the players get all involved, no matter the athletic skill. They learn how to secure financial aid to purchase necessary equipment that’s an expense for the new, or to help defray registration costs.
They’re but three of the 114 youngsters, including 14 girls, who now make up the Billings Scorpions Lacrosse Club. The club has three boys age groups beginning at age 11, in addition to high school-level competition that now includes two city teams. There’s a full competition schedule that begins in early March and runs until June.
The high schoolers will play at least 10 other teams from around the state, including ones in Bozeman, Great Falls, Helena, Missoula and Whitefish. Missoula’s Hellgate is tops in the state; the Scorpions seek to reach their level.
Last year Wahrlich helped start the YMCA Pop Lacrosse program for kids under the age of 10. And only recently, students at the University of Montana Billings have approached him to start a club program at the college. “Just get a stick in their hands,” he likes to say.
And remember, just over three years ago there was no lacrosse in Billings. It was as foreign as curling or cricket.
The Billings Scorpion Lacrosse Club’s website has information about how to become involved with youth lacrosse. Created and maintained, of course, by Coach Wahrlich.