By Rob LeDonne
Today, popularity-wise, lacrosse is on equal footing with sports like football and baseball, but it wasn’t always like that. It may be hard to believe, but the sport, which originated and was fervently played in the Northeast United States, was practically nonexistent aside from a few fringe teams in the West. That all changed around 10 years ago as more and more East Coast families moved to California suburbia, bringing with them a love of the game and spreading it around to Western natives.
Early on, one of those natives was Nick Gradinger, a 2004 graduate of Torrey Pines High School. Gradinger, like many other kids his age, started his academic athletic career playing baseball. “I made the decision to switch from baseball to lacrosse when I was in eighth grade; me and my brothers hadn’t even heard of it until shortly before then. At the time (besides extracurricular middle school teams), we played for glorified club programs. Then when I entered high school, it became a sanctioned club entity and went CIF my sophomore year.”
At Torrey Pines, Gradinger and his newly-formed lacrosse team dominated those early days; going so far as to win the state title in 2003, his junior year.
“We were lucky to be successful because we had a bevy of talent,” he remembers. “A number of my teammates wound up playing really high level of lacrosse afterwards; the bulk of them division one.”
Gradinger himself was wooed by a number of schools, and wound up going to Cornell to play, a school considered to have one of the best lacrosse teams in the country.
After four successful seasons at Cornell, Gradinger couldn’t believe how the sport was growing and he says many days seemed surreal.
“There weren’t many West Coast guys like me playing at the highest level. We were in the top five my entire tenure there; at one point we played in front of 50,000 people in an NFL stadium.”
Unlike many collegiate athletes, after a stint in grad school Gradinger stuck with the sport and now plays for Adrenaline Sports’ XLN Pro, a professional lacrosse team that plays exhibition games across the country.
“We’re like the Harlem Globetrotters in the sense that it’s just two teams playing each other all the time. The model is, on each of our stops we pair it up with a youth event.”
One of those events recently happened to roll into the North County at the Del Mar Polo fields; a virtual homecoming for Gradinger.
“It was the second stop on our tour. I think it’s great to have these events in Southern California, and to play in front of these kids.”
Hundreds of fans showed up, many seeking autographs from their favorite players and playing in games themselves.
Overall, Gradinger loved the experience of introducing his beloved sport to a whole new audience: “It’s all about increasing exposure for those on the West Coast to get into the sport. There’s so much that draws in kids at the youth level; I know because I was one of those kids.”
For more on the LXM Tour, which has upcoming stops in Chicago, Portland, and Atlanta, check out: http://www.adrln.com/lxm/