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It’s a long way from Bakersfield, Calif., to Madison, Wisc., but lacrosse has made that journey a little shorter for one young man.

Steven Cottrell, a 2020 high school senior and a product of the Bakersfield Youth Lacrosse League (BYLL), will join Edgewood College this fall and is believed to be the first player from Bakersfield’s program to earn a spot on a collegiate varsity team. Edgewood’s NCAA Division III squad will play its inaugural season in 2021.

As a lifelong resident of Bakersfield, a prime agricultural hub in California’s fertile Central Valley, Cottrell is eager to experience the new opportunities that lacrosse has brought him.

“The coaches from Edgewood reached out to me and my family a few months ago, so it all came together pretty quickly,” said Cottrell, who graduated early from Bakersfield High School in February. “I really didn’t think I would be playing lacrosse in college, but I’m looking forward to continuing to improve and get better. I know that college will be a completely different environment.”

Edgewood head coach Jeremy Napier has spent the past year building the initial roster for the Eagles’ varsity lacrosse launch. He anticipates that the 6-foot-6, 240-pound Cottrell will serve as an instrumental piece of the team’s defense.

“Steven’s size gives us a good fit to match up against those physical types of attackman,” Napier said. “He’s also got great character and can help us build our team culture from the ground up.”

After being initially impressed on video by Cottrell’s ability, Napier was sold on his California recruit during a prospect’s weekend visit in early March. Cottrell spent two days in Madison, visiting with the coaches, touring the campus and enjoying some social activities with future teammates in Wisconsin’s capital city.

Just two weeks later, the pandemic closed the campus and brought a halt to in-person recruiting.

“We got lucky with the timeline,” Napier said.

Andrew Zaninovich has been Cottrell’s coach on the Bakersfield Rams club team for the past two years and is also president of Bakersfield Youth Lacrosse, a US Lacrosse member league. He founded the organization in 2015, with equipment grants from US Lacrosse helping to support the start-up. Zaninovich played the sport himself through high school and at UC Davis.

“All the resources from US Lacrosse have made a world of difference for us,” Zaninovich said. “It’s made my job easier.”

As an extension of its growth, the BYLL began adding high school teams in 2017. It currently operates two high school boys’ teams and one girls’ team, which all compete in the Pacific Lacrosse League against schools from San Luis Obispo to San Diego. 

Cottrell’s team, the Rams, includes players who attend at least four different high schools.

“We have focused on teaching the fundamentals at every level,” Zaninovich said. “We had to help kids understand that this isn’t just football with a stick.”

US Lacrosse coaching clinics and online resources have provided further assistance in the league’s development.

“As our program got better, word got out in our community and sparked more interest,” Zaninovich said. “Players and parents have embraced the sport.” 

Cottrell is a prime example of the BYLL’s growing appeal. As a multi-sport athlete who also played football and basketball, Cottrell didn’t start playing lacrosse until his sophomore year in high school. 

“Steven has a personal desire to get better every day,” Zaninovich said. “In addition to being a gifted athlete, he’s extremely coachable. He wants to perfect his skills.”

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic’s forced cancellation of the 2020 spring campaign, Cottrell has just two seasons of competition under his belt. But that doesn’t concern Napier, who is eager to start working with his new recruit.

“If a player has athleticism, which Steven does, we can further develop his stick skills,” Napier said. “We’re very focused on fundamentals.” 

Cottrell’s rapid ascension and success now makes him a poster boy, of sorts, to further motivate other young players in the BYLL pipeline. 

“Steven serves as great motivation for players in our organization,” Zaninovich said. “His story shows younger players that there are opportunities available through lacrosse.”

LOCALLY GROWN: Pacific Southwest

New Mexico

In preparation for the 2020 season, the New Mexico Lacrosse Association held several youth clinics, officials training clinics and high school preseason scrimmages. The NMLA also hosted successful US Lacrosse Try Lax clinics in Albuquerque and Las Cruces. NMLA member Rio Rancho Lacrosse hosted a free Learn to Lax clinic as well. The season was just underway when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The programs and players have innovated with virtual training, social media skills development and online video conferencing.

Hawaii

The Aloha Youth Lacrosse Association held monthly clinics and scrimmages from July 2019 to February 2020. In October, the league held its first US Lacrosse Trylax clinics and brought down women’s lacrosse coaches from Linfield College and the University of Portland. The AYLA also met with the local school administrators and athletic directors to discuss adoption of lacrosse in private school varsity athletics.

Southern California

In San Diego, US Lacrosse TryLax clinics introduced more than 100 new girls to lacrosse, and the SDGLA kicked off the season March 7. Though COVID-19 has kept everyone home, the league is hoping to have a shortened season and tournament to crown a champion. The HUKi Foundation’s “Fight 4 The Girls” local charity tournament is still scheduled for July 11-12.