Field lacrosse at Portage Collegiate has come a long way over the last decade, thanks in large part to the work of coach Al Patterson. Roughly a decade ago, he started the program and it’s been a consistent presence at the school ever since.
“I was a phys-ed teacher for 17 years and at the high school I taught lacrosse. Of course we just played softer inter-lacrosse, but then I explained what the real lacrosse game was like compared to what we played in school, and it generated a lot of interest, especially with the hockey players, because they felt like they could cross-train for hockey using the sport, which is exactly what I did growing up,” noted Patterson, whose roots are in Thompson where he was a regular box player.
“I agreed. I thought it was a great idea. Eventually they convinced me to try and put a team together, and we were able to do it. I think at that point in time I only had about 14 or 15 kids that were interested, and then we generated a couple more.”
The Trojans won a provincial championship in 2013 and in 2018 they claimed a league title, showcasing the dedication and commitment from the student body and community to the sport.
Around the same time as field was getting going, Patterson, along with Graham Shindle, another educator at the school, helped create the Junior Trojans program. A summer league that helped adolescents and kids coming into high school learn the basics of box and field, it boomed from 20 players in year one to 65 in year two. By the third year there were around 95 kids, creating a solid feeder program for the Trojans while also establishing a dedicated footprint in the local sporting community.
“It was really going strong. We were starting to get kids going through the middle years programs,” said Patterson. “We ran a couple years of box and I ran a couple summers of camps and stuff just to get kids interested and physically used to playing with a stick and handling a ball and realizing what it’s actually all about and how much fun they could have doing it.”
COVID and life has gotten in the way of the Junior Trojans program over the last number of years, but Patterson has ambitions of a re-start, especially with the MHSFLL returning this year and many kids looking for an outlet to exercise.
“My kids are getting older. My son is in grade 11 and he’s going to play this year. I’m definitely interested in getting it back going again, because I know the program is strong in the summer and kids are looking for something to do. It’s a nice cheap way to be physically active and do something for an hour.”
The newest crop
Suffice to say, Patterson has done a lot of work in the community and shows to signs of slowing down. This year, he’ll help lead the newest crop of Trojans who represent the next wave of athletes in the MHSFLL.
“We’re excited about the level of talent that we have. Just running some drills and stuff like that in the gym, there doesn’t seem to be a whole bunch of ground balls that are being picked up and stuff like that. We’re looking forward to it. It’s a good group of kids. We’re athletic and we should be able to run the field and be competitive in a few games this year,” he reflected.
“We’re just doing some stick drills and some easy ground ball stuff because of the flat surface and a little bit of conditioning and such to get them into shape for when we have to run a full field. There’s been 17-19 showing up every time. We had something like 27 sign up and register to play, but soccer has their practices and spring football has some stuff and baseball has some stuff so we’re kind of sharing athletes.”
On that note, the Trojans typically have a fair amount of multi-sport athletes on their roster, and 2022 will be no different.
“There are a number of hockey players for sure, both male and female. I think currently we have probably about five or six females coming out. That would be the most. I’m hoping that the majority of them stick. Some of them are pretty talented hockey players too. Danika Botterill is a pretty big name around here when it comes to U18 AAA hockey for females,” Patterson noted of the Central Plains standout who had 47 points in 36 games in 2021-22.
“To me, there’s not a whole lot of difference between hockey and lacrosse with creativity and things kinds can generate on their own with some basic movements and some basic skills.”
Speaking of females, their participation with the program over the years is one of the things Patterson is most proud of when reflecting on his time since starting the team.
“They’ve enjoyed it and stuck it out. To me that’s a sign of team unity where they don’t feel like they’re out of place or being judged for the gender that they are. The way that the boys treated the girls is something that I’m very proud of, because of the culture that they created that way.”
A self-described “basic” coach, Patterson is all about skills development and ensuring that his athletes are able to learn and have fun along the way, something that’ll stay true in 2022.
“I think creativity can happen and it exists in the game. I’m a big fan of making sure that you can pick up a ball properly and handle it properly and keep it away when you need to. Once that happens you can make the plays that you need to make and design some things that can put a few points up on the board to make the kids happy,” he said.
“It’s just another one of those things that provides an opportunity for kids to find something that they love. If they can develop and get real good at it, then great. If not, you know what, they had a great time playing a Canadian pastime of a summer sport and they learned a little bit about the history and the culture, and what it takes to be a national summer sport kind of player. That aspect of kids moving on is pretty cool as well, but there are some educational aspects of it that are very important as well.”