Nobody could have asked for a better game of lacrosse Friday night as past and present Gold Country Stampede players suited up and came together as family for the inaugural Avery Blake Memorial Alumni Game at Hooper Stadium.
Thanks to the game’s revamped structure with NU graduates from odd years representing the Black Team and graduates from even years gearing up for the White Team, a much more competitive version surfaced.
“It’s so much more fun to make it competitive,” said Nick Harris of the White Team, after the 11-10 loss in sudden-death overtime. “It was more special because we’re playing for Avery, his legacy — he was such an awesome dude. He was always working so hard to make the club better, putting us in front of him.”
Harris, a 2011 Nevada Union graduate, gave a solid performance from his attack position to score three goals. He now plays lacrosse at the collegiate level for Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. His teammate, J.T. Mortara, zinged in the game-tying goal to knot the score 10-10 with just 24 seconds left to play. It didn’t take long in the sudden-death period for a scoring opportunity to be seized. Matt Mantovan of the Black Team scooped up a loose ball in front of the goal and found the back of the net with a swift flick of the wrist for the game-winner.
“This is my passion,” said Matt Mantovan, who plays lacrosse for Concordia University in Irvine and is currently studying for a masters in coaching and athletic administration. “What better way to stay around than coach? It’s family. Go anywhere, one minute you’re the person’s enemy, next you’re shaking their hand. Avery and I went to schools and did demos.”
While the sport of lacrosse hasn’t kindled a dedicated following like that of football, it has still come a long way in Nevada County and the Gold Country Stampede understand that every kid matters. The physical contact sport is in fact gaining popularity and pulling from areas outside Grass Valley to do so.
“It’s a lot better here than it was in youth leagues,” said Sam Lahaie, junior midfielder from Colfax on the Stampede varsity squad. “This league is more professional. It’s pretty fun. I like bringing (the ball) down on transition, weaving my way down the field.”
At the club level, fundraising is a constant burden the sport must endure with renting fields being the heftiest cost. Equipment and travel also add to the expenses, but it doesn’t stop communities from trying to form teams.
“Colfax was trying to put a team together but didn’t get enough so they came to us,” said Mike Abreu, the Stampede’s director of communications and registration. “We’ve really been trying to get our area playing together. We try to replenish the scholarship every year and try not to let cost be a barrier. If kids want to play lacrosse, they should play lacrosse.”
Lacrosse means something different to all the players on the field but Blake is the one influence they all have in common. With a motto like ‘Respect the Game’ there is much more than hustle and endurance that players exert. It’s exhilarating bondage and a way to build character through sportsmanship, and not to mention, it’s fun.
“I think everyone is having a blast,” said Stampede coach Andy Shoop. “That’s what really matters. The kids are seeing a different level of play. We really need more players on the field. Our challenge is to get them out there and put a stick in their hands.”
When a person like Avery steps on an athletic field, no matter the sport, only something positive can come from it. Friday night at Hooper Stadium was a prime example of it.
“I don’t know how this (alumni game) came about, but everyone on the field knew Avery and was influenced by him at some point,” said Bruce McDowell, president and director of coaching for Gold Country Stampede. “Some players have probably kept playing because of (Avery). He took the time to come out and spent two or three afternoons and gave Peter (McDowell) one-on-one lessons on shooting. He did that with a lot of kids.”
Inspiring lives so that others may carry on to do great things in the future, not just for lacrosse, but as individuals, that’s what Blake stirred up in the hearts of these young men.
“One of the last times I saw Avery, I was on this field coaching, and he came over and said, ‘Keep it up,’” added Mantovan. “That’s the most anybody could of said.”
The evening concluded with some inspiring words in memory of Blake. The players gathered at midfield, raising their sticks and shouted out his name. The team hopes to get the word out even more this season and host an even better alumni game next year.
To contact Sports Writer Brian Shepard, call 530-477-4234 or email email@example.com.