Two new LAX coaches have lofty visions for the Friars’ boys and girls programs in 2020 and beyond.
By Mark Vruno
It should come as no surprise that lacrosse is one of the fastest-growing sports in the United States. The sport’s participation numbers have been on the rise for the better part a decade. Nationally, more than 210,000 high school student-athletes now played organized lacrosse (as of 2018), according to statistics tracked by the National Federation of High School Associations. Some 113,000 of those participants were boys, while nearly 97,000 were girls. At the youth level, more than 825,000 children age 13 and under now play “LAX,” reports US Lacrosse.
People from the East Coast know lacrosse; most of us from the Midwest, not so much. More than 30 years ago, some college boys were playing catch — with nets on sticks — an hour north of Chicago. “What is that?” asked a local, curious observer while his friends from Boston, New Jersey and New York looked on and laughed.
“Lacrosse is a great game,” attests new Fenwick Boys’ Head Coach Dan Applebaum, who grew up in Oak Park, IL, playing baseball as a kid since the age of six. Applebaum worked at New Wave Lacrosse in Naperville and assisted the staffs at Oak Park-River Forest (his alma mater) as well as Lyons Township high schools in La Grange. He was a Friars’ varsity assistant coach for several seasons before accepting the boys’ head coaching job at Northside College Prep in Chicago (2018-19). Athletic Director Scott Thies ’99 tapped Applebaum as the Fenwick boys’ head coach earlier this year.
Applebaum first picked up a lacrosse stick as a freshman at OPRF in 2005-06. “I wasn’t good enough to play baseball in high school,” he admits, adding that perhaps he had outgrown America’s so-called pastime, which was beginning to bore him as a young teenager. What he liked most about lacrosse is that it is “such a skill-based sport,” the coach explains. “You don’t have to be the biggest, fastest or strongest [athlete].” The blend of athleticism and physicality appeals to many boys. It may sound overly simplistic, but “if you can pass and catch, you can be on the field,” he insists.
Molly Welsh ’20, a senior leader on this coming season’s team who hails from Elmhurst, has been a member of East Ave. for the past two years. “I started lacrosse when I was in fourth grade but quit because I had other sports,” Welsh explains. She picked up a stick again as a freshman and has “loved it ever since. Lacrosse is very different from other sports,” she says. “It is one of the fastest and most competitive sports I have ever played.”
Junior teammate Maggie Chudik (Western Springs) had a similar experience. “I had tried lacrosse in elementary school, but it wasn’t until my freshman year at Fenwick that it became my main sport,” she says. “The Fenwick lacrosse team is such an amazing, supportive group of girls that I feel so lucky to be a part of. “
Fellow junior Declan Donnelly ’21 adds: “Lacrosse has been a large part of my life at Fenwick. My lacrosse experience started at a young age playing for the local lacrosse team,” says Donnelly, a two-sport student-athlete (he started at linebacker this season for the Friars’ varsity, playoff football team) who lives in Berwyn and attended St. Mary’s School in Riverside. “Not only has lacrosse helped me to make the transition into high school, but it has allowed for me to develop skills that would be helpful to me in other sports,” the defenseman points out. “Being a lacrosse player has allowed me to develop skills that have helped me greatly while being on the football field.
“The summer of seventh grade I decided to attend the Fenwick Lacrosse Camp because I was hoping to play for the Friars,” Donnelly recalls. At the end of the camp, Jerry Considine (then coaching at Fenwick) asked whether Declan might be interested in playing for the combined youth and high school lacrosse [U14] team that he was putting together. This was the start, in 2015, of the East Ave. program, which added a girls’ division two years later headed up by Tracy Bonaccorsi, who now is the new girls’ HC at Fenwick (see below). Donnelly plays for Fenwick and East Ave., the latter of which he describes as “a thriving program with teams of all ages, for both boys and girls hoping to play lacrosse for sport or fun. The best part about having an elite, club program in the local area, notes Coach Bonaccorsi, is that it gives kids “the opportunity to improve their game and play more than just the three-month high school season.”
Donnelly credits the East Ave. program and coaches for most of his high-school lacrosse success. “When I came to Fenwick I was nervous to play lacrosse,” he admits, “but once I met the team, I never looked back. I was on varsity my freshman year when we made it to the Super Sectional Round. To this day, I am friends and stay in contact with many of the guys on that Super Sectional team. Fenwick lacrosse is a family and always will be.”
What is lacrosse?
“Lacrosse is fast-paced,” adds Coach Applebaum, who helps to direct the East Ave. club program (he is one of three founders), now in its fifth year. “There is a lot of running up and down the field. Guys [and gals] get gassed, even in practice! The game is engaging and exhausting, which is partly why parents love it,” he laughs.
All kidding aside, Applebaum notes that the sport’s creativity was a lure for him. Lacrosse is “a very individual team sport.” What does he mean by that paradox? “What I mean is that every person on the field has his or her own style of play – but there still is a team around you.” He acknowledges that much of the game’s strategy is similar to basketball. However, the skill set is very different. “I didn’t need anyone else to go out with me to practice,” he continues. “I figured out ways to make wall-ball fun.”
He expects to see as many as 45 Fenwick boys out for the two teams (varsity and junior varsity) this coming spring. The girls’ squad has even bigger numbers: “There are 70 [female] names on my list for JV and varsity,” reveals new Head Coach Tracy Bonnacorsi, who comes to the Friars by way of East Ave. and Trinity High School in River Forest, where she built up the Blazers’ program over the past three seasons. Five of her players have gone on to play collegiately.
The girls’ version of the game features more finesse and less body checking. (The boys wear helmets.) “We have 20 to 30 girls consistently showing up for [weight] lifting and open gyms,” Coach Bonaccorsi says. One of those players is junior Caroline Finn (Western Springs), who was an All-Conference selection last season as a sophomore.
“I have played with Coach ‘Bono’ [at East Ave.] since I was a sophomore,” Welsh notes. “She is a very encouraging and determined coach. I believe she will push us more than we have been in the past in order to go far in playoffs.” Teammate Chudik adds: “Coach Bono brings a positive energy to the field that I think drives my love and my teammates’ love for lacrosse.”
Playing, coaching experience
Bonaccorsi was a multi-sport athlete who graduated from Montini Catholic in Lombard. She became interested in lacrosse when her older sister, Annie, instituted the first-ever lacrosse team at the high school in 2005-06. After playing for the Broncos, the younger Bonaccorsi played and studied at Concordia University in Irvine, CA. Before returning to the Chicago area to take the job at Trinity, she coached at Beckman High in Irvine for two years (while still attending college) and with the Buku club team in Southern California. Her degree is in business administration with an emphasis in sports management. At Fenwick, Tracy’s full-time role is as an assistant to the athletic director.
As for Applebaum’s LAX “pedigree,” after his All-Conference senior season at OPRF, he played junior-college lacrosse in Pennsylvania — and then at Mars Hill University (NCAA Div. II) in North Carolina. As a midfielder there, he garnered second team All-Conference recognition. Applebaum also has played internationally at the Indoor World Championships, coming in fifth place as a member of Team Israel.
Increased media visibility is aiding lacrosse’s popularity among American youth, Applebaum believes. Fifteen years ago, “there were like four games on TV all year,” he remembers. “Now, they broadcast college games four to six times per week! You just have to know where to look for them.”
Like ice hockey, lacrosse has a reputation of being an expensive sport to play: Buying a new helmet, stick, gloves, elbow and shoulder pads can cost upwards of $500 per player. However, organizations such as US Lacrosse are making it more affordable, especially for rural as well as inner-city kids. (US Lacrosse is the national governing body of men and women’s lacrosse in the United States.) Its “First Stick Program” grants sticks and protective gear for up to 20 field players and one goalie. Heading into its ninth year, First Stick has leveraged the support of generous individual, foundation and corporate donors into $10 million worth of equipment to give more than 22,000 kids on 760+ teams (448 boys, 320 girls), in every region of the country, the opportunity to play lacrosse — many for the first time.
Locally, Coach Applebaum cites the OWLS sports-based, non-profit youth development organization, which creates opportunities for underserved youth in Chicago. With lacrosse as its foundation, OWLS provides impactful mentorship and access to scholarships, improving the academic and social outcomes of the youth it serves. Bonaccorsi serves on its executive board.
Did you know that lacrosse has its origins in a tribal game played by eastern Woodlands Native Americans and by some Plains Indians tribes in what is now the United States of America and Canada? European colonizers to North America extensively modified the game to create its current collegiate and professional form.
The Friars in 2020
“I am excited for this upcoming lacrosse season and highly
recommend anyone who is considering playing, even in the slightest, to come out
and try it,” Donnelly encourages. “There is always room for new players, and
all are welcome. You won’t regret it, and I know this because I didn’t.”
Donnelly says he is eager to see how Applebaum plans to take the Fenwick program to an even higher level. “I have now known Coach Dan for many years,” Donnelly concludes. “He is a great coach who I know has the skills and ability to lead us on the right path. I have great faith in him and the coaching staff that he is bringing in to help him. Coach Dan … is a large reason why I have become the player I am today.
“If you would like to play, don’t be shy, contact me or any of my fellow teammates.”
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