Iowa's New Bumper Crop: Lacrosse Takes Root in the Heartland


Ten high school lacrosse players from Des Moines signed letters of intent to play in college.

This article appears in the Midwest version of the July/August edition. Don’t get the mag? Join US Lacrosse today to start your subscription.

Much like the bountiful farm fields blanketing the state, lacrosse has been planted in Iowa and is beginning to yield a bumper crop of youth programs.

The West Des Moines Lacrosse Club was founded in 2009 and provided a spark. Now more than 500 kids across Iowa participate in the sport. Several college programs are entrenched in the state, with new ones popping up regularly. Most homegrown players came from Valley High School in West Des Moines.

“There was little to no knowledge about the sport when I came here, so we started from scratch,” WDMLAX founder Zach Zielonko said. “With the support of Valley, we had a nice turnout and the game has snowballed from there.” 

 When Meghan Gruver, a former player at Randolph-Macon College, moved to the area from Maryland with her husband four years ago, she was looking to reconnect with the game. She found that opportunity with WDMLAX.

“We had just a handful of girls when I arrived, but our club was committed to growing the girls’ game,” Gruver said.  “We have a great product to sell, and our registration numbers have grown steadily.” 

WDMLAX offers clinics, introductory events, play dates and tournaments, recruits in area schools and recently launched a summer select program.

As word spread about the new game in town, the club welcomed players from other schools across the metro. Eventually players and parents from other schools chose to start their own clubs in places like Ames, Ankeny and Waukee, They field U10, U12 and U14 teams.

Elsewhere in Iowa, there are youth teams in Dubuque and the Quad Cities. The state’s newest program has formed at the Meskwaki Settlement, a Native American community about an hour east of Des Moines.

These clubs collaborated to form a new state organization, the Iowa Lacrosse Association (ILAX).

“ILAX started very simply by the Des Moines-area clubs sitting down at the table together on a regular basis to improve communication and looking for ways to help each other grow,” said Beech Turner, ILAX president. “While one of our initial motivating factors was to work together to eventually create our own statewide league and not have to travel to Omaha and Lincoln (Nebraska) for league competition, we realized there was a lot more we could do for each other.”

ILAX members work together to attract and train officials and coaches and introduce lacrosse to other parts of the state. They’re also collaborating with the 11 college teams (MCLA, NAIA and NCAA) in Iowa.

“We rely on each other to grow the game for our mutual benefit,” Turner said. “Many of these college programs are relatively new. They need local homegrown players. Our clubs need their expertise for coach development, player clinics and field space.” 

It’s working. Ten high school players from the Des Moines area recently signed letters of intent to play in college. 

US Lacrosse support also has been a catalyst. Iowa clubs have leveraged Soft Stick Program, First Stick program and PE Workshop grants to grow the game.

When Scott Schoneberg, a cross-country and basketball coach at Roosevelt High School in Des Moines, was approached by a student about starting girls’ lacrosse, he turned to US Lacrosse. He attended a Coach Development Program Level 1 clinic last summer and then an ILAX board meeting, where he met US Lacrosse Midwest manager Bryce Woodson.

Woodon informed Schoneberg about the First Stick Program.

“I immediately applied for the grant and was blown away when we received the award shortly thereafter,” Schoneberg said. “The equipment grant has been a godsend.” 

Woodson has been impressed by the collaboration in Iowa.

“Lots of folks united in their love of the game,” he said. “Especially in that part of the country where the game is new, many of those folks fell into the game when their son or daughter decided to try the sport and were hooked. They rolled up their sleeves and went to work.”

ILAX hopes its membership grows to the point that the state high school athletic association will sanction the sport. There’s a long way to go, but they’ve come so far.

Zielonko, who left Iowa for a while, recently returned to find a different lacrosse landscape. 

“It was very gratifying to see how much the sport has developed while I was away,” he said. “It just goes to show how quickly the sport can take root with some coordinated effort.” 

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