Raising Malibu lacrosse

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Loyola Cubs versus Malibu in a lacrosse game during LMU's Lacrosse Invitational Tournament on March 6. Malibu resident Josh Waldbaum, at the request of Little Leaguers, began coaching kids in lacrosse. Photo by Dirk Dewachter

Little more than five years ago, most kids in Malibu did not know what lacrosse was. Now, a league of 120 kids exists-overseen by Malibu dad Josh Waldbaum.

By Richard Heater/Special to The Malibu Times

For Josh Waldbaum, one of his proudest moments came in 1984.

“I got to play lacrosse in the 1984 World Games for an Olympic showcase,” Waldbaum said.

When one considers the amount of effort required to achieve that level of success, in any sport, it is no wonder that lacrosse remains a driving force in Waldbaum’s life. However, his primary focus is no longer as a player, but as a coach. Waldbaum, formerly a lacrosse coach at Pepperdine University, last year created a youth program for third- through fifth-graders. Five years ago, however, this was not the case.

Filling in as coach at Little League baseball practice, Waldbaum’s baseball game was a bit rusty. Instead of straining to whack grounders and fly balls to the kids, he decided to throw the baseballs using his lacrosse stick. It piqued the Little Leaguers interest. While a popular sport in the northeast, lacrosse gets much less exposure out west, creating a scenario where most of the young baseball players did not know what the stick was. (Lacrosse is played with a long-handled stick with a netted pouch on the end, which is used to advance a small rubber ball across a field to score against the opponent.)

“After I explained it [lacrosse] a little, they started asking ‘Where can we play?'” Waldbaum said.

The answer, Waldbaum realized, was nowhere.

Waldbaum’s son, a member of the Little League team, asked his dad if he would coach them if the kids could round up 15 players. Waldbaum’s response: “Of course.”

To the coach’s surprise the kids got together the 15 players, and what is now a burgeoning lacrosse club began. “We started with only about 40 kids,” Waldbaum said. “Now we have 120.”

Waldbaum is in a position he describes as “lacrosse director.” He hires coaches and obtains field time for practices and games. Waldbaum organizes clinics for the players to develop their skills outside of the standard seasonal regimen. He even opened a lacrosse store, Point Break in Westwood, selling equipment and other lacrosse accessories. Beyond an already impressive list of duties, Waldbaum also organizes events to develop a community among his players.

“We try to take the players to see [professional] games. It’s fun for them,” Waldbaum said. Anaheim has an indoor team that plays at the Pond. Besides entertainment value and as a means to develop a more familial bond between players and coaches, these outings provide other benefits for the young players, primarily exposure to the game on a high level. “A lot of these kids have never seen lacrosse played when they first come to tryout,” Waldbaum explained. “It can be challenging as a coach.”

Bringing the sport to new and eager players is exciting for Waldbaum. He believes that lacrosse offers a rare combination of physical and mental challenges. “There’s obviously a lot of contact, but there’s also a lot of strategy involved,” he said. “It’s pretty sophisticated.”

However, Waldbaum views lacrosse not simply as a sport, but as manner of character development. “I was always taught by my coaches, it’s not just about coaching, it’s about mentoring,” he said, “teaching kids about life through sports.”

Waldbaum has begun requiring his older players to get involved in community service. As of now (though Walbaum plans to expand the community service), the players volunteer teaching younger kids about lacrosse. It gives the younger players people to look up to and the thrill of playing with the older boys. The older players enjoy the rewards of teaching and taking on leadership roles, feelings Waldbaum knows well himself. “The guys I started with at the middle school level are juniors now,” he said. “It’s fun watching them grow.”

Waldbaum is also pleased that Malibu is sending its first players to play lacrosse in college. With few colleges west of Colorado offering lacrosse beyond the club level, it’s tough to get his kids exposure. However, the sport is growing in the west. Most of the UC schools offer club level lacrosse, and as more high schools develop programs, the hope is that the demand will bring about the birth of officially recognized NCAA squads. But that is a bit further down the road. For now, developing younger players is the key to the sport’s expansion. “I think it could potentially be one the largest sports in California,” Waldbaum said. He points to his program’s rapid growth as a positive indicator for that trend.

Lacrosse also offers up-and-coming athletes something different and, to most of the players, new to get involved in. “Some kids are bored with baseball. It [lacrosse] offers a lot of excitement,” Waldbaum said. “It’s a combination of a lot of sports.”

With other Southern California schools developing lacrosse programs and areas to the north such as San Francisco already having successful programs, Waldbaum’s vision of lacrosse as a predominant sport in California may not be too far off. If lacrosse does develop as he hopes, Coach Waldbaum, with his success in bringing lacrosse to Malibu, including a youth league that is the first of its kind in the Los Angeles area, will have played a major part in it.