This spring, a new era has begun in south Washington County.
Since its inception into the Minnesota State High School League, the girls lacrosse program in District 833 area operated as one cooperative team between Park and Woodbury high schools. The team was nicknamed "The Royal Pack" -- a combination of the Royals and Wolfpack. The addition of East Ridge High School to the district in 2009 called for a re-examination of the situation, however, and in December of 2010 the high school league approved the district's proposal for a Woodbury-East Ridge cooperative and a Park-only program and the teams operated that way for two seasons.
But this year, all three District 833 public high schools have their own girls -- and boys -- lacrosse teams for the first time.
Current Park head coach Scott Leonard has been there since the beginning.
"This group of seniors at Park will be the last class that were part of the Royal Pack team," he said. "East Ridge's Sarah Bailey was a Royal Pack team member too."
Leonard said his first team was made up of 40 girls and only five or six had ever played lacrosse before.
"Practices were ugly and we were getting beat 15-2 all the time," he said.
This year, however, over 120 girls are playing lacrosse in District 833. Park has 54 players, East Ridge has 43 players and Woodbury has over 30 players.
Leonard said it's been "a blast" watching lacrosse grow throughout south Washington County.
"To now see that East Ridge is competitive, to see that we're strong and Woodbury will get there, too, is really huge," he said.
This spring, the first East Ridge Raptors girls lacrosse team has taken flight with new head coach Amy Fortney at the reins. Down the road at Woodbury High School, Megan Ahlers is the new head coach of the first Woodbury Royals girls lacrosse team.
The past two seasons, East Ridge and Woodbury played as a cooperative team called "The Griffins" -- a mixture of the Royals' lion and Raptors' mascots.
Fortney, a Syracuse, N.Y., native, most recently coached for the Saint Andrew's School in Boca Raton, Fla. She said being part of lacrosse in Minnesota is "incredibly exciting."
"I just moved here, so I'm new to the Minnesota lacrosse scene," she said. "But, the excitement surrounding us and the support we've received from the community, the parents and the school has been absolutely incredible. It's done a lot for us. We couldn't be happier with the reception we've gotten. It's exciting finally for every team around here to build rivalries and start playing against each other. It's great."
At Woodbury, Ahlers was just hired in early March, after years of experience as a player and coach. Most recently she was head coach of the St. Cloud area girls lacrosse team. She was a player at Stillwater Area High School and The College of Saint Benedict before becoming a coach.
On the year, East Ridge is 4-5 overall and 2-3 in the Suburban East Conference. Park is 4-3 and 3-2 in the conference and Woodbury is 1-5 overall and 1-4 in the SEC.
Park recently beat East Ridge and Woodbury in the teams' first-ever head-to-head matchups. The Raptors take on its former cooperative team Woodbury for the first time at East Ridge on Monday, May 14.
Leonard said the games between the District 833 schools have more significance.
"The girls know each other, because they play against each other in other sports like hockey and may have gone to middle school together," he said. "It definitely has more meaning for them."
This spring, every Suburban East Conference school has a girls lacrosse team for the first time. Along with East Ridge, Hastings joined the league this season, too.
Leonard said the level of play throughout the conference has gotten much better.
"White Bear Lake is competing with everybody and so is East Ridge," he said. "We have six or seven teams that can really play. This conference has really picked up."
The Royal Raptors said good-bye to six seniors last year. Woodbury has only one senior on its current roster - which is also comprised of nine freshman, nine sophomores and nine juniors. East Ridge has two seniors on its team and Fortney said roughly 20 of the 43 girls in East Ridge's program had no lacrosse experience before this season.
"The fact that the younger, inexperienced girls have been able to come in and pick up the game and be starters on varsity has been amazing," she said. "I coach lacrosse because I love it. They love it now too. The fact they've embraced the sport is why they've been successful."
After a pair of lopsided losses to state powers Cretin-Derham Hall and Minnehaha Academy, Fortney said she received emails from the coaches of those teams complimenting the Raptors' players and expressing their belief that East Ridge had a bright future.
"We're going to keep getting better. I'm impressed with our success and impressed with the way other people are receiving us," she said.
Last year, the Griffins were 5-7 overall and 1-6 in the Suburban East Conference. This year, East Ridge and Woodbury already have combined for five wins and three conference wins. And, with the teams getting better every day and with more kids starting to play lacrosse at a young age, each team in south Washington County is destined to improve in the future.
"Chemistry and experience can't be coached or taught," Fortney said. "It has to be something that comes along. The teams we're losing to have been playing together for a long time. The more we play together, the chemistry will get better. That just comes with time. You can't rush it."