Donald Driver, Jordan Love highlight Green Bay Charity Softball GameSights and sounds from the Green Bay Charity Softball Game, highlighted by Packers legend Donald Driver and quarterback Jordan Love.APPLETON − Nothing gets a group of athletes more fired up than first crack at pasta night.That was the prize for the Appleton United boys lacrosse team during a recent practice at Pickett Field at Appleton East. To win, the team participated in a drill called “Bob The Builder” that pitted the varsity and JV players in a competition that helps hone the players’ offensive skills near the goal.”The winner got to have dinner first,” Appleton United coach Danny Rafalski said. “It’s about getting the boys competitive and get them going against each other. And a good way to end the practice.”It’s those kinds of practices that has Appleton United trending in the right direction in its first season of WIAA competition. The team is a co-op made up of players from all over the Fox Valley and beyond: Appleton North, Appleton East, Xavier, Fox Valley Lutheran, Hortonville, Waupaca, Ripon and Wild Rose.Appleton has a 9-4 record after three big wins the past few days − against Elkhorn and Kenosha on Saturday, and a 7-6 victory over Neenah on Monday.The team is led by one of the state’s top 1-2 combos in seniors Ryder Hill (52 goals, 12 assists) and Landon Larson (28 goals, 43 assists).”We’re in a great spot, honestly,” Rafalski said. “From a coaching standpoint, we have been getting better every game and it’s been showing in film and showing on the field in terms of energy and their effort. I think, truly, every day this team is getting better. And we said it from the start as coaches … we want this team to be ready for playoffs. Whatever happens in the regular season, the goal is to be the best team possible come playoffs. And we’re right on track to do that.”Lacrosse is in its first year as WIAA-sanctioned sportHill is about as well versed in lacrosse as any student-athlete in the Fox Valley. The Appleton East senior has played the game for more than 10 years as a member of the Appleton United lacrosse club team.The WIAA in 2022 elevated lacrosse − both boys and girls − to a sanctioned sport with its own tournament series starting this year. It’s the first sport to have been added for both genders since the addition of boys and girls soccer in 1982-83.There are 39 boys teams competing this spring along with 36 girls teams. The WIAA’s tournament series for both boys and girls lacrosse begins with regional openers next week. Sectionals are the following week with state finals for both June 8 at Bank of Sun Prairie Stadium in Sun Prairie.Hill knows he’s on the ground floor of the Appleton United program.”Just seeing the game grow over the years,” Hill said when asked what he thinks about the team officially earning WIAA status. “I’ve been playing lacrosse for 11 years for the Appleton lacrosse community. It’s good to get recognition. We go to school every day and everyone knows when we’re playing. It’s a good feeling.”His teammate, Landon Larson, agreed.”Going to games as a kid, when it wasn’t a big sport and seeing that we’re playing here and seeing a bunch of kids at the game … it’s really growing a lot,” he said. “It’s awesome.”Lacrosse is ‘basketball on turf’Lacrosse has been around the Fox Valley for years and was originally played by Native Americans as early as the 1100s.It’s a contact sport made up of two opposing teams of 10 players each that includes attackmen, defensemen, midfielders and a goalie. The field is 110 yards long and 60 yards wide. Goals are 6-by-6 feet and surrounded by a crease of 18 feet. Each game is 48 minutes divided by quarters of 12 minutes each.”It’s pretty much basketball on the turf, where you’re trying to put the ball in the net, like hockey,” Rafalski said. “You need incredible hand-eye coordination like with basketball and hockey.”I would say it’s a combination of basketball and hockey but played on turf, because you have similar moves, the pick, pop, trying to take the space like you would in hockey and take the space like in basketball. You have those competitive zones where you’re trying to enter the enemy’s territory and score a goal.”The game is fast and has a good dose of physicality. That makes it attractive to young athletes, according to Rafalski, a former collegiate lacrosse player and current strength and conditioning coach at East.”I’ve seen the interest just from the Appleton East athletes,” he said. “They’re coming out to the game and saying, ‘Wow.’ I want them to ask me, ‘Hey coach, I saw the guys doing this and why did they do that? Can I see some film of the game?'”Once they get out here and experience the energy … I can just tell from the guys on my bench, especially those in their first year, these guys are hooked. And it’s easy to get hooked, especially with the energy that we have and the camaraderie. It’s a culture we’re trying to establish.”Long distance doesn’t deter KempferJaylen Kempfer’s love for lacrosse goes beyond the ordinary.The sophomore midfielder, who has 16 goals and seven assists this season, lives in Wild Rose and embarks on a two-hour round trip for practices and games.Sometimes it’s by himself. Other times he carpools with players from Waupaca.”These guys are the heart of our team, too,” Rafalski said of Kempfer and other players involved with the co-op. “Those guys are dedicated. I know it’s tough. You got to think about the gas and the hours they spend in the car. They could be doing other things with their time, but they’re sacrificing hours to get on this field and it shows a lot on the field. They’re hard workers and they’re all in on the team.”Kempfer grew up playing lacrosse. Originally from Auburn, Alabama, he and his family moved to Wisconsin when he was in sixth grade and during the COVID year.His older brother Taylor was a major influence on him.”He taught me everything I know and it’s to the point now where he just tries to refine everything that he taught me,” Jaylen said. “I try to make it to every practice and sometimes it’s hard taking that hour drive there and the hour drive back. But I’m more than happy to take that hour each day to play lacrosse.”That dedication has been woven in to the team’s chemistry, according to Rafalski.”It’s tough to build the culture with guys coming from all over, but this year the guys have done an amazing job of being teammates and working for the team,” he said.Kempfer agreed.”I love it, my Appleton guys, I just love them so much,” he said. “They mean everything to me. The Ripon and Waupaca guys I’m close with, too. All of the guys, I try to be as close as I can with them because I think it brings up the team chemistry.”Growing the game of lacrosseKimberly and Neenah are also fielding boys teams this season with Neenah, Kimberly and Hortonville having teams on the girls side.Hortonville, like Appleton United, is a co-op team with players from Hortonville, Appleton East, Appleton North, Appleton West, Kaukauna, Xavier, Fox Valley Lutheran and Freedom.Area prep notes, rankings: Appleton West celebrates 2004 WIAA state championship baseball teamVote for the top athlete: Nominees from tennis, baseball, softball and track and field: Vote for Cellcom Post-Crescent high school athlete of the weekIt’s a pivotal first step for the blossoming sport to gain more of a foothold on the state high school sports scene.”In the future, I would love to see lacrosse get as big as basketball and football,” Larson said. “It’s an awesome game and needs more recognition.”Ralfalski also pointed to the validation aspect of the players being an official WIAA sport. The players know it. The coaches do as well, along with the student body.”It’s not a club sport anymore,” he said. “The feeling is palpable.”


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